Guitars and pianos take over north end of Kalamazoo Mall

Entrepreneurs with a musical flair are doing business downtown and finding guitars and pianos fit in just fine in their urban setting. 
Those walking down the northern block of the Kalamazoo Mall in recent months might have thought they've gone back in time 50 or 100-something years.

Where a moped shop and a storefront theater used to be, are the Kalamazoo Guitar Shop (248 N. Kalamazoo Mall, and the Kalamazoo Piano Company (246 N. Kalamazoo Mall). Mid-century guitars hang on the wall of one, 1800s-early-1900s pianos crowd the floor of the other.

It makes sense that the shops would appear about two blocks from where Orville Gibson's 1894 mandolin shop used to be -- Gibson grew to make Kalamazoo a source of many jazz, blues, rock and country pickers' guitars in the 20th century. The city is also the home of the Gilmore International Keyboard Festival, and an academic town with a thriving music scene.

But in this century, technology is changing musical culture. The guitarist is no longer at the front of the stage in pop music. There's an impression that cheap guitars just need digital effects to sound expensive. Cheap electronic keyboards have long reigned over the acoustic piano for home use. The high-point of U.S. new piano sales, according to a Jan. 4 Associated Press story, was 1909.

In contrast to national trends, thanks to Kalamazoo's unique musical and cultural soil, the two shops on the north end of the mall are blooming.

Since Jessica French and Bert Ebrite opened the Kalamazoo Piano Company in October, 2013, business has been good. They're in "a piano-centric city," French says, the exception to the details in the gloomy AP story.

"It's not 1890, but it's alright. It's coming back--the piano is having a little bit of a renaissance," Ebrite says. It's the only shop in town dealing in used pianos. They also do piano moving, tuning, refurbishing and lessons. "We do everything that there is to do with a piano."

She started playing piano at the age of 4, and came from a family in the Detroit area where her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother taught piano lessons. French came to Kalamazoo to study music at Western Michigan University, and started her own piano lessons business.

He was one of her students. Ebright is a Kalamazoo native, musician, antique dealer/restorer and mechanic. "Jessie was a huge push" toward putting their skills together to open the shop, he says.

They transformed what had been the Whole Art, then Fancy Pants, theaters into a space out of the turn of the last century. Heavy curtains adorn a performance area, where the two plan to hold classical open-mic nights early this year (events will be posted on its Facebook page.

A framed photo of Rachmaninov hangs near an ornate 1892 upright Steinway, the type the composer favored. A bit lost in time sits a sleek space-age modern 1960s Baldwin. Leaning against a wall, legless and too huge to set up in the showroom is an 1865 Steinway square grand--though big, heavy and "weird" Ebrite says, the style was popular at the end of the Civil War.

In the front window is a customized plexiglass-topped Steinway-style grand that's a mystery--it's originally from the 1920s, first owned by a jazz pianist in Detroit, but they don't know who. They do know that the consignment seller played it every day with her husband, and it was a center of their soireés, until her husband died. The shop was told to sell it "to a place where it will be loved," Ebrite says.

There are more pianos in their workshop, in the 1917 Gibson factory, literally where Gibson's company vault was, Ebrite says. French says that before the shop, she "hoarded" pianos.

As 14-year-old shop cat Ravi meows to be let out (only to beg to come back in from the cold), the co-owners tout the benefits of acoustic pianos.

"It's much more interactive. You have a more-personal relationship with it. Most kids do start on an electric piano now days, but when they come and play on an acoustic piano, they realize, 'I want one of these!' You have so much more of a tactile experience," Ebrite says.

"The sound is big, and physical. You feel the vibration," he says.

"There's something about having a mechanical acoustical instrument that feels really different, sounds different, and offers a different experience," French says. "Acoustic pianos often offer a really different group of musical colors."  

"With the electric keyboard, the idea is consistency, reliability...I almost called it 'sterile,' but that's just my opinion," he says with a laugh.

So far, lessons, moving, and repair have been their primary sources of revenue. They've sold 25 pianos in 2014.

But with their other services, they're building a network of piano-centric people who know that the Kalamazoo Piano Company exists to "connect the piano with the person who needs it," French says.

Guitar Neighbors are not a coincidence

Walk into the shop next door and instead of pianos and a cat, the visitor is greeted by two very friendly shop dogs, Sunny and Bella, and an array of classic guitars on the wall.

