Today, Lansing’s Elderly Instruments is a destination for musicians throughout the country, and owner Stan Werbin’s desk is where the buck stops in an enterprise that grosses $17 million in annual sales and utilizes the latest Web tools to boost sales.
But it didn’t start that way. In the easy, self-deprecating manner of a person with nothing to prove, Werbin recounts the early days of Old Town’s now world-famous music store.
On his business background: “In grad school I may have known the words ‘wholesale’ and ‘retail’ but I probably didn’t know which was which.”
On his first day in business in East Lansing: “Our only sale that day was a banjo pick, and we sold that to our landlord.”
On instrument repair: “I had not grown up around tools: My dad had a hammer, two screwdrivers, and—I think—a tape measure.”
From these unlikely beginnings, Werbin established Elderly Instruments as an international landmark among folk, rock, blues and bluegrass musicians. Not a person to be distracted by pretense, Werbin good-naturedly lays out pieces of the Elderly puzzle, letting others draw their own conclusions about how it all came together.
Elderly’s story begins in the Brooklyn of the early 1960s, where Werbin grew up. He recalls one night when he was given a ticket to see Pete Seeger play banjo with the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. “I was mesmerized,” says Werbin. “It was 1961, I was 14 years old and records were $1.99.”
“Back then, a 14-year-old could hop on the subway and go into New York,” says Werbrin. “I was far too shy to get involved in any of the New York music scene.”
Werbin has little in the way of musical background—his parents wouldn’t even let him take piano lessons. But he “had a high school friend who had a banjo and could flail a couple of chords. He loaned me his banjo, but I wanted to keep playing, and eventually I bought one from another friend.”
On his trips into Greenwich Village, Werbin had two regular stops: a small guitar and banjo shop called Fretted Instruments and Izzy Young’s Folklore Center. “I was way too young and too intimidated to even talk to people. But I did go to a few of [Izzy’s] concerts. It was like the Creole Gallery. The music was right there.”
In ’69, Werbin enrolled at the University of Michigan to get a PhD in biochemistry. “But music was always a distraction for me,” he says. “I was playing with friends, playing at the Ark at open mike night—and being influenced by a lot of other people who were doing the same thing.”
Werbin got his masters degree in biochemistry in 1971. But given the options of looking for a dissertation topic and looking for a job, he quickly discovered “that my chosen field of biochemistry was not my chosen field.”
So he chose a third option—he started looking around for used instruments. “Back then, they were just ‘used’ instruments, rather than ‘vintage,’” he grins, “so they were actually cheaper than new ones.”
He developed a used instrument shop in the attic of the biochem fraternity in Ann Arbor. The name, “Elderly Instruments,” was borrowed from a classified ad in the Ann Arbor News that described a Les Paul guitar as a “a nice, elderly instrument.”
“People still come in and ask for Mr. Elderly.”
From Old Town to the World
When Werbin opened Elderly, the Ann Arbor music market was saturated. Lured by the promise of cheap space and an invitation from the owner of East Lansing’s Curious Book Shop, Ray Walsh, Werbin moved Elderly Instruments to East Lansing in 1972.
He began carrying new instruments shortly after moving to East Lansing.
“We found a distributor who would sell us a banjo for $25. We figured if we paid $2 for shipping, we could sell it for $35 and make eight bucks! And then we thought, if we’re going to buy one, then let’s buy two, so we have one to sell to the next person.”
Seeking to broaden his market, Werbin published Elderly’s first mail-order catalog in 1975. “We put it together with press type and an IBM Selectric typewriter,” he says.”It was supposed to be 30 pages, but it grew to 120 pages. We had no sense of where to stop.”
The 20 years following where years of slow, steady growth, characterized by expanding services and constant alertness to changing business models to reach a nationwide niche market.
He added electric guitars and amplifiers, CDs and books (thank you, Izzy!), a repair shop that has grown to 10 full-time craftsmen, and vintage instruments that sell for up to six figures.
Elderly is also increasingly well-known for its innovative presence on the Web. So much so that the company was featured in the 2002 textbook, The Subject is Marketing. “For Elderly, electronic commerce is nothing less than a dynamic new business opportunity,” the book says. “Elderly uses the Internet to ‘talk’ to its customers.”
The Next Generation
Dominic Suchyta, bass player for the Lansing bluegrass and blues group Steppin’ in It, says Elderly has been a unique resource for his band. Werbin was the one to introduce band members to many of the instruments, such as the Cajun accordion, that characterize Steppin' in It.
“We could do our product research there,” says Suchyta. “And then Stan let Andy take one home to experiment with it. Now it’s a major part of our sound.”
Suchyta contrasts Werbin’s laid-back approach to customers with other nationally recognized shops such as Nashville’s Gruhn Guitars. “At Elderly, you can just pick up a $20,000 guitar and just play it, and that is so unheard of. You can’t even pick up a $500 guitar at most places, because they’re worried about it getting scratched. In Gruhn [Guitars in Nashville], I picked up a guitar and got yelled at, and made an example of.”
Elderly also sells the bulk of Steppin’ in It’s CDs, serves as a distributor for their music and provides a second source of income for Suchyta, who gives bass, guitar and banjo lessons at Elderly.
From the perspective of an artist and a customer, Suchyta’s explanation for Elderly’s success is simple:
“Stan just loves this kind of music…and these instruments.”
Rick Ballard is a regular contributor to Capital Gains. His recent articles on the arts include features on the Williamston Theatre and Scott Smith, pipe organ preserver and restorer.
Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.
Violins at Elderly Instruments
Part of the guitar selection
Dominic Suchyta, gives a lesson to Eric Weston
Elderly's vast selection
All Photographs © Dave Trumpie