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‘The Store that Ate Your Brain’ – Celebrating 60 Years of House of Guitars, Rochester, New York

Mike Lawson • Current IssueMay 2024Retail • May 5, 2024

Located in Rochester, New York, the House of Guitars is hailed as the “Largest Guitar Store in the World.” Established in 1964 by brothers Bruce and Armand Schaubroeck, the store’s humble beginnings trace back to their mother’s basement, quickly gaining renown as a hub for music, art, and culture.

In the wake of the Beatles’ American debut in 1964, Armand and Bruce seized the opportunity, transforming their mother’s basement into their inaugural store. Juggling day jobs with their newfound venture, the Schaubroeck brothers catered to a younger clientele, offering affordable guitars and encouraging hands-on interaction with the instruments. Bruce recalls the chaotic scene: “Mom would come home from work, totally exhausted both mentally and physically, and she’d see teenage kids all over her house and salesmen in three-piece suits with suitcases out; these sharks taking money from her babies. She hit a breaking point and threw everybody out.”

In the early 1970s, the brothers made a pivotal decision, acquiring a historic building in Irondequoit, formerly known as the Grange Hall. This early 20th-century structure had served as a focal point for the local farming community, hosting various social activities. It would prove to be a strategic move for the Schaubroeck brothers, establishing a permanent home for the House of Guitars.

Pioneering their reputation, the House of Guitars gained early credibility by stocking the same instruments played by the Beatles before any other retailer. Armand Schaubroeck recounts, “When the Beatles came to America, we knew what they were playing. We knew that George Harrison played a Gretsch Country Gentleman and Vox Amps that weren’t in the United States yet. I made an order to Vox in England, and they shipped them to us. So, we had the first Vox amps that came into the United States.”

Today, the House of Guitars boasts an extensive inventory of new, used, and vintage guitars showcased across multiple levels. The upper floors feature drums, keyboards, and an in-house repair shop, Robinson Kustom Repair. Backrooms house percussion, amplification, PA equipment, and accessories, while a spacious and overloaded warehouse offers CDs, vinyl, DVDs, and band merch. Adorned with decades of memorabilia, the store resembles a museum of music history rather than a conventional retail space. Additionally, the store operates its own music school, offering daily lessons across various instruments.

Renowned as a haven for professional musicians, the House of Guitars has welcomed esteemed acts such as Aerosmith, Ozzy Osbourne, Cheap Trick, and Metallica, solidifying its status as a landmark in the music industry.

I consider you guys pioneers in MI retail. Tell me about when you guys started out in your mom’s house. What were you selling those early years?

Armand: We had a lot of used and we had Premier guitars, Hagstrom guitars, and a lot of low end, you know, like, all the brands on the low end. But also, bands are leaving stuff on consignment, like Fenders and Gibsons. And we were also buying ’em used, you know. Like, the cellar was actually full of guitars, more than other stores had, you know, even though we were in the basement. But the regular stores were totally different. They were like jewelry stores back then. I’m talking 1964. It was kind of “look, but don’t touch.” And if a young person went into the store, they weren’t allowed to even play the guitar. They’d say, “Come back with your parents.” Then still, they didn’t let ’em play the guitar. They put it in the glass case, and there was a little rug on the case, a glass case, and they’d lay the guitar there, and you can kinda look at it, where, in my basement, there was kids, all over, through big amps, just blasting away all around the whole cellar. And we started discounting because we had no upkeep in the store. You know, it was like, my mother was giving us rent-free basement, you know? And it just blew up. It was crazy.

And the music stores, like, that were established, they only had a few guitars, and they wouldn’t take trade-ins. They felt the trade-ins made the new guitars look bad. But we encouraged the trade-ins, and then we’d have people constantly trading up, that were in bands. But when we were in the basement, we also made the Vox amp connection in England. And I ordered a whole bunch of Vox amps for a band that was trying to be like a Beatle band, called The Group, Limited, back in the ’60s. And they were before Thomas Organ distributed them in the United States, so they all came, but with the wrong voltage, because they were European voltage, and we had to get converters for all of them for the bands could use them.

How old were you guys when you were doing this?

Armand: I think I was 20. Twenty. I was 19 or 20.

 

And you’re making long-distance calls to England, at 20 years old in the ’60s, to track down Vox amps from the supplier.

