Carl Grefenstette didn’t have a business plan, hadn’t done a market study and didn’t consider the advantages of location when he rented a tiny storefront on Liberty Avenue in Bloomfield with his collection of five guitars and a $5,000 loan in 1979.
He knew he didn’t want to teach high school math anymore and that he ought to do what he loved. What he loved was guitars — looking at them, handling them, talking about them, buying them and selling them.
The logical extension of his passion became Pittsburgh Guitars, a store that since moved and has become an institution at 1305 E. Carson St., South Side.
After almost 33 years, Mr. Grefenstette said the store, which has afforded him and four employees a living, needs a boost from someone who can respond to technology, “which is getting faster as I’m slowing down.”
He found his successor in John Bechtold, 47, a 10-year employee who bought a guitar at the store when he was 13. He bought the store in November.
“I was not going to sell to a stranger,” Mr. Grefenstette said. “This was such a personal part of my life. I knew John was a good match. He has the smarts and the passion.”
Asked if he thinks passion is one reason for the store’s longevity, he said without pause, “Yes.”
“This store has existed, and survived, solely on the love of guitars and music,” he said. “I always say I was never a salesman. The guitars sell themselves.”
When his business was young, he said, “a guy from a shop down the street came in one day and said: ‘A store that sells only guitars? Seriously, what’s this a front for?’ ”
The Bloomfield store was tiny with just Mr. Grefenstette on staff; the current location has an upstairs with several classrooms and a shop where Scott Johnson makes repairs. Sam Matthews and Betsy Gerson staff the store with Mr. Bechtold.
“I’m glad John bought the business because he’s like me,” said Mr. Matthews. “He bought his first guitars here. I’ve been buying here since the 1980s.”
Ms. Gerson, who also plays guitar, got into Mr. Grefenstette’s circle when she was a roadie for his band the Flashcats in the ’80s. “I was a bartender at the time and I wanted to be a Beatle,” she said.
“We’re all music geeks,” said Mr. Matthews.
Mr. Grefenstette was 12 when the magic started. “I can pinpoint the date: Feb. 9, 1964 … when The Beatles played on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show.’
“A lot of people said it looked like a good way to get girls, but I wasn’t thinking about that yet. It just looked like fun. And as I saw more pictures of the Beatles, I began to notice their guitars and became interested in how they were different than everyone else’s.
“Paul [McCartney] was using a Hofner bass, an inexpensive German bass he bought when they played there. John [Lennon] was using a three-quarter scale Rickenbacker that nobody else was using. George [Harrison] had a Gretsch Country Gentleman, which guys like Chet Atkins used but not many rock and rollers.
“Their guitars by happenstance helped define their sound.”
He began collecting guitars in 1973 when he paid $175 for a white 1972 Telecaster like the one Ray Davies of the Kinks played. When Ray Davies walked into the store last month, it was a goosebump moment, he said. He had just sold the business to Mr. Bechtold.
“I thought, ‘Wow, this was meant to be,’” he said. “Full circle.”
Mr. Grefenstette said he wishes he had the white Telecaster back. But there was a 1968 Gibson 335 that came along and someone offered $185 for the Telecaster. “I thought, ‘Wow, a $10 profit!’
“They’re fun to buy and to sell,” he said, adding that to be able to buy another you had to sell one. “That was before I realized that you can’t have too many guitars.”
Mr. Bechtold, who plays in the band The Elliotts, found the magic around age 9, lip-synching to songs while strumming a broom or a hockey stick.
“I’ve done a lot of jobs I didn’t like a lot,” he said. “I sold hydraulic equipment and I’d go home thinking about music, playing in bands, loving guitars.”
One day 10 years ago, he got one of the emails Mr. Grefenstette sends to customers. “It said, ‘We’re looking for somebody.’ I ran down there the next day.”
Guitar lovers are a great niche market with tremendous range, he said. The store has seen that range, from the stratosphere of rock stars to the kids who hope to emulate them.
The Stone Temple Pilots visit the store each time they have a gig in the area; Dean DeLeo of that band bought a Les Paul at the store. Folk-rocker Steve Earle has stopped in. So has the late John Entwistle of the Who, actor Russell Crowe and Ray Davies more than once.
Mr. Crowe was in the store when a kid was trying out a banjo, Mr. Bechtold said. “The kid wanted to buy it but said he couldn’t afford it.” The banjo was $400. “Russell Crowe paid for it.”
The famous are fun to see, but it’s the regular Joes who make the store hum: Professional musicians you’ve never heard of, parents buying their kids their first guitars, people who need repairs, collectors, guitar students and aficionados who walk in and say, “I just want to look,’” said Mr. Grefenstette.
“It’s not so much a store as a lifestyle,” said John Alexander of Cranberry, a store regular who plays and collects guitars.
Steve McAuley of Bethel Park started taking lessons about two years ago at the store and bought his most recent guitar there. He said he goes sometimes just to hang out.
Tim Hadley of Baldwin has been a customer since the mid-80s, when he was playing regular weekend gigs in a New Wave band Jetset.
“It became more social than anything,” he said. “I would go pretty much every Friday afternoon to see what was new and to talk about guitars.”
He said he expects the change in ownership to be seamless. “I was drawn to the store because of Carl’s knowledge and passion about guitars. John is cut from the same cloth.”
On the store’s Facebook page, guitarist Rob James of The Clarks, a local rock and roll band, wrote to Mr. Bechtold: “Can’t think of a better guy to take over the helm of a Pittsburgh institution. Carl picked the right guy to maintain the vibe and take it into the future.”
First published on December 5, 2011 at 12:00 am