Staying in tune
Now in its 36th year, Elderly Instruments in Lansing still keeps the music going
During the week at Elderly Instruments, 1100 N. Washington Ave., in Lansing, musicians come from all over Michigan to browse, purchase and play everything from banjos to mandolins, harmonicas to guitars. Pastor Ellis Howard of Grace Free Will Baptist Church, 16680 E. Michigan Ave., in Albion, said he makes the 38-mile drive to Elderly for the atmosphere of the music shop. Fellow Pastor Earl Martin and the Rev. Abe Perter visited Elderly on Monday to look for a new guitar for Martin, and played some music while they browsed.
Lansing — Outside of Elderly Instruments, the thumping of bass guitars permeates the parking lot. Upon entering the store, 1100 N. Washington Ave., in Lansing, the low rumble fades into the picking and strumming of guitars, banjos and mandolins, mixed with the chattering of customers looking to buy new wares or simply browse and hang out.
Surrounded by racks of acoustic guitars and a wall of banjos, father-son duo Richard and Andy Ball are playing bluegrass music on a 1952 C.F. Martin & Co. guitar and a Gibson mandolin.
Customers casually watch the impromptu jam session as the two switch off between energetic chords and speedy solos.
Elderly has become more than just a place to shop — what started in 1972 as 10 instruments on the wall has evolved into an internationally known staple in Lansing’s music scene.
Building the business
Visit Elderly Instruments
Elderly Instruments, 1100 N. Washington Ave., in Lansing, is open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Source: Elderly Instruments
Brandon Foote, left, an appraiser for Elderly Instruments, and Grand Rapids resident Mark Schlott play bluegrass music Saturday afternoon in the showroom of Elderly Instruments, 1100 N. Washington Ave., in Lansing.
Assistant manager Steve Olson replaces frets Saturday afternoon in the Elderly Instruments repair shop, 1100 N. Washington Ave., in Lansing.
Grand Ledge resident Kaitlin Lutz, 15, plays a guitar Saturday afternoon at Elderly Instruments, 1100 N. Washington Ave., in Lansing. The store allows visitors to come in and play its instruments.
When Stan Werbin first thought about selling instruments, a musician’s ideal was a vintage guitar made before World War II.
“The idea was, maybe we can hunt around at antique shops and pawn shops and put ads in the paper and try to buy older instruments … because there wasn’t a vintage guitar market, per se,” he said.
When he and his business partner at the time realized their circle of friends wasn’t large enough to support the business, they thought they should try opening a store.
They started selling at flea markets, where they met Ray Walsh, owner of Curious Book Shop, 307 E. Grand River Ave. — then located in what is now Campus Town Mall on Grand River Avenue.
He suggested renting out a small, affordable space across the hall from his store. In the following years, Walsh moved out of the building and Elderly began to take over its entire basement.
Still needing more space, Werbin relocated to its current location — 35,000 square feet of space that used to be a post office, the Lansing Odd Fellows Hall and the National Cash Register Company building.
Werbin, 60, said the idea of opening another store is unlikely.
“I’ve never wanted to open another store because I’ve always wanted to make this one better,” Werbin said. “I like the idea of it being a mom-and-pop kind of store.”
Andy Ball, 25, said he and his dad, both Warren residents, visit Elderly a few times a year because they’re always looking for good deals.
“They’re not afraid to carry the best quality instruments, not afraid to spend money to bring this stuff in here and not afraid to let you try it out,” he said. “They’re very hands-on here and that’s a plus.”
Showroom manager Keith Billick admitted that allowing customers to play the instruments involves a lot of trust, and accidents do happen, but the store gains a lot more by letting people try out instruments than it loses.
“I think the emphasis is really on trying to get people to make the right choices when they come here and that’s really what helps them, being able to try things out firsthand,” the 29-year-old said.
Billick, a 2001 MSU graduate, said Elderly was one of his favorite places to hang out as a student and has been working there since a couple of months after graduating.
On Jan. 30, horticulture sophomore Ben Gluck visited the store for the first time and was impressed with the condition of the instruments on the floor.
“All the guitars are in really good shape and in tune,” he said.
Horticulture junior Nick Parton, who introduced Gluck to Elderly Instruments, said he’s a “pretty big fan” of the store.
“There’s a huge selection — lots of guitars (and) vintage guitars,” Parton said. “They let me sit around and play guitar for as long as I want.”
But even with the close proximity to MSU, Billick said students aren’t a huge chunk of the customer base.
He said this is partially because the store carries items tough to find on an international scale. Elderly attracts people from not only every corner of Michigan and the Midwest, but also all across the world.
Boyne City residents Brad Winkler, 23, and Dale Owen, 32, visited the store Saturday to return a guitar Owen bought the week before.
“I got home and didn’t like the sound so I brought it back. I’m shopping for the right one,” Owen said. “It’s pretty reliable service, especially for those of us coming from far away.”
He said they usually make the trip to Elderly a couple of times a year.
Peter Root-Wiley, a senior at East Lansing High School who restrings instruments in Elderly’s repair shop, said another reason people like the store is because the salespeople don’t pressure customers.
“They’re always there to be helpful and they let you know that without making you feel nervous, which I’ve heard is a lot different from a lot of other music stores,” the 17-year-old said.
Billick said the employees do not work on commission.
“We kinda pride ourselves on giving honest advice,” he said.
Cynthia Bridge, who’s been with the store for about 30 years, said she also appreciates the honesty with customers.
“I absolutely love that when somebody comes here with an instrument they found in their grandparents’ attic, they have no idea what it is, (and) we will tell them it’s worth $5,000, $10,000, whatever, rather than just ‘Isn’t that nice? We’ll give you $100,’” the 52-year-old Haslett resident said.
Behind the scenes
While the showroom is jam-packed with inventory, more than half of Elderly’s work is done backstage through the store’s repair shop, mail-order system and Web site.
Elderly releases a yearly product catalogue, along with an internationally-circulated used instrument list sent out every few weeks and multiple e-mail lists to notify customers of new products.
Werbin credits much of Elderly’s growth to the mail-order list, which began in 1975.
“(Without the list) I don’t think we could get this big in Lansing,” he said, noting the mail order and Web site – essentially the same thing – make up 65-70 percent of the store’s business.
Elderly Instruments is also home to a mail-order and packaging department.
Werbin said 10 of the store’s about 85 employees work in the repair shop, doing customer repairs and preparing each instrument for the showroom.
“These guys can do just about anything that needs to be done on any kind of guitar and related stuff,” Werbin said. “What they do is central to the way we run the business.”
In his office in the building’s downstairs on Jan. 30, Werbin pulled out a 1944 C.F. Martin & Co. guitar brought into the store the day before.
But with a bridge and pickguard that were coming off, he said it needed a couple thousand dollars of work from the repair shop before it’ll be ready to sell for about $45,000.
“It’s as good a sounding acoustic guitar as you’d ever play,” Werbin said. “But if it doesn’t feel right, doesn’t play right, it’s not worth anything.”