Armand: Yep.

Bruce: Jennings Musical Instrument Company.

What was the first big line that you were an authorized dealer for?

Armand: Epiphone, when it was American. Back when Epiphone was made by Gibson in the same Gibson factories. And they had a equivalent guitar to every Gibson, you know. Like, they had the Epiphone solid bodies, fretless wonders, and they had the Beatle guitar, the Casino, like, the 330 Gibson.

 

So, Epiphone was your first real line.

Armand: Well, Hofner before that.

Bruce: Guild. Yeah. Hofner, Guild, Epiphone, probably Gretsch, all are similar within the same year, I think.

What were some of the first jobber lines that you got in for strings and accessories?

Armand: There was a lot of ’em, actually. They came to my house to get orders. I think it was Charlie Eddie was with one of the companies. He was a rep back then. And he always enjoyed it because we’d get him a cup of coffee and he’d sit, you know, like, in a couch. And the TV be on, and he’d be drinking coffee with his couch with his order book. And he said, “This is the way to do business,” you know?

You guys crack me up. I love the store. How many locations have you been in, from your mom’s cellar to where you are today on Titus?

Armand: We had two on Clinton Avenue, some in some tough sections, because we couldn’t afford the town we were in right away, you know. And we built up. And then we were in Charlotte, near Lake Ontario. And then we finally opened a small store near where we are right now. And then we expanded in the small store, and we rented, or leased, a whole top building of a grocery store and a shoe store. But we had the whole top, because our store on Titus was lean and long. But, you know, it had no real width to it. But guitars were stacked on both sides, and the amps were down the middle.

Then we expanded with a grocery store next to us. He couldn’t afford the rent, so he put up a concrete wall, and then we put all the amps in an amp building in the back of his. But, you know, we were bringing the public right there because it was connected to our building now, and he built a cement wall to keep it separate.

So, when did you land on Titus, and how long have you been in that location?

Armand: Okay. Titus was that location too, but we had money down around 1970 on the Grange Hall. It’s the Farmer’s Grange Hall and all the farmers built the building together. And then on the second floor, they’d have the mason meetings, where there were four platforms for the four, for east, west, north, south. And they used to sit on the platforms, with chairs with animal legs. And they, you know, like, goats’ legs.

The first time I came into your store and I do the whole tour, I’m like, “This is the Winchester House of Guitars.” Like, they just keep adding a room here and a space there, and a space… “Oh, down here is a basement with a studio, and there’s…” You must have started in that front room, and then kept adding, eventually to get to the CD room in the back. Is that what happened?

Armand: We kept buying…

Bruce: Yeah, exactly. Yes.

Armand: We kept buying buildings, adding on buildings that we could connect the front building to. But each time we did it, we were taking a big business risk, because you have to double your income when you add on another big building, which a lot of people expanding quick don’t think about that they have to actually take in twice as much, or a lot of people go out by expanding. But we kind of knew what we were doing, you know?

Outside of George Gruhn’s or Walter Carter’s stores, you have one of the most impressive collections of vintage used instruments of any store I’ve been in.

Armand: That’s what attracts the national bands in the House of Guitars, because they get new ones for free, but they buy vintage. And then, you know, the government lets ’em depreciate it a little bit each year, whatever.

But I understand that you guys don’t really sell the vintage stuff?

Armand: We don’t like to. But if they trade in something vintage… Like, we had one that traded in a D’Angelico New Yorker for a Segovia Ramirez classical guitar. Now, that’s what we like. Because even if they paid $15,000 or something, what new can I buy that would be as good? I can’t find anything, you know?

So, the only way I’m getting stuff off the top shelf is if I bring in something really cool to replace it with?

Armand: That’s right. That’s the way we like to do it. Also, the Japanese were going across the country, buying up all the used, and they bought a couple things from us and said, “How much for all?” And we said, “No, that’s enough. That’s all you’re gonna buy.” Very common for the national acts to come in all the time… Like, Joe Bonamassa bought a vintage Precision bass and a vintage Strat. But he visited it many times before he made up his mind, you know.

Did he have to swap something out, or were you just happy selling it to him to get the story?

Armand: No. In his case, we just did it. He’s a very nice person. And when he was young, about 14, 15 years old, his dad used to drive him here, and he’d play on our front stage on Saturdays and do free shows. So, we owe him a little, you know what I mean?

