The Wish Book Comes to Life
By Bill Graham - Special for the Mandolin Cafe
June 24, 2009 - 6:30 am
Bill Graham is a freelance outdoor writer, photographer, bluegrass musician and singer-songwriter.
My heart rate jumps a bit and I feel adrenalin seeping into the bloodstream as I gaze up at the front of an early 1900s brick building, which I first mistook for an old schoolhouse.
But it's an old Odd Fellows lodge hall that was built deluxe. Perhaps the name is still apt for its current use because many musicians who frequent this place are outside pop culture's mainstream.
It's time to step into the real wood-and-steel world of Elderly Instruments for the first time after years of drooling over their catalogs and website filled with mandolins, guitars and whatever makes music.
About 45 minutes earlier, I'd pulled into a convenience store on the west edge of Lansing, Mich. I filled the gas tank and paid the clerk, then asked him for directions to the address his phone book showed for the shop.
"You need to talk to Chuck," the young man said, and he went to get him.
Out from a back room came a benign-looking baby boomer with a graying beard and a bit of a paunch.
"Ah, you're going to one of my favorite places on Earth," Chuck said. "I love to hang out there."
He plays electric guitars and he gave me the quick back-road way to Elderly.
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So I arrived and started up the steps, but I hesitated a bit as I neared the door.
If you live in or near Lansing and love acoustic instruments (or electrics like Chuck) this is as old hat as going to Mass St. Music in Kansas is for me. But when you've never been there before, and may never visit again, you take your time.
I've been in this situation before, five decades earlier.
Santa Claus visited Sears & Roebuck before his stop at our house. I instinctively knew this because the Sears Christmas toy catalog always came to our house and I'd daydream through page after page. My green army men and other toys under the tree always were just like those in the catalog.
The catalog daydreaming habit is still with me, and the Internet has proven it's common among us.
But our family would always visit a real Sears store a few weeks before Christmas and suddenly all the neat stuff would be there on the shelves in front of me. I could pick up the Mattel camo Thompson sub-machine gun like Sgt. Saunders carried and rat a tat tat.
Some stuff would be better when viewed in person, some not as appealing.
Expectations and reality often don't agree.
But Elderly did not disappoint.
I opened the door and walked into an acoustic instrument lover's paradise.
The large central room held all the accessories. Rooms down a hallway on the right had electric stuff. The tryout room for those was well soundproofed so the rock riffers were no bother.
On my left was a large door to the acoustic guitar room with almost every current Martin production model available for play and several other top-flight brands as well. I'm sure there are a few places in the United States with more high-quality acoustic guitars in one spot. But this was the most fine guitars in one room that I had ever seen. And the rare vintage instruments were mostly locked away elsewhere, though they are available for test play, said Keith Billik, the showroom manager who intercepted me as I walked toward the nearby mandolin and banjo room.
I asked Billik, a multi-instrumentalist, what it was like to work in the candy store.
"Of course it ends up being a job," he said. "But when it starts being a job, I remind myself of what I could be doing."
I'm looking with lust at a couple of rows of hanging mandolins including vintage Gibson A, F2 and F4 models.
"You get dulled a bit," Billik said. "Things that turned my head when I first started here is kind of commonplace to me now. But you also get a great appreciation for the vintage stuff and all the new really well made stuff."
We take the tour and instruments are everywhere. Beyond the showroom, upstairs and downstairs, are rooms with parts, shipping and receiving benches, lesson rooms and the net room for the catalog staff. In one large room are floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with cases, many which have instruments in them and are tagged with codes that let employees keep track of what is where.
"Anytime you answer the phone," Billik said, "you don't know if you're going to be talking with Billy Bob in North Carolina about his banjo or a crazy German guy about his shredder electric."
We're walking just downstairs from the showrooms and find of couple of young men who have brought in an old Gibson A mandolin, which looks like an A junior to me, and repair expert Arnold Hennig fetches a mirror to look inside. He's asked the oft-asked questions.
"Can you tell me anything about it?" one fellow asks. "Is it worth fixing up?"
Around the corner, through the used and repairs appraisal room, we find the cluttered office of Stan Werbin, who founded the feast in 1972.
I should say one of his offices because Werbin, 62, starts his day on the computer at home, moves to the store in the afternoon and returns to the home computer to work at night. His store office is lined with racks of old banjos and guitars, waiting for his evaluation or a test drive.
"I play mostly guitar and banjo," he said, "and a little bit of mandolin."
Werbin started Elderly with a friend as something to do besides regular work after he finished college at the University of Michigan, which is touchy because he's now at the home of Michigan State. Today he's the sole owner of what has become, besides the destination store, one of the largest catalog and Internet music sales operations of its kind.
"I had no clue when we started that it would ever get this big," Werbin said.
But he still gets the chills when a high-quality instrument is in his hands, he said. Such as the 1927 Gibson F5 fern listed for $85,000 that Billik is toting because I'm planning to give it a test run.
Werbin blows out of the office early on this day to attend a benefit concert for a local public radio station. He's friendly and warm to me and must be fairly decent to work for because everywhere we go people are working relaxed. They do have the dulled day-job patina in their eyes because it's late in the day. But they don't have the telltale anxiety that you see in employees when a butthead boss is lurking nearby.
So I get to see the whole place, but really it's still the showrooms that are the coolest.
I buy a new tuner because I need one and some mandolin strings to spare mail order shipping charges because no shop near my home is carrying the J75s. Then Billik sets the '27 Fern on a couch in the mandolin room and also brings me the new Madagascar rosewood and red spruce top Martin D-28 1941 Museum guitar. Plus I pluck a couple of the 1920s F4 mandolins from the rack because I've really been wanting to have my hands on one again.
I've still never played a Loar-signed F5, but this Fern is getting me closer. Elderly still has a couple of Loars listed on their web site but none are at the building on this day.
This Fern sound great and looks cool. Not as cool as the unplayable Loar that I held early this year, but still nice on looks. And the midrange is wonderful and all the notes are clear all the way up the fingerboard.
The strings on the Martin are so new my fingers stick a bit, and the adi top is new. But it still sounds great with extra-nice mid and treble sound and a tight bass. The woods are not flashy but grained tight in the old-time way. This is one of the most elegant Martins that I've ever held.
The F4 and F2 that I play have to be retuned because they're a half-step high, maybe they have the humidifiers running full bore. But they sound great, and like this whole place, they don't disappoint.
Unfortunately, it's closing time and I have to drive on down the road to Kalamazoo.
I'll soon be only making virtual visits to Elderly. Which makes me part of a large crowd.
"We get this all the time," Billik said. "We'll be talking to someone on the phone about an instrument that they're looking at on their computer screen. All the sudden they'll say, 'I've gotta go, I'll call you back, the boss is coming.' "
Their web site: Elderly Instruments