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Wednesday, April 11,2012

Doing things differently

An opening-night documentary profiles a local success story: Elderly Instruments

by Rich Tupica

Following Elderly Instruments purchasing manager Ray Aleshire through the “employees only” area in the level below the showroom one quickly realizes: this isn’t a run-of-the-mill guitar shop.

Heading toward his office, Aleshire works his way through the labyrinth of shelving units bursting with stock, while he passes by a swarm of fellow employees, all busy filling Internet orders for rare vintage guitars, or perhaps tracking down an item for a customer waiting upstairs. 

Either way, the hustle and bustle of the store inspired veteran filmmaker Bob Albers to make “Elderly Instruments: All Things Strings,” a 60-minute documentary about the 35,000 square-foot shop located in a large brick building on the edge of Old Town and its expert employees, some of whom are more eccentric than others. It premieres Thursday at the Capital City Film Festival at the Lansing Center.

“Musicians tend to fit in better here and musicians tend to have a wide range of personality quirks,” said Aleshire, who’s also the vocalist and harmonica player in Those Delta Rhythm Kings, a veteran jump blues outfit. “Our staff runs the whole gamut. There are all kinds here, a lot of extremes and weird senses of humor. Songwriting fosters that to some extent, you have to look at the world in a different way.”

“Doing things differently” is likely the key to the store’s success. Stan Werbin, Elderly Instruments´ owner, cofounded the store in 1972 when he was 25 years old and it steadily became a fixture in the music scene, mainly in the acoustic/folk sect. Fast forward 40 years and its grassroots ideals are still intact, even with a customer list that includes superstars like Vince Gill, John Mayer, Elvis Costello and members of Metallica and R.E.M. 

Albers, who also teaches film and documentary classes at Michigan State University, produced and directed the documentary over a three-year period, starting in March 2009 — with help from 15 Michigan State University students, including Brad Corlett, the coproducer and principal editor. Albers said he wanted to show viewers what a “magical place” the store is. 

“I wanted to capture the feel of the place,” Albers said. “When you walk in, there’s a feeling of welcoming and you can pick up any instrument, from a couple hundred dollars to $10,000 or $12,000. That’s really unusual, and kind of amazing. 

“I also wanted to be sure that the source of this place, which is the owner Stan Werbin, came across as both a sort of funky guy who never came out of the ‘60s and this very serious businessman who had a clear concept of what he wanted to do with the store, he’s incredibly successful,” Albers added.  

Customers have always had the ability to walk in and nonchalantly pick up and play a $7,000 guitar or a $200 bass at Elderly — a “kid in a candy shop” vibe that’s helped to build its local reputation, not to mention Werbin’s foresight to jump on Internet sales during the web’s genesis. 

Werbin said today at least 75 percent of his business is accrued from online sales made from across the globe. The store first began to branch out far beyond Lansing back in 1975, the first year it printed a mail-order catalog. 

But it was no doubt the 1990s Internet boom that solidified Elderly Instruments as an international leader in vintage fretted and stringed instruments, including banjos, electric guitars, mandolins, ukuleles, steel guitars and all the accessories that go along with them.  

“The Internet changed everything. We still have a print catalog, but we used to print about four or five a year and send them out,” Werbin said. “Now we print one a year and call it good, because really the idea is to get people to the website; there are no space constraints.”

So what does Elderly’s cofounder think of “Elderly Instruments: All Things Strings”?

“I liked it,” Werbin said. “The interesting thing is that we gave them no direction at all. We said, ‘Do what you want.’ Also, there are people who have worked here for over 30 years and they’re not in it. But we have 75 or 80 people working in the store, so they weren’t going to have everybody in it no matter what. 

“And that wasn’t their plan anyway,” he added. “I think their plan was to get a slice of the existence of Elderly Instruments.”  

Being a local musician and longtime Elderly employee, Aleshire said the store has been around for so long many folks view it as a usual part of the music community, rather than a local gem.

“A lot of people in town take Elderly for granted because they’ve grown up around it — musicians included,” Aleshire said. “But if you’ve ever lived somewhere else and gone to music stores in other places there’s really no other place like us. 

“It’s the number of products; it’s our openness to playing the instruments that are here, no matter who you are. It’s kind of a combination: learning center, cultural center, intellectual and interchange for musical ideas.”

‘Elderly Instruments: All Things Strings’

Capital City Film Festival

7 p.m. Thursday, April 12

Lansing Center, 333 E. Michigan Ave., Lansing

$5

capitalcityfilmfest.com

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