It’s not just the gear, it’s not just the crazy store and the experience of walking in there. It’s the marketing, the merchandise. You guys have come up with a unique look and feel, with your cartoons, and the magazine that you do, and the ads you put out, your social media. That’s very organic.

Armand: Yeah. Thank you. Thanks for noticing.

It takes more than cool stuff and marketing to last 60 years, what makes HoG so special to your customers?

Bruce: Well, I look at it like, we try super hard to make sure everybody leaves happy. If they walk in with, like, maybe they’re not really into being a player, or whatever their niche is, they gotta be somewhat interested in music. So, we try to figure out, you know, what they like, and we kinda, like, gear ’em right into that. But everybody that walks in has to leave happy, or we kind of failed. So, we’ll spend the time and, you know, whatever it takes, whether they buy or whether they not, they’re gonna leave happy, and talking about the store. What their feelings are when they walk in, I think it differs like crazy. Some people love it immediately if they’re musicians and, you know, they’re music buyers or vinyl lovers, I mean, the same feeling. But we try to find something in their music needs for whatever who it is.

You started out simultaneously with recorded music and products. When did you start getting into the lesson side of things?

Armand: Right away. Even when we were in the cellar of my mother’s house, we were hooked up with a friend of mine from high school, Jerry Porter, who became the first artist on our Mirror Records. And he would teach at his house, and we had a thing going back and forth. So, it was right away. Also, Bruce and me would even be teachers, teaching stuff to students. They’re mostly learning our songs, but… They’re going around playing our songs, that we wrote!

It is almost hard to find words to tell somebody about the HoG experience. How you describe what I can’t describe?

Armand: We often give them tours. Like, we got a pair of Jimi Hendrix’s pants that he left at a Moody Blues party. We have a John Lennon military jacket and sweater. We got a pair of Elvis Presley’s pants he only used when he rode his motorcycle around Graceland. We got a flute signed by Jethro Tull. We got a fiddle signed by Charlie Daniels. We got a saxophone signed by President Bill Clinton. And then we got original drawings and plastic cells that were used to make the Beatles “Yellow Submarine” movie. We got autographed pictures and platinum records. We won a platinum record for Janet Jackson “Rhythm Nation.” And she signed the glass on it. And it was awarded to House of Guitars. And we got a Bruce Springsteen platinum record. Bruce signed the red label on it, but it was awarded to House of Guitars. And when they hand them to us, it’s kind of funny. They go, “How many stores are in your chain? Because you outsold the Northeast?” And I go, “We just got one store.” And they gave us a platinum for Beatles Sergeant Pepper. It was the same thing. “How many stores in your chain?” You know?

Everything. If it’s music, we got it.

Take me back early, early before the store started. You guys, both musicians, both guitar players, obviously?

Armand: Back then, Bruce was a drummer. We had a band called The Church Mice, and he played drums, and I played electric guitar. We released a 45, on the House of Guitars label. And at the time, Bruce was still in high school, and he made the cover in his shop class for it. Now it’s a collectible, selling for about, you know, $300.

Bruce, I didn’t know the pecking order. You’re the baby brother?

Armand: No, he’s second. There’s another brother, Blaine, used to be here, but he retired, and he’s the youngest.

So, there are actually three of you. Wow. Your poor mother. Is she a saint yet? Has she been sainted?

Armand: Oh, we put her through… She’d come home for work and she’d hear bands blasting all over in her basement all the time.

But she was cool with it.

Armand: Not really. Sometimes she’d get mad and lose it, you know. But she was a good person. She wanted to see us be successful. She just wasn’t sure. She didn’t have the confidence in us, I don’t think. Often, in the early days of House of Guitars, we’d have to pretend we weren’t the owners, you know what I mean? Because they didn’t like buying from somebody young. You know, the kids would bring their dads in when it was time to pay. But usually, the fathers didn’t know which ones were good. The kid did, you know? He’s playing them. He’s playing them all. And he’d be in after school every day trying something different to… So, he tried them all, you know. Then he’d pick out something, and then his father come and try to help them. But, you know, he really wasn’t that much of a help because he kid could play some, you know?

How many lines do you guys carry now?

Armand: I think we got almost everything.

Bruce: