In 30-plus years of business, Retro Music in Keene has seen a number of trends. Some have come into style and then passed out again, but others, like matching a collector with a guitar to fit their passion or pairing a new player with their first guitar, never goes out of style.
And through it all, Jeff Firestone, the owner of Retro Music, has been along for the ride.
“I’ve been a guitar player for my whole life,” Firestone recalled. “In the ‘80s I was working in a music shop in Brattleboro that expanded over to Keene so I did that for a few years before saying, ‘I can do this myself,’ and I have been here ever since.”
It was 1988 when Retro Music first opened up shop. Firestone says the store itself pretty much looks just as it did then, although his sales channels have changed. In the late ‘90s, Retro Music was among early brick-and-mortar stores to realize the power of online sales and began selling via e-commerce.
For a while, that really took off, and in particular, international sales grew. But a regulation prohibiting the shipment of certain materials such as rosewood, which many guitars are made of, outside the country stemmed that sales channel.
“We go up and down over the years. Music styles change, but lately it has been very weird as online sales have been slow and we have been very busy in the store,” Firestone said.
One staple of Retro Music is the commitment to dealing only in used guitars, including both acoustic and electric models, and amplifiers. At first, Firestone would seek out inventory or trade with other music shops, but now, with an established reputation, the overwhelming majority of what is for sale will “walk in the door,” he said
Some pieces come from customers looking to trade in one guitar for another, while others arrive via folks looking to offload a guitar that isn’t played anymore or was found in an attic or basement as an abandoned instrument.
Once on-site, the staff at Retro Music goes over the guitar, sets it up, cleans it up and restrings it. Many of the electric models are repaired on-site, if needed, while the acoustic ones are sent to one of three area luthiers, who specialize in reconditioning stringed instruments.
After that, the guitars look for a new home. Much of the decision making in selecting a new guitar, according to Firestone, is personal taste and opinion, and he always encourages choosing a guitar “because you like it.”
“The nature of guitars is that you can play 20 identical guitars and you might find three that you like,” he said. “They are that different.
“When someone comes in the door and is a total beginner, I say two things: The guitar needs to hold a tune and be easy to play. You don’t want to fight the guitar as you are learning,” Firestone said. “For more experienced players, the guitar they pick varies based on the type of music they like to play.
“Others are collectors and are looking for condition and originality, meaning there have been no changes to it.”
Firestone said he has seen an occasional famous person in the store to sell and over the years he has come to know which customers will be especially interested when a special guitar comes through the door and who he should call to let know of the acquisition.
He lauded many of his customers as loyal and noted the opportunity to serve not only his original customers from the 1980s, but now their children and in some cases, grandchildren. These customers help sustain the store through the ups and downs.
“Some days are great, but then you have the tough times,” Firestone said. “It’s always a roller coaster and I will never get rich doing this. Sometimes the cash flow dries up and sometimes people throw $100 bills at you.
“The most expensive guitar we ever sold was $35,000 and went to Japan, but we do have some as inexpensive as $70 to $100.”
Perhaps the biggest indicator of why Retro Music remains a Keene staple is that the thrill and the love for the guitars still exists for Firestone.
“The best part of what I do is when something cool walks through the door. I’ve still got it bad and have 20 guitars at home,” Firestone said laughing. “I really enjoy when something rare or unusual walks in.
“Someday I would love to retire and play guitars, but I really don’t know. I’ll probably keep doing this rather than playing, I don’t know how to do anything else.”
Retro Music is at 38 Washington St. in Keene and can be reached at 357-9732 or email@example.com. To learn more or to browse the inventory, visit retroguitar.com or find “Retromusic” on Facebook.