Elderly Instruments - They Don't Make 'Em Like That Any More!
(Bluegrass Now Magazine Article From Bluegrass Now Magazine - June 1998 By Eddie Collins)
Ask any bluegrass musician to name a nationally known music store that caters to his or her needs and certainly Elderly Instruments of Lansing, Mich., will be mentioned in relatively short order. Whether you are trying to locate a vintage or new instrument, instructional materials, musical accessories, or hard-to-find CDs, chances are you will find it at Elderly Instruments. The roots of what today has become perhaps the world's most well known music store for acoustic instruments can be traced directly to the folk music boom of the 1960s.
Stan Werbin, originally a co-owner and now sole owner of Elderly Instruments, remembers seeing Pete Seeger play banjo in 1963 and immediately going out and purchasing a Vega SS-5 long-neck banjo. A native of the New York City area, Werbin took his banjo and love of folk music with him when he attended graduate school in Ann Arbor, Mich., in 1969. By this time, Stan was well steeped in the contemporary folk singers of the day, but had also picked up a few Flatt & Scruggs records and reissues of early Bill Monroe on Mercury. Werbin, who also taught himself to play guitar, recalls his early performing experiences: "In Ann Arbor I played a lot of the 'hoots,' or open mike nights, at The Ark. Along with Fiddlin' Dougie Rutherford, we did an eclectic blend of various influences from the Holy Modal Rounders to the Greenbriar Boys to the Incredible String Band. Really, we were just doing our best to sound like all of our musical heroes."
Through his performing experience he gained an appreciation for the instruments that made the music. Elderly Instruments itself started in 1971 when Werbin formed a partnership with a college friend in hopes of buying and selling used stringed instruments. In Ann Arbor, it was mostly buying without the means to sell them. There were at least ten established music stores in the area, so the idea came up to relocate to another area. A used bookstore operator from Lansing happened by the partners' booth at a flea market sale in Ann Arbor and told them that there was some space in the building in which his business was set up and that they should consider relocating there. While the first attempts to do so failed, eventually the budding entrepreneurs opened Elderly Instruments (a reference to the age of the instruments they intended to sell) in a 10'-x-12' space in the basement of a converted office building for $60 a month.
One driving philosophy has guided every decision Werbin has made in regards to the operation of Elderly Instruments since its beginning — customer comfort. Stan distinctly recalls an attempt he made to purchase a Martin guitar from a music store in New York during the 1960s. He describes the experience as, "Show us some money and maybe we'll show you some guitars." Add to this a time when he waited in a music store in Ann Arbor for at least five minutes for the sales person to finish a personal phone conversation before acknowledging his presence and Stan knew exactly how he would never treat his future customers. As a result, all Elderly employees are instructed to immediately recognize patrons as they enter the store and to let customers know that just about everything they see can be "tried out" without the pressure of a sales person standing over them.
With the idea that the customer knows what he/she wants, the fledgling music store soon began carrying strings, accessories and new instruments. Remembering the difficulties he had in obtaining records from non-mainstream labels, Stan began selling bluegrass and folk music records as early as 1973. The thought here was if the music was available to be heard, more people would want to play the music and the more they would seek quality instruments. While initially intending to focus on his area of expertise — acoustic instruments — Werbin soon had customers bringing by Gibson Les Pauls and Fender Stratocasters. Rather than purchase them outright, Elderly would sell them on consignment. Soon the demand for electric guitars led them to carry both new and used electric instruments. When asked for a rough guesstimate of his customer base, Werbin estimates that 75% of his clientele is acoustic oriented, with 75% of those having direct ties to bluegrass through playing or appreciation of the music.
