Stan Werbin's Elderly Instruments - Bluegrass Friendly!From Bluegrass Unlimited Magazine - September 2014 By Mike Kropp
Photos by Dave Matchette
Stan Werbin’s Elderly Instruments is widely known as one of the leading acoustic fretted instrument retailers in the world. The store has always been a shining light resource for bluegrass musicians and enthusiasts. The dazzling array of new, used, and vintage instruments offered in the Lansing, Mich., store is a treasure trove for the first-time buyer as well as the seasoned musician. Accessories, books, and recorded music fill out the huge inventory. The in-house music school has teachers on hand for lessons on banjo, guitar, mandolin, bass, fiddle, resonator guitar, and ukulele. Over the years, specialized new and used electric fretted instruments have been tastefully added to the mix.
The repair/restoration facility at Elderly is another high reputation feature of the business. Vintage, new, and used instruments are all expertly set up or repaired before the sale, unless otherwise noted. This philosophy has always been a part of the original vision of the store. So, how did Elderly become a major force in the musical instrument arena over the years? Stan Werbin, owner and founder, is the prime force in the Elderly organization. As a graduate student and budding banjo/guitar picker at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Stan decided to open a shop that would deal with the burgeoning acoustic music scene in the early 1970s, After working out of his apartment in Ann Arbor, he opened the first store/repair facility in East Lansing in 1972. The shop was a mere 10’ x 12’ space—a far cry from the huge 35,000 square-foot facility that Elderly now occupies with a current staff of eighty.
The website (www.elderly.com) is the online retail arm for Elderly and produces about seventy-percent of the business. The site is easy to navigate and quite informative. The folks at Elderly have made it easy for customers to order online, via mail-order catalog, or by phone. The company scores high on customer support and has a knowledgeable staff of salespersons to assist.
Elderly has published its popular hundred-plus-pages annual print catalog to prospective buyers since 1975. These old catalogs are a sought after collectable resource packed with great info and reference material. In this paperless age, it is quite refreshing to see the Elderly folks still putting out such a great publication.
I always assumed the Elderly moniker was actually someone’s name. Stan set the record straight and related that the name actually came from an ad in a local paper that offered a used Gibson Les Paul guitar that was described as an “elderly instrument” because of its age. The name struck a chord (pun intended!) with Stan and his partner at the time, Sharon Mclnturff. Elderly Instruments stuck and became the fledgling company’s name.
In 1972, Stan started the shop to sell vintage and used instruments and to provide repairs and restoration. Eventually, over the years the shop grew, adding more consignment instruments and expanding retail sales of new acoustic instruments and accessories. The store became more well known for offering new bluegrass and old-time instruments. It outgrew its early locations and has been at its present address in Lansing for over 31 years. Highlights of the complete 42-year journey are well documented on the website.
Stan’s expertise as a collector, player, and rehab doctor for old fretted instruments has allowed the company to enjoy the reputation as one of the world’s leading vintage dealers for acoustic and electric fretted instruments. The vintage side of Elderly caters to bluegrass and old-time players alike—the vintage inventory usually has a strong presence of prewar Gibson banjos, Martin guitars, and Gibson mandolins.
Over the past few years, Gibson Lloyd Loar F-5s and Ferns, Martin prewar dreadnoughts, and Holy Grail prewar Gibson flathead banjos have been sold. Many collector-grade SS Stewart, Fairbanks, and Bacon open-back banjos have been sold as well. The narrative and multiple photos for each vintage instrument described makes this site the best of the vintage sites for fretted acoustic players. A prospective customer has the chance to examine each instrument in great detail. Several historically important instruments have been sold from the Elderly Vintage shop. Most recently, the 1930 flathead RB Granada, known as the Wade Mainer Granada, was offered for sale.
Many retailers have created and sponsored events designed to increase awareness of their store by presenting demo/clinics and workshops featuring well-known artists. But, Elderly has gone one step further by sponsoring the Midwest Banjo Camp in nearby Olivet, Mich. Stan, with partner and musical director Ken Penman, have consistently produced this immensely successful banjo camp for ten years. All styles of five-string banjo are presented at the camp.
Midwest Banjo Camp boasts a large staff of seasoned professionals who attend to the logistics and smooth running of the camp. Many of the top names in bluegrass banjo have been teachers, including Bill Keith, Tony Trischka, Alan O’Bryant, Alan Munde, Bill Evans, Greg Cahill, James McKinney, Pat Cloud, Janet Beazley, and more. The camp flow is organized and the friendly staff are really helpful—very little is left to the imagination. Workshops, classes, demos, concerts, and jams fill the weekend. Besides banjo, tracks are offered for guitar, mandolin, bass, fiddle, and this year, resonator guitar.
Elderly promotes the smaller labels and many fine bluegrass/folk/old-time/ acoustic artists. The store inventory of recordings is itself one of the largest online and in-store sources for this type of music. Coupled with the large printed music selection that includes instrument instruction tutorials, artist songbooks/ profiles, and a great selection of educational books for students of fretted string instruments, Elderly Instruments meets the needs of the bluegrass enthusiast and musician.
Hats off to Stan Werbin! His thoughtful, friendly approach to running the largest acoustic music store in the world keeps the ball spinning. Elderly Instruments is a friendly place—bluegrass friendly.
Mike Kropp is long-time alumnus of Northern Lights and currently fronts the Kropp Dusters. He also teaches at banjo camps.