It would be easy to say that the first thing I notice when I walk into the relatively dimly lit Real Guitars, tucked away on a tree-lined Lafayette Street just off of Mission Street, is, the guitars. Rare beauties, unusual axes, and historic relics. Yes and no. I’ve made many trips to bigger, seemingly more advanced music centers to pick up the kind of modern gear you’re not likely to find at Real Guitars. In those experiences, the sheer number of marketing schemes and sale posters and tickets, the aggressive nature of the salespeople, was simply overwhelming. Making a good choice suddenly felt riddled with anxiety, the value and story of the guitars lost in all the marketing and displays. The feeling of anticipation I’d left the house with, about adding something beautiful to my arsenal to create a more distinct sound, to find a voice, ended up somewhat suffocated within the muddy mechanism of high powered retail muscle. Initially inspired visits to places like these often deteriorate into a hustled moment to do some quick business – do some research about what you need before you go, and when you get there, locate the item and get out with quiet speed. This isn’t at all the case at Real Guitars. There, it really is all about the sound and beauty of the instruments, and the right amps to help you find each guitar’s sweet spot.
Owner Chris Cobb opened Real Guitars back in 1986 with partner Ben Levin, making it San Francisco’s oldest vintage guitar store. And, unlike some shops, another thing that impressed me was that is was relatively quiet. No “Stairway To Heaven”solos blasting across the room here. When I popped in most recently, a client was quietly plucking away on Chris’s newest, most prized acquisition – a pristine, cream-colored 1961 Gibson Les Paul with an ebony fretboard and the body of an SG. Chris softly explained a little of the guitar’s history, which has an asking price of $17,000. The piece is truly a work of art. But this is certainly at the very high end of their stock list, and not even a true reflection of its value. The owners have had to take into consideration the sputtering economy, and this has dropped the cost of their merchandise considerably. “In terms of us buying things to sell for resale, things have really changed because the economy’s really collapsed. This Les Paul, for example, would have probably, in 2006, been worth like up close to $40,000,” Chris said. For a business owner, this translates into being quite a bit more conservative when buying for the store. “That’s how were keeping our doors open, too. We’ve been here in the same location for 26 years now. You see how incredibly packed we are right now. I do the best I can to not buy pieces of crap. We definitely have a few guitars that are icons of the era.” Indeed. As I scanned the walls and floors, I was the veritable kid in a candy shop – mandolins, a beautiful Fender amp, a custom-made 5-string bass by Ransom, hollow body electrics, slide guitars, old school bass amplifiers, acoustics from the 1930′s. All beautifully restored, and allowed to speak for themselves among the drab walls free of decorations and sales lingo. And you won’t find Chris hovering over you pushing you to buy anything, so you can really sit with the guitar to see if it feels right for you. As Chris put it, “Nah, I just like to let people come in and do their thing.” Nice.
Another beautiful aspect of Real Guitars is that the back half of the store is a repair shop owned by local cult favorite Gary Brawer. You can spend the time waiting for your guitar to be tuned up checking out some of the beauties just behind you, and maybe even fall in love with your next 6-string. “We’re a separate business than the repair shop. People going there for repairs see everything that’s for sale, and that’s really helpful,” Chris told me. I, for one, hope to see the economy give back to places like Real Guitars. My experiences there have always been authentic and inspiring. Because, while the place may not light up on the outside like blowout sale fireworks, it has a humble, knowing heart at the center, quietly throbbing… but just loud enough that you can hear it beneath the vintage amps buzzing with the crisp sounds of calloused fingers sliding down silky, steel strings.
Visit Real Guitars at 15 Lafayette Street and be sure to download StoreSnaps onto your iPhone so you can keep up to date with their info and products.