By Rebecca Apodaca
For a man who runs a music store called Elderly Instruments, Stan Werbin is hard to keep up with, even in his speech. He was difficult to pin down for an interview, and his brain runs a mile a minute with knowledge. It’s readily apparent that he is hard working.
From a home-based business that started in Ann Arbor MI, Stan Werbin, the President, and his then-partner, Sharon McInturff, launched what became Elderly Instruments, which recently won the Music & Sound Award for Best Single-Store Dealer of 2011 in Guitars and Basses. In 1972, Werbin saw that there were major changes in the quality of instruments from manufacturers that had undergone corporate takeovers. Due to the rise in folk music, the demand for greater quantities even affected well-established makers. He stated that, in 1969, Martin Guitar had to switch from Brazilian rosewood to Indian rosewood. He saw that many manufacturers had to cut corners in quality to meet their quantity of orders. Werbin redoubled his focus on quality.
After a year, they moved from the college town of Ann Arbor to East Lansing, setting up in a 10’x12’ basement of a building and placing about 25 to 50 fliers around town. “We didn’t know we were doing this for the long term. We were just looking at tomorrow,” he admitted. Eventually, they moved to Lansing, about three miles from their first retail location. They now occupy 35,000 square feet.
‘Anything Fretted Instrument-Related’
They started with mostly guitars, banjos and mandolins, and those still comprise the majority of their inventory. With a folk music background, autoharps, violins and dulcimers were also added. Even though the store’s name might be “Elderly,” the majority of the inventory is new instruments. They carry several hundred brands and lots of helpful accessories. They seem to carry something for everyone: from student lines to intermediates to professional lines and vintage instruments in Martin, Gold Tone, Fender, Alvarez, Gretsch, Deering, Epiphone, Cordoba, Ramirez and Lanikai, to mention just a few. Elderly has something for everyone’s abilities.
1100 N. Washington
Lansing, MI 48906
Hours: 11-7 M-W; 11-9 Th.;
10-6 F & S
Online ordering service:
9-7 M-F; Sat. 9-5
Stan Werbin, President
Repair Shop Makes A Difference
Werbin said that having a good mix of inventory, including vintage, older and new instruments, along with superior customer service, differentiates them from competitors, as does their outstanding repair shop. Werbin knows that makes the difference. Elderly employs 10 technicians. Most have technical-school training. Because their emphasis is on quality, boxes are opened up and instruments are inspected. They are tweaked to make sure all instruments have an ease of playability. “It’s no darn good if it doesn’t play,” declared Werbin. “Receiving is our first line of defense.” After that, they pass items to the repair department, where nearly all inventory goes through a technician’s fine hands. He stated that many manufacturers today are setting them up much better than they used to back in the ’70s.
“We use a multi-pronged approach to the economic times,” explained Werbin. “We don’t need to spend money where we don’t need to spend money.” They tightened their belts, he said. They try to use their promotional e-mails and reach more Internet sales. They have individual sign-up categories depending on interest, or customers receive an e-mail special based on their buying habits, rather than blasting everyone with everything.
Elderly tries to support their local festivals and events, such as the Wheatland Music Festival, which has gone on for nearly 40 years. They have done everything from, in the beginning, setting up a booth to, now, paying for a full back-page ad. Werbin even performed in them, during his early years, on guitar and other instruments.
“In the ’70s, we called the ukulele the instrument of the ’80s,” he began. “In the ’80s, we called it the instrument of the ’90s. And, in the ’90s, we called it the instrument of the 21st century.” With a laugh, he added, “And, now, we are finally right!” He continued, “It’s great! On some level, people are reinventing the uke. There are many interesting new designs.” Elderly also has a line of banjo ukes, resonator ukes and tiples, as well as books and DVDs that teach ukulele on all three levels. This writer was impressed with almost 10 pages of ukulele products on their Web site.
40th Anniversary Instruments
In celebrating their 40th anniversary, and in conjunction with Martin Guitar, they have four models of 40th anniversary Martin guitars. They are selling 10 each. With such a limited run, this will make them a collector’s item. They also contracted with Lanikai to build 300 Tenor ukuleles for their anniversary this year. Keep your eye out for those ukes. You heard it here first!
Elderly has not had to deal with the competition of big-box stores locally, except for Best Buy. Werbin doesn’t think it’s serious competition, though. They already are strong competitors in the Internet sales market, with two-thirds of their building used for the mail-order business.
After their first year in business, Elderly discovered the NAMM organization. In 1973, they took off in their VW convertible, driving the 240 miles to their first NAMM show in Chicago. The VW broke down, but that didn’t stop “NAMM or Bust” Werbin. They stuck out their thumbs and hitchhiked the rest of the way! He has been a regular ever since the ’80s, sometimes participating in the seminars. (He likes the newer format, which is right on the show floor.) He travels the 2,200 miles to the annual show in Anaheim (by plane, not thumb) and, sometimes, travels the 500 miles for Summer NAMM, although he hasn’t been to the Nashville show for the last three years. He said the manufacturers were very happy with Winter NAMM, and he hopes it encourages more of them to display at the summer show.
Elderly will “keep on keepin’ on,” doing everything they have been doing for the last 40 years, because they’re doing it right!