Isn’t guitar shopping great? For someone truly afflicted with Guitar Acquisition Syndrome (GAS), few things are as exciting as entering a new guitar store, with all the possibility and potential encompassed in the front window. Sometimes absolute gems can be found in the smallest, humblest-looking establishments. Other times, well known stores with big names can simply produce disappointment – that is all part of the experience when one shops around! This occasional article will explore the many wonderful vintage guitar dealers out there and present an admittedly subjective view of the overall shopping experience.
First up is Lark Street Music in Teaneck, New Jersey, just minutes from downtown Manhattan. Lark Street Music is a ground level independent business in a busy commercial district and has a single front window full of vintage guitar advertisements and a few choice instruments. Upon entering, you realize the store is long and narrow and every available space is used to display the many various guitars.
Immediately on the right hand wall guitars and basses of various makes and vintage hang for your perusal. Here are vintage Fender basses, mid-1970s Rickenbackers, very cool Japanese imports from the mid-1970’s through the 1980’s, and other generally cool specimens. This front wall is a tasty mix of different styles, makes, and vintages. On the left hand is a low, artificial wall of amplifiers, mostly mid-vintage Marshall, Hiwatts, and other higher-power units, including vintage bass amplifiers.
This artificial wall creates an alcove behind which are some pure gems. Displayed on the walls around the built-in fireplace (a nice touch – and thankfully inoperable) are an eye catching collection of Gibson hollow bodies and semi-hollow bodies. On the wall is a beautiful 1965 ES-330, a 1962 ES-347, and other eye catching ES Gibsons. Also arranged in this small alcove are several vintage Fender Telecasters – 1950s blondes as well as a few custom color beauties.
Arranged with these vintage pieces are a few newer boutique-builder Tele clones of high quality. Available in the mix are a few vintage Strats. A peek at price tags places these instruments right in the middle range of prices for vintage gear – not too high but significant enough that one realizes these are the real deal instruments. This side of the alcove contains a few more amps – mostly the smaller Fenders and Voxes.
Hanging from the archways are many more guitars of various vintage and make. Wonderfully, here hangs a whole range of Gibson Les Paul Juniors – even a tenor model. Other collectible and odd-ball instruments, lap steels, and the ilk compete for space from the rafters – so many that one could easily overlook the real gems in the mix, like the very cool Fender Thinline Telecaster in Desert Sand hanging on the archway wall. Throw in a few mandolins, and the archway becomes a veritable garland of gear inviting you into the central body of the store.
The central section has a long glass case behind which proprietor Buzzy Levine conducts business. Also behind this counter are a few high-value guitars such as vintage burst Les Pauls and SGs. I even spot a clone of Clapton’s The Fool SG! Here hangs a few odd-ball cool instruments like a late 1960’s Non-Reverse Thunderbird bass. In the glass case are a few neat effects – both vintage and modern boutique variety. Though the selection is small, like most things in the shop, the quality is high and would appeal to many players.
On the right side of this room is the wall of choice electric archtops. Here are cool Epiphones and Gibsons from lower-end models to really cool gems, including Barney Kessels and Byrdlands. On the floor are several very nice vintage Fender amps and a few newer tube amp models. This serves as the primary area to plug in if you are interested in checking out any of the guitars.
Into the back third of the store and you’re in acoustic guitar land – my kind of place. Again, on the right wall hang mostly Gibson and Epiphones with a few other unique acoustic brands such as Grammer and Huss & Dalton. The left side wall contains the Martin variety. Hmmm…. do I go right for strumming or do I head left for picking? Left it is…. Here are a few very nice Martin models, including a new Bigsby model similar to Merle Travis’. On the wall are many gorgeous vintage Martins. On the top row is an appealing array of D-18s, from 1940 through 1960.
Knowing the shallowness of my bank account I opt for the “cheapest” of the group: the 1960 D-18. In moments I am happily picking away at a really good example of a vintage Martin. This one shows signs of playing but no abuse, some minor repairs but all original with simply a great bark and bite – just what I want in a D-18. Also on this wall are smaller-bodied Martins – the OOOs and OOs – and a few really cool other venerable American brands such as a Harmony Sovereign from the early 1960s. And where else can you find real Stella 12-string?
He’s also happy to share his opinions and biases and encourages me to check out other cool guitars of which he is particularly fond. First up is a simply wonderful 1955 Gibson SJ in a natural finish. While clearly not a Martin, this guitar is a real stand out in excellent but played condition with a super comfortable neck and bold and full voice. What fun!
Meanwhile, other customers roam the store, checking out cool guitars that strike their fancy. Unfortunately, Lark Street is a fairly small place, so battling guitar heroes might be a frequent event. Happily, most customers feel very comfortable in the environment and give each other room to explore. Many impromptu conversations sprout up between the clientele and the staff – giving an overall welcoming and homey feel to the shopping experience.
No one is interested in cutting heads and there is some genuinely good playing going on. Right on!
The staff seem to know that in order to really assess an amp, it needs to be played loudly. One young teen seems to be in the right place, as he puts an old Fender through its paces. This drowns out my explorations until the salesman takes me into the last part of the store – a good sized closed acoustic room – and shuts the door. In no time we are putting the SJ through it paces.
What a great guitar!
Soon we are joined by another customer who has brought a few of his own guitars to sell or trade. The salesman returns with another personal favorite – a 1952 J-185. This is a neat instrument but it has clearly been around the block and been repaired many times. Even still, this guitar is a gas to play… with a solid round voice and many years of music making left in it.
In no time, the salesman grabs a banjo and the three of us run through a series of bluegrass standards – real time fun that lets us fully enjoy these vintage gems. Clearly, Lark Street is a place that knows its guitars and its customers and allows for ample time to get to know an instrument before committing. The only problem is deciding which one should come home.
Knowing I can’t come near the market-prices of early 1950s Gibsons, I resume my inspections of other instruments. Overlooked on the way in is a 1978 Rickenbacker 4001 in original white finish. It’s clearly been around the block a few times and shows its wear.
Plugging it in shows that the electronics are all in working order but a thorough set up is clearly in order. Also, a previous owner painted lacey flowers all around the pickguard and truss rod-cover – remnants of the bass’ hippy past.
With bass in hand, it’s up to the counter to talk to Buzzy and do some haggling. He states that he promises he won’t get offended by offers… so haggling is gladly a part of the buying experience at Lark Street. Buzzy indulges my need to see if the truss rods on the Rick are functional and in no time the cover is off and we are checking the working action. All questions and concerns put to rest and Buzzy and I are conferring over price. Once agreed, I pay what I believe to be a very reasonable price for a late-70s Rick and I’m out the door.
All in all, what a great place for vintage gear of all stripes. I get to check out some real gems and I get to participate in a truly enjoyable activity: haggling over vintage gear and satisfying my GAS.
I can’t wait to go back to Lark Street and it gets put on the list of Vintage Guitar Stores to share with my friends.
Smaller shop with really eclectic selection
Knowledgeable and welcoming staff