Ry Charters and Jay Gavan opened Kalamazoo Guitar Shop in October. Like their piano neighbors, they're living off of repairs rather than sales, mainly of guitar, and other stringed instrument. But hanging on the wall are locally made guitars from Heritage and Rob Doolittle, a '30s era Martin acoustic, a Gibson "Kalamazoo" acoustic from around 1940, and a 1923 Gibson mandolin.

Leaning nearby are hunks of Michigan wood, due to be carved into guitar bodies. Under the guitars are Muskegon-made Tom Hull amps. Charters points out that aside from the Martin and a Yamaha, everything in the shop is from Michigan, and most from Kalamazoo.

Charters and Gavan have long worked off-and-on for Heritage Guitar, a shop of former Gibson luthiers in the old Gibson factory on Parsons St.

Gavan has also worked on the history of Kalamazoo's guitar manufacturing for the Kalamazoo Valley Museum, and is the founder of the annual Fretboard Festival, a gathering of instrument pickers and makers.

Charters had gone off on his own to make guitars, and then left for Seattle, Wa., where he worked for Dusty Strings as their repair shop manager. He became known for his restoration of vintage instruments, and got gigs with Experience Music Project Museum restoring guitars owned by Tamp Red, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, and Hank Williams.

The Dylan guitar was what the folkie hitchhiked with from Minneapolis to New York, and what he put aside when he went electric. The Williams guitar is a Kalamazoo-made Gibson used in the creation of iconic country and western songs. The work was a "nail-biting exercise," Chartres says. At EMP, "it's not restoration, it's conservation. Everything is sacred, you've got to save the dust and put it in a baggie," he says.

The Kalamazoo Piano Company's Ebrite knew Gavan, and knew that Gavan wanted to start a shop with Charters involved.

But Charters needed a sign to move back to Kalamazoo, and that sign was finding Ebrite hanging around his shop in Seattle, there to tell him of the space on the Kalamazoo Mall.

"Kind of serendipitous," Charters says. At the time, he was "done with the grind of Seattle living."

Why move back to Kalamazoo? "We know a lot of people around here," Charters says. Though Gibson moved to Nashville in 1984, there's a large community of active luthiers. There's also a huge community of musicians--Gavan, whose playing goes back to the '90s band Mom Handy, '00's The Red Sea Pedestrians, and up to his release of a solo album this year, can attest to that.

"The word (about the guitar shop) is spreading quickly, because we know people in that world," Gavan says. After three months, at the end of 2014 they've sold a few guitars, but are close to being over-booked with repair jobs.

Guitars are a major part of Kalamazoo's culture, even though thrashing, riffing, and picking have waned nationally.

If a new musician gets a guitar, it's likely to be cheap and foreign-made. With a cheap guitar and added technology, players think "as long as I've got this box of digital effects, that's all I need," Gavan says. "I think a lot of people now are throwing a lot of that in the garbage, and are going back to tube amps and wood, American-made guitars," he says.

"Nostalgia plays a heavy influence on what they play," Charters adds. If a player wants the sound of their guitar heroes, they'll have to find their heroes' equipment.

"A lot of folks long for the day when people really cared for their objects, and they were somewhat sacred, you wouldn't part with them for anything," Charters says.

Still, "lots of people are buying guitars for $100, and it's hard for us to do any sort of repair for under $40, and to a lot of people it's not worth it, they'll sell it on Craigslist for $20, and there it goes."

Kalamazoo "needs to have some people who are planning to build guitars here, long term," Charters says. They're filling that niche and hope to have their first instruments available in early March. They've got a brand name in mind: Kal-Tone.

Initially, they didn't put much thought into their business' name, Kalamazoo Guitar Shop, they admit. The shop's name will be changed as soon as they have a Kal-Tone logo, one that will be on a sign "that could be seen from the Radisson," and one that will fit on the headstocks of their own guitars.

Charters is working on instrument designs, and ordering "tooling specific for the models that we'll do"  for "small-scale manufacturing" of an acoustic, a "Fender-esque" solid body electric, and his Red Arrow design he's built in the past. Except for some of the larger lumber machining operations, the instruments will be made in the space on the Kalamazoo Mall.

Kal-Tone will get electronics from Lynn Waterman, a Kalamazoo specialist in tube amps and pickups for electric guitars. Waterman currently does amp and electrical repair work for the shop.

In honor of the luthier who had a shop a few blocks away and 120 years ago, "we almost called it 'Orville's,'" Charters says--but that might've invited lawsuits from a guitar company in Nashville.

Mark Wedel has been a freelance writer in Kalamazoo since 1992, and if he could own an instrument, it would be a player piano loaded with Scott Joplin rolls.
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