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Mountain Home Magazine

Finding Your Musical Partner

Dec 01, 2019 02:20PM
by Dave Milano


Within seconds of the first time I stepped into Ithaca Guitar Works, I was smitten. The object of my attention, my personal objet d’amour, was a Gibson L4, shimmering like a Hollywood starlet among the rows and rows of neatly displayed guitars, beckoning, flirting, propositioning. I gazed lovingly at its brilliant polished red top, golden humbucker pickups, iconic Gibson slanted fret markers. Floating nearer as if by magnetism, I raised a hand to touch its fabulous deco tailpiece, and then, on the very edge of the clinch, came a familiar tug at my elbow—my wife, wearing her seen-it-all-before expression, this time tinged with a hint of not-again.

So it goes in a real nice guitar shop like Ithaca Guitar Works. There’s invariably something special there, for just about any player—bare beginner to seasoned pro, traditional folkie to heavy metal banger. I know. Each of my trips to the store has recalled that first infatuation, generally by dint of another new beloved. Ithaca Guitar Works makes it easy to fall in love.

Because of its inherent charisma, Ithaca Guitar Works might have become a dangerous joint, a place where pretty faces take unwitting customers for a ride while the true blue companions sit quietly unnoticed in the background. It didn’t, and the reasons why are the inside story of Ithaca Guitar Works.

Chris Broadwell, Ithaca Guitar Works owner for thirty-eight of the shop’s fifty-year existence, specializes in creating happy musical relationships. He is clearly more interested in the long and happy sort of liaison than the fleeting fiery sort. Undoubtedly that’s one of the reasons the shop has been able to stay hale and hearty amid challenging economic conditions and burgeoning big-box-store competition.

How does Chris do it? In discussing the store’s operations, he says he “curates,” which at first I take to mean agreeable stock management—proper, effective merchandise selection and presentation. He does mean that, but that’s not all, not even half. Chris curates his clientele also, by listening and learning, and then doing his best to make sure every customer leaves the store with what they need and want, rather than just want. A retail rendition of advice and consent. Handy in a guitar shop where stormy affairs with comely but ill-fitting or impudent instruments could be routine. (True story: Two of Chris’ sons, Ash and Rylan, work full time in the store. Ash once talked me out of a rather expensive DI Box—a small act of charity forever endearing Ash and the store to me.) You can visit secure in the knowledge that the staff will see you as more than an opportunity to rack up another sale. And whether you make a purchase or not, you will likely leave better educated, and less a stranger, than when you arrived.

Guitar shopping can be positively overwhelming. It’s an ever shifting market, endlessly diverse, always evolving, and the component parts, especially the electronics, can be maddeningly complicated. Chris notes “you can’t be everything to everyone.” An understatement. Manufactured and custom, foreign and domestic, acoustic, electric, acoustic-electric, vintage, used and new, guitars, basses, ukuleles, mandolins, resonators, banjos, amplifiers, effects boxes, strings, accessories...beyond counting. The venerable Fender Stratocaster stands as a prime example. The Strat has been tweaked relentlessly since its introduction in 1954 to the point where there is no reliable record of all its iterations. As of this writing, Fender offers fifty-six different Stratocaster models brand new. The wise shopper will be grateful for unbiased, expert help. Count on the Broadwells for that. They know their way around the business, and more important, they understand that musical instruments are, at best, not mere tools, but partners and collaborators in imagination, inspiration, and growth. Worthy of careful thought and consideration.

After you and the Broadwells have completed that due diligence, maybe you will be lucky enough to exit Ithaca Guitar Works with both a happy and acquiescent wife and, say, for the sake of delineation, a Gibson L4 CES with mahogany back and sides, in wine, with classic ’57 pickups and a rosewood fretboard. If so, you are in for many satisfying, productive, even joyous hours. Just what Chris Broadwell and his sons hope for.

Location, Location, Location

Ithaca Guitar Works is tucked neatly into the corner of the Dewitt Mall, on the east side of Cayuga Street between Buffalo and Seneca, in downtown Ithaca, a stone’s throw from The Commons. Chris couldn’t be happier with the location—in fact, he considers the building one of the cornerstones of his success. Chris says that the Mall enterprises are diverse and popular, and the continual walk-through traffic for dining, shopping, offices, studios, and apartments strengthens everyone’s customer base. A fine ending for a building that almost wasn’t.

The Dewitt Mall (thedewittmall.com) began its long life in 1915 as Ithaca High School, built after the original 1885 high school burned in 1912. Forty-five years of graduates later, its use shifted to junior high, and then, in 1970, the school district deemed the building outmoded, and abandoned it in favor of more modern fare. The pattern of urban renewal of the time was to raze the old and build new; suddenly the grand brick stronghold was facing the wrecking ball. That is until architect William Downing offered to buy the old building (at the bargain price of $20,000) to convert into retail, office, and apartment spaces. The school board agreed, Downing followed through, and with a new name and new purposes the Ithaca landmark was saved. The Dewitt Mall remains today a model of economically successful adaptive reuse.

Start your musical relationship with Ithaca Guitar Works at 215 N. Cayuga Street, call (607) 272-2602, or visit guitarworks.com.