Elderly Instruments' connection with the bluegrass community was a deliberate effort. During the 1970s, on the weekend of a festival such as one in Charlotte, Mich., practically the entire inventory of the store would be displaced to the festival site. The store also helped promote bluegrass concerts through an informal "Friends of Bluegrass" organization — what today might be considered your local bluegrass association. To this day, Elderly is still providing people an opportunity to hear the music. As of last year, the store began holding a series of in-store performances, which to date have included the Austin Lounge Lizards and Chesapeake. Elderly Instruments has just started sponsoring a series of dinner concerts in the Lansing area as well where you can hear a folk artist while sampling a meal from a local restaurant.Stan Werbin plays "Smokey" (one of his favorite pre-war Martin D-28s) in Elderly Instruments showroom.
As Elderly Instruments' reputation grew, so did the customer base. By 1975, the store was doing business through mail order — a portion of the company's business that has gradually increased to about 60% of its yearly revenues. In its continuing effort to "bring the music to the customer," Elderly Instruments established a commanding presence on the Internet. Werbin is quick to point out the advantages to this type of marketing: "Customers from all around the world can view our up-to-date listing of new and used instruments 24 hours a day. Also, customers become a lot more educated about the instruments they're interested in and can answer many of their own questions before contacting us. To help, we have a full-time employee whose sole job is to answer questions we receive from email. We can also keep the customer updated with information like our in-store concert series — in case they are planning a visit to the area."
The drive to incorporate the use of technology was initiated by Werbin himself, who designed and programmed the data base software that tracks the store's inventory. This tool allows him and his staff to make quick work in regards to quoting the value of a used instrument. He can instantly access whether a similar instrument was ever sold by the store, what condition it was in, and for what price it was sold — again making life for the potential customer comfortable.
Due to its far-reaching range of customers, Elderly Instruments has seen steady growth year after year. By increasing the geographic range of its customer base, the store is not so directly tied to the fortunes of the local Lansing economy which is closely tied to the fortunes of automotive giant General Motors. While Werbin remembers a period in the early 1980s where electronic synthesizers slowed the sales growth of acoustic instruments, he feels the foreseeable future bodes well for the acoustic instrument market. Says Werbin, "Companies like Martin and Taylor are selling record numbers of guitars and a lot of smaller companies are making quality instruments associated with bluegrass. I also think the demand for quality used instruments will remain high for some time."
Early on, allowing for growth simply meant renting more space in the building they were in as other lessees moved out. By the late 1970s, the store occupied the entire 5,000-square-foot basement of the building and by 1983 a new 13,800-square-foot facility (its current location) was opened. Still growing, the store completed a 21,000-square-foot expansion by connecting an adjacent building to its existing one in April of 1995. This facility allows people trying out electric instruments to do so in an environment that doesn't disturb someone who's testing an acoustic one.
For those who might be interested in hearing Stan Werbin test a few acoustic instruments, try locating an obscure novelty tune (the kind you might readily find in the Elderly Instruments' record department), "Rocky Top Fais-do-do" — a French version of "Rocky Top" with full Cajun backup. This little gem was put out by the Lost World String Band which released two LPs while Stan was a member of the group in the 1970s. Stan recalls leaving the life of performer to focus on the growth of Elderly Instruments: "I guess the problem of keeping 19 strings in tune [he played 5-string banjo, plectrum banjo, guitar and ukulele in the group] while trying to run a music store wore me down!"
Balancing life experiences with the wants and needs of the customer has allowed Stan Werbin to shape a business that is large in scope, but with the down home feel of a mom-and-pop music store. As busy as he is with the business of music, Werbin has recently had opportunities to get back to the business of playing music as he did in the early days. Stan describes one recent performance: "The Ten Pound Fiddle [a local coffeehouse] put on an 'Elderly Unplugged' evening featuring store employees and their groups. I got together with Brian Hefferan and Steve Szilagyi, who both work at the store, and Doug Berch, a past Winfield dulcimer champion who heads our wholesale record distribution subsidiary. Our proudest moment was, I think, when the duet of slide whistle and musical saw kicked off one song." It is precisely such undying passion for the music that has fueled the success of what is perhaps the most user-friendly music store in America — Elderly Instruments.