When a scheduling glitch caused folk music legend Tom Paxton to miss a scheduled performance at Lansing's Elderly Instruments, Mike Cutler found himself with a store packed wall-to-wall with upset fans. Somebody suggested singing a couple of Paxton's tunes. The sound system was already set up, so Cutler and a few other employees took the stage.
"It turned into this crazy hootenanny," said Cutler, the store's special events coordinator of the March 1998 event. "It went on for hours."
"We have about 90 employees and probably 85 are musicians, so it's pretty easy to throw together a band," said Cutler, a member of local bands The Weepers and Pub Domain. "Every band in the area has somebody who works here."
Elderly, which celebrated its 30th anniversary throughout October, has grown into one of the world's largest dealers of vintage instruments and something of a Midwest musical Mecca. It has also become a hub for Lansing's music scene and spawned an impressive number of musical collaborations in just about every imaginable musical style, from punk to bluegrass to Celtic. There are 40 local bands with at least one member working at Elderly.
A look inside the showroom and it's easy to see why it attracts so many musicians: There are a lot of really cool stringed instruments.
Elderly's collection includes a 1941 Martin D-45 — which Elderly president Stan Werbin described as "the Holy Grail" of guitars — selling for $135,000. It also includes such oddities as bouzoukis and sitars. For those who have always wanted to try out an electric ukulele or hurdy gurdy, Elderly's showroom is one of the few places in the state where you can do it. The store also has the newest models from some of the world's best guitar makers.
Impromptu jam sessions are a regular occurrence as staff and customers grab instruments off the walls and try them out.
"You can meet somebody new or an old friend and play some music for a while, and we encourage that," Werbin said.
Werbin started the company in 1972, after finishing graduate school at University of Michigan.
"I decided for a while it would be fun to search around for old instruments and buy and sell them," Werbin said. "We were able to accomplish half that goal: We were able to buy a bunch, but it wasn't so simple to sell them."
He decided Ann Arbor just had too many music stores, but at the time there were no used instrument dealers in Lansing. He moved into a basement shop across the street from the Michigan State University campus. Rent was $60 a month. The business grew steadily, gradually taking over the entire building.
"Slowly but surely, as other tenants moved out we would take their space," Werbin said.
They ran out of room in 1983 and moved into their current location at 1100 N. Washington Ave. Today the store takes up 35,000 square feet.
"Some people think you have to be a great musician to work here. That's not true," Werbin said. "Not everyone is the best in town, but we have a bunch of people who are on that level, and also some people who don't play at all.
"Among people who do play, there seems to be a fair bit of interaction," he said. "They sit in on each others gigs, bands have sometimes just happened because the people who were in them were working here at the time. Just among the staff, there's a fair amount of cross-pollinization of musical styles."
What do you get when you cross-breed heavy metal with eastern European folk music? No one's really sure, but if it happens anywhere, it's likely to happen at Elderly.
40 Bands with ties to Elderly Instruments
For an Idea of just how prevalent Elderly Instruments is to Lansing's music scene, here's a list of bands which have at least one member who works at the store. Keep in mind, these bands represent only current employees. Attempting to list off every band affiliated with Elderly over its 30-year history would result in the deaths of far too many trees.