Ode to a Guitar Shop

Recently I was informed that an old acquaintance of mine had died. Fred was a salesguy at the now-defunct Sigler Music Center in Little Rock who made me a great deal on my trusty Fender Eric Johnson strat. I bought it at their going-out-of-business sale, which reminded me of all the great guitar shops in Central Arkansas that are no more: Boyd Pro Sound, Atomic Guitars, Stonehenge (I & II), Starr’s Guitars, Music City, Maumelle Music. I thought it might be good if I wrote down a little about each of them while the memories are still relatively fresh.

Boyd Pro Sound. The oldest, the best. This was Little Rock’s hometown music store for decades. In addition to guitars and band instruments it was the main repair shop and PA store. My history with the store is limited; I don’t think I ever bought any guitars there, but I know that it was the hub for all the gigging musicians, church groups, and audio production people. I fondly recall impressing Mr. Boyd once with my guitar rendition of Aaron Copland’s “Hoe Down.” He was a traditional pianist of some renown and I got the feeling he had an uneasy relationship with the young guitar monkeys in his store.

The circumstances of the store’s demise still seem strange to me – Mr. Boyd closed up shop to sell the space to a nearby church, then opened up a branch of Sigler Music Center a year or so later. Alas, the store opened at nearly the precise moment Guitar Center arrived, so it only lasted a few years.

Stonehenge. The place your metalhead cousin learned to shred. Or play “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” There were two Stonehenges, one in North Little Rock and one in Little Rock down on Geyer Springs Road. Finding the latter location was initially a process of trial and error for me – I could never remember how to get there. But this was the store with the Ibanez and Jackson guitars. This was the Guitar Monkey Store. This was where I bought my first seven-string, a white Ibanez Universe that languished in the store apparently for years. I bought it around 1995 I think, and it was a 1990 model. Nobody knew what to do with a seven-string back then; Korn hadn’t hit it big yet. A year later their rise to prominence unleashed a tidal wave of seven- and now eight-string guitars onto the market.

Atomic Guitars. My neighborhood shop. I can’t tell you the many joys of a sunny day’s walk of a few blocks from my apartment to Atomic Guitars. Johnny Adams always had the coolest retro/vintage gear, and not just the expensive stuff – he had weird cheap gear as well. I bought a red 70s Kay strat from him for something like $80 once. Good guitar. I gave it to a friend a few years later. I think I also got my Fender Deluxe amp there. Atomic was really the only store that had a funky vibe to it, and that’s a tribute to Johnny’s style and interests – it was his store. It took a few years before I realized how rare that is in this world. Here are some pics from my old photoblog from way back when. Atomic lives on virtually, so visit the website.

Starr’s Guitars. The Money Store. David Starr moved his operation up to Colorado after a few years in Little Rock’s River Market. It was the place to go if you wanted high-end, off-the-beaten path guitars like Godin, Brian Moore, or PRS. If you wanted a limited edition Turner Lindsay Buckingham model, he had one. Starr’s was new when I moved to town around 1999, and David ran ads on KARN Newsradio, where I had my first “real” job, post-college. I remember some mornings the late great Bob Harrison would be on the air with his Hofner Beatle bass in hand, reading ad copy for Starr’s during the morning show. Starr’s also hosted guitar repair legend Tim Quatermous (I’m probably spelling that wrong), who probably worked on every one of my guitars at some point. After Starr’s left, Tim moved over to Romco Drums before he passed away. And for awhile David ran a small music venue next door to the shop – I remember seeing some great shows there by folks like Ed Nicholson’s Outside the Lines and Chapman Stick player Greg Howard.

Music Makers. The suburbs store. They had some good guitars but I don’t have any real strong memories from here. I remember they had a cool Robin guitar for years that was always in the store but always beyond my price range or anyone else’s interest.

Music City. The Pawn Shop. There was a Music City back behind the Brandon House building on 12th at University and I think it eventually became the Music City out in Sherwood, which was really just a pawn shop with a lot of guitars. A lot of awesome guitars; in fact this was probably my favorite store to venture out to because all their inventory was used gear, and used gear is just consistently more interesting to me than new gear. Lots of great 80s relics – I remember almost buying a Steve Stevens Washburn there once. I did buy a $300 Epiphone Joe Pass from them. They’re in a new building in Sherwood by the freeway but every time I go by there, they’re never open. I wonder what the deal is.

Maumelle Music & More. My store. I taught guitar here for a few years between 2000 & 2004. When I moved to Little Rock in 1999, I’d heard a music store had opened up in the bedroom suburb of Maumelle. I went to check it out – it had a big selection of CDs, some t-shirts and they were a dealer for Ibanez, Alvarez and Crate. After picking around on a guitar for a bit, I was asked by the manager, Mike, if I’d be interested in teaching lessons. It worked out really well for me, because my radio gig was part-time. I’d work at KARN from 9 to noon, then teach from 4 to 7. When I left radio, I was part time at Epoch Online before I eventually moved up to fulltime. I still keep up with some of those kids.

Romco Drums. The drum shop with some acoustic guitars. The fact that this store is able to stay open dealing mainly in percussion is impressive. I took jazz guitar lessons there briefly with Perry Israel.

Saied Music. The high school band store. Some decent guitars, but mainly this is the store for the brass and woodwinds.

There was a store up in Sherwood in the early 2000s run by Randy Boyd – anybody remember the name? I used to go up there every so often.

I suppose I should say a few words about what killed these shops. It would be easy to just say “Guitar Center,” but the Internet and eBay are major factors as well. When any kid can try out a guitar at a store and then go buy it online for a lower price, that really hurts a store. It’s not digital-music-killing-record-stores damage, but it’s the 1 of a 1-2 punch. Punch 2 is Guitar Center, the Walmart of music stores. Any exclusive dealership contract a mom and pop store might have is effectively negated by Guitar Center’s special arrangements with every company. Their corporate pyramid also contains the website/catalog behemoth Musician’s Friend and several instrument companies like Fender (at the top of the pyramid? Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital), so financially it’s the Death Star of retail musical instrument stores. Only the small-town stores will survive (which is why I haven’t mentioned Jacksonville Guitar, still going strong), at least until Guitar Center decides to go everywhere that Walmart goes, or Walmart decides to carry a wider array of musical instruments. Or Walmart eats Guitar Center.

It should be said, though, that music stores are only as good as the people who run them. It’s really about people. A lot of sales guys in Little Rock had no place else to go but Guitar Center, so if I have a buddy at a Guitar Center, I’ll still buy from him if he’s got what I’m looking for (of course, given the choice, I will first order from GuitarSmiths in Harrison, not that I buy much gear brand new). I remember Little Rock’s Guitar Center being fun in the early days – I’ll never forget that time some kid was wailing on “Eruption” and Cody Short picked up the intercom and said “hey kid, can you play ’Eruption’”? Classic.

I’ll miss the Saturdays I used to spend in Little Rock going from guitar store to guitar store, talking to guys like Fred, seeing what’s new and what’s on sale. It’s something our culture will never get back, like retail record stores or cathedrals made by stonemasons. We gain convenience and low, low prices, but for everything we gain, we always lose something.

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