Philly’s Vintage Instruments – A Lifelong Career Sparked by an Interest in ‘Old-Timey’ Instruments

by Eliahu Sussman • in
  • Retail
• Created: January 26, 2017

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For more than 40 years, Vintage Instruments, Inc. in Philadelphia has occupied a unique space in the area’s MI market. Currently located in a historic building on Broad Street in the City Center, the store has maintained an intimate, personalized approach to buying, selling, appraising and servicing high quality and vintage stringed instruments.

“We enjoy helping people,” says Fred Oster, the store’s founder and co-owner. He credits the establishment’s longevity to a laser-like focus on providing both personalized service and expertise. And that expertise is considerable: Oster is an internationally recognized authority on stringed and fretted instruments, in demand with auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s, and with over 20 appearances to his credit as an appraiser on PBS’s “Antiques Roadshow.” At Vintage Instruments, he makes the recipe for the store’s ongoing success throughout changing eras in retail sound simple: “We all concentrate on improving what we do, and doing what we do well even better.”

Growing up in the 1960s, it was assumed that Fred Oster was going to eventually become a lawyer. However, he began playing music at an early age and, while still in high school, started buying and selling guitars and banjos. Fascinated by “old-timey” guitar and banjo music, his initial foray into the musical instruments trade was motivated by his desire to upgrade the gear he was using himself. Eventually, he had the epiphany that his “hobby” could turn into something much bigger.

MMR: What prompted the founding of Vintage Instruments in 1974?

Fred Oster: My first guitar was a 1966 Guild F-30. In 1967 I bought my first Martin D- 28, new, for $289 (list $400). I’m sure my parents were horrified, but they figured there was no real danger, assuming I’d end up going to law school. Little did they know!

I stayed involved in the folk scene during college, working as one of the founders of a local folk music coffee house and a local folk festival. In the midst of filling out law school applications, I was struck by the realization that it was not what I wanted to do. At that point, my instrument hobby became an attractive option as a profession. That was 1974, and I started my first shop in the Chestnut Hill neighborhood of Philadelphia.

What are some of the important milestones in the store’s history?

In 1978, I moved the shop from Chestnut Hill to a larger and more centrally located space on Walnut Street, which is in the city center of Philadelphia. Since I had so much more room, over time, a number of local instrument makers became installed in the shop. This led to a really creative scene in which we all fed off of one another for ideas.

We used to have weekly shop meetings where we’d sit and talk about issues we shared, such as working with clients, or issues in our own area of expertise such as restoration of old ivory, or different methods for fixing top cracks. This collective of craftspeople included flute maker Michael Copeland, guitar builders Michael Menkevich and Mark Hauser, Uillean pipe maker Tim Britton, violin bow maker Elizabeth Shaak, and violinmakers Ben Ruth and Bob Childs. Not everyone was at the shop at the same time, but there were enough of us at any given time to make things pretty interesting. I don’t think any of us really thought much about what we were doing as a business. We were doing it to support ourselves and for the luxury of working with the instruments and the music we really enjoyed.

In part through these associations, the shop inventory began to diversify to include historic wind instruments and all sorts of early string instruments. In 1981, I was hired by Christie’s auction house as an appraiser, and I worked with them for over 20 years as a musical instruments consultant. My peers in the guitar business are sometimes surprised to see me in the New York suit-and-tie disguise I use as a violin expert.

We moved again in 1983 when I bought a Philadelphia brownstone on Pine Street that was built in 1860. It was a great place and we have incredible memories of the years in that terrific building.

How did you end up in your current location?

In 2007, we moved from the 1860 building we’d owned on Pine Street since 1983 to another historic building on Broad Street that was built in 1882. It’s a big (over 12,000 square feet) old feast of Aesthetic Movement design created by architect George Pearson for John Dundas and Alice Potter Lippincott. The building attracts quite a bit of attention and we now have a nice blog post about it on our website.

We are still a small staff with a larger collective around us. Violinmakers Sam Payton and John Thorell handle all of the violin restoration in the shop, and Steve Salchow takes care of the bows. We also sell the instruments they make. We’re really pleased to have Rachel Massey working as our assistant manager. In addition to being a talented violinist and budding guitar player, she’s very smart, has a great sense of humor and is wonderfully capable of overseeing our other helpers. Otherwise, Catherine Jacobs and I, as the shop owners, wear dozens of hats.

What are the most significant lines you carry?

Our emphasis has always been vintage, whether in guitars, banjos, mandolins, ukes, violins or anything else. As you can well imagine, that influences our choices of new brands to carry. They have to have the same integrity in terms of design, materials and build that we treasure in vintage instruments. Among those we’ve chosen for the shop are C.F. Martin and National Resophonic Guitars, Kevin Enoch and Ome Banjos, and Kamaka ukes. We have other brands, and some less expensive brands. We only sell what we feel good about selling. The NAMM Show has been very important over the years for keeping abreast of new manufacturers and product lines, as well as accessories that are useful to musicians.

Do you offer in-store lessons?

Philadelphia has so many well-established studios devoted exclusively to teaching, and we are happy referring people to them. In addition, the area has organizations such as the Philadelphia Folksong Society that can help connect people to teachers.

There are also teachers we know who we recommend to our customers. So, we don’t have a lesson service, but we do connect people to teachers all the time.

What’s been your strategy in staying relevant throughout changing retail trends, including online sales, challenges from big box stores, and so on?

Frankly, we’ve always been dedicated to doing well what we do, and that’s having expertise in the guitars, and really working one-on-one with people to help them find the instrument that gives them the greatest satisfaction for their needs and preferences. We enjoy helping people, which usually means getting to understand their needs, and helping them to know what options exist. This may sound simple, but it’s different for every person. It may be one of things that we can do better than an algorithm. Sometimes this takes us away from other things, like upgrading our website to make it more hip – but we’re working on that, too!

What’s your assessment of the MI market today?

The biggest naysayers out there are the ones who’ve been in the business the longest. Understandably, experience can breed a certain amount of pessimism. That’s probably some sort of genetic defense mechanism that aids in human survival.

They way we look at things, there are always ups and downs, but in the balance, all anyone can really say is that things just keep changing. That’s not such a bad thing, especially if, in the process, we all concentrate on improving what we do and doing what we do well even better.

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