• Don't Fret, She's Not Elderly Yet! A Conversation with Stan and Lillian Werbin

    Elderly InstrumentsIn 1969, Queens native Stan Werbin blew into Ann Arbor, Michigan with just one thing on his mind — biochemistry. Werbin was enrolled as a graduate student at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and while the degree materialized, it never got used. Instead, folk music called his name, even harder than when he bought his first Guild F-20 from Sam Ash on New York's famed 48th Street.

    While knocking out the occasional open mike tune ("we called them hootenannies") at the city's canonical coffeehouse The Ark, Werbin, along with his then partner Sharon McInturff, started haunting flea markets and ringing numbers in penny-savers. They were on the hunt for old guitars.

    Ann Arbor, already ripe with music stores, seemed stifling. The collection grew, and soon enough, the duo landed in East Lansing, where on July 5, 1972, Werbin hung a shingle outside a basement door with a new, telling name — Elderly Instruments.

    Now, at 70, Werbin, who did spend a brief portion of the 70s touring regionally in the Lost World String Band, is one of the grand old men of acoustic music retail. He only knows a few chords on the mandolin, but he's had many Loars pass through his hands. And his shop has become a trusted source for players of all passions, persuasions and abilities, with local customers walking through the door, and thousands more visiting on the web.

    L-R Lillian Werbin, Sandy Dykins and Stan Werbin
    L-R Lillian Werbin, Sandy Dykins and Stan Werbin

    A pioneer of modern mail order, Werbin and company streamlined the old Sears & Roebuck method of procuring instruments by post and built an empire of sorts in the process, expanding first into the rest of the original building, then moving to a larger Oddfellows Hall across town in 1982.

    His natural heir is daughter Lillian Werbin, adopted as a newborn in 1990 and now by his side at the store every day. In large part, Lily has taken over from her mother (and Stan's wife) Sandy Dykins — familiar from the Werbin family photo on the Elderly website (shown above) — running the 61-strong team's H.R. department, but so much more.

    Following college, Lily, 27, had landed in Kalamazoo — the original home of Gibson, from which Elderly is estranged following a notorious 2005 infringement lawsuit. Initially she commuted to Elderly's brick and mortar headquarters, but even when she made the permanent move back home, she knew where she stood in relation to the operation.

    "It was very clear to me that the store is the special part," she laughs. "I wasn't going to come in and ruin anything, that was not going to be tolerated."

    But she has had an effect on Elderly, and not only by bringing a fresh young perspective. With a keen media sense, she has raised the company's profile, while updating employment policies and embracing new methods of retail.

    It's clear that her father is not ready to retire, but it's just as clear that he can finally think about it, which never seemed a viable option before.

    "That's a fairly new feeling for him," Lily says, "the ability to walk away or the ability to say, 'Oh, I'll take a break today.' I think that might be the biggest change for him with me being here. He can do less or more depending on the situation, because he has direct support that has his vision in mind all the time. I was raised with it. It's really easy for me to tap in to."

    Michael EckAbout the author: Roots scholar and multi-instrumentalist Michael Eck is a respected songwriter; a nationally exhibited painter; and an award-winning cultural critic and freelance writer. He is also a member of Ramblin Jug Stompers, Lost Radio Rounders, Berkshire Ramblers and Good Things.

    What follows are excerpts from a free-ranging conversation with Stan and Lillian about all things Elderly.

    Do you recall when music first had an impact on you?

    Stan: I was a young teen and my brother scored some tickets to a concert at Town Hall, in New York — The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. This would have been 1961 or so. I knew who the Clancys were because I had seen them on the Ed Sullivan Show, but this night they had a banjo player with them and it was Pete Seeger of all people. I just thought it was the coolest thing. That would be my first live musical memory, and shortly thereafter I went out and bought a Clancy Brothers album and that started me on my road to ruin. Probably a year or so later, when I was 14, I got a banjo of my own.

    Do you still consider yourself primarily a banjo player?

    Stan: I consider myself a lapsed player at this point, because I don't have much time these days to play, but, within certain limitations, I would consider myself some days primarily a banjo player, some days a guitar player, and some days a ukulele player. I have some fairly decent facility in all of those things.

    I bet you know a few chords on the mandolin and other toys as well?

    Stan: Oh, yeah. Sure. That's a necessity if you're going to sell instruments and have some understanding of them, too.

    You've been full time with the store for a few years now, what's your title?

    Lillian: My business card says Human Resources director and Stan's right hand!

    Stan and Lillian Werbin talk about Elderly, from July, 2017

    Through Elderly's legendary mail order, and now, of course, the website, you serve musicians all over the map. Is the customer always right?

    Lillian: Our philosophy has a lot to do with the way dad views customer service. He's a kid from New York. He's seen a lot when it comes to reaching other people. If the customer is happy, then we're doing it right. If they're not happy, then something has to change and something has to give. I was trying to explain to somebody what our policy was regarding customer service, and I said, 'Every single customer is going to get an individualized and personalized experience because instruments themselves are personal and different and unique just like our customers are.' Everything is vintage to us. You treat it like it's vintage so that the care is ingrained in it. When it becomes vintage, whether it's an instrument or a person or a policy, you have a really good respect and understanding of why it is the way it is.

    You've sold some signed Loars and other impressive mandolins. What's your perspective on the market today?

    Stan: Certainly Gibson mandolins are always interesting because they are, in so many ways, what so much of everything else is based on. But there are a lot of great mandolin makers these days. Look at, of course, Gilchrist, Nugget, Dudenbostel and Monteleone. Those four guys, they're really at the top of their game. But you know what? We could all easily name a dozen or two-dozen other really, really good mandolin makers that are out there. It's just a wonderful time for players and collectors. New instruments nowadays are as good as they've ever been. I think that's true, in so many ways. I think, arguably, that the names I've said, plus a bunch of other people, in 20 or 30 years, their mandolins going to sound as good as old Loars, or they're going to be very close.

    Rhiannon Giddens. Dom Flemons. Sam Gleaves. Kaia Kater. Amythyst Kiah. Is the acoustic music scene, and the industry that supports it, opening up?

    Lillian: I've always been a part of this industry. I went to my first IBMA at 15 weeks old. But it's interesting. When I became part of the industry in an adult sense, I realized how difficult it was for women and people of color to just be in this business in general. Not Elderly specific, but the whole instruments and musicians world. I'll tell you what, over the last couple years, I'm seeing a huge uptick in young people and brown people. Many different demographics are now showing up. It's not even just about race. It's also about communities. Now, we have LGBTQA people joining the fray, which is cool. What I've seen, literally, in the last four years, the last two years in particular, is that IBMA has gone from a very specific crowd to a much more welcoming crowd. We do the banjo gathering, which is a small collector's summit, and this past year there was a big uptick in young people. I use to go to these things and I was the youngest person by two decades. Now I'm maybe five, six years behind. It seems to me that our industry — the acoustic instrument industry — is opening its arms and starting to accept that it's not about a certain type of person. It's about a certain type of love for this community. It's the history and the music and the way it's passed down that everybody can get into and everybody can enjoy as a group. There's less of the segmentation happening than there was when I first started at the store.

    L-R Steve McCreary of Collings, Lillian Werbin, Stan Werbin
    2018 NAMM Show in Anaheim, Calif. L-R Steve McCreary of Collings, Lillian Werbin, Stan Werbin. Photo credit: Scott Tichenor.

    In terms of the wider music industry, are there challenges to being a woman and a woman of color?

    Lillian: Yeah, plenty, but no more than in any other industry. I have a lot of female friends and a lot of black friends, who feel every day is hard for them in their work. They don't always feel welcomed. Whether it's because I'm Stan's daughter, or part of Elderly or not, I have been welcomed and almost celebrated. I think people have been waiting for somebody to just put their foot in the door and say, 'You're going to like me, I promise.' It's not necessarily a negative when a new person shows up, but it's a shock. Shock can come in many different forms. I'm pleased at where I am and who I've met and all of the various people that are coming up into this industry. I think it's really amazing and it's a testament to what music can overcome.

    The Elderly Instruments repair shop has been populated over the years by folks who went on to become serious makers on their own, like Jeffrey Elliott, Bart Reiter and TJ Thompson. How important is the shop to the store's overall makeup.

    Stan: It's crucial, I think. I was not the guy with a dad who did woodworking and had a whole shop in the basement. In the house I grew up in, we had one Phillips head screwdriver, one straight-edged screwdriver and maybe a tape measure. That being said, by the time we opened up in East Lansing, I'd gathered a certain amount of education on setting up and repairing instruments. I could file nuts and I could raise or lower saddles, and I could try to make sure that the neck was straight. I can adjust the truss rod — only broke one or two of them in my whole tenure, and it's been a long time! But we understood early on — and since I played music already, I really understood personally — the necessity of something having the right action. It had to be playable, or didn't matter how old the Martin was. If you couldn't play, what good was it, right? I still feel that way. So what if it's an old Martin, if it doesn't play right, you fix it.

    Elderly Instruments Mural

    In 2015, work on a 68' x 15' music related mural was completed on the side of the Elderly Instruments building. The complete story was part of a feature article published by the Mandolin Cafe.

    Some of your loyal customers may know this, but how did the store get its name?

    Stan: A part of what we did all the time in Ann Arbor, at the beginning, was looking at the classified ads of the city newspaper. We saw an ad in there, and I've quoted this so many times that I almost believe I remember what it said, something like, 'for sale Gibson Les Paul guitar; a nice elderly instrument.' We saw that and said, 'Wow. Yeah. Now that's the adjective we're looking for!'

    You sang for years in choirs, at Carnegie Hall, even — do you play?

    Lillian: Not well enough to say I do, because somebody will ask me to play for them. I have a really sweet little banjo. Her name is Kizzy. I love her very much. I have a Farida guitar that I love, and I have a ukulele that I don't play at all. I should probably sell it, but I have friends who jam on it. A lot of the time, I just keep instruments on deck. What I like to tell people is that every good musician needs a good audience. That I can provide! I'll play a big smile while you play your song.

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    Comments 6 Comments
    1. Ryk Loske's Avatar
      Ryk Loske -
      Wonderful folks ... not just the Werbins ... but anybody who has answered the phone or responded to an email. Plus there's just so much available through the store. Congratulations Elderly and thanks to the Cafe for the article.

    1. MikeEdgerton's Avatar
      MikeEdgerton -
      In the last 20 some years I've purchased instruments and accessories from Elderly. They always took care of me. One of these days I want to visit the store.
    1. Steve Ostrander's Avatar
      Steve Ostrander -
      I remember the old store on Grand River Avenue, across from MSU. I used to hang there, and I still do at the "new" store in Old Town. I've lost track of how many guitars I bought there over the years. A great place to spend an hour or two.
    1. pops1's Avatar
      pops1 -
      I made the drive there almost 30 years ago, ended up trading some stuff for some other stuff. Had a list of wanted things for friends and did my best. Spent a great day there and everyone was really friendly. Played a lot of instruments and best part of all, Stan offered me a job. I had just set up my shop not long before and we were talking, I said I had a spray booth and Stan was jealous as they didn't. He asked if I would come there and work and bring my spray booth. We both had a good laugh and I had a great day and brought home some great instruments, some of which we still have.
    1. DougC's Avatar
      DougC -
      I remember Stan as a banjo player in the Lost World String Band. They were influential in supporting the Michigan folk festivals: Hiawatha Traditional Folk Music Festival in Marquette and Wheatland Festival. Without them, our festival scene would have had few musical groups. Stan and the boys knew everyone, and they sure helped to make things happen.
    1. bigbendhiker's Avatar
      bigbendhiker -
      Great article! I have a son that lives in Lansing and about two years ago I drove from N. Texas to Michigan to visit my son and his wife. We were able to visit Elderly's one afternoon. Talk about a kid in a candy store! It's an awesome place to visit. All I bought that day was an Elderly's ball cap, but I have purchased a mandolin, a tenor guitar, and a bass for another son from them. Great selection, and service. Well worth the visit. Thanks for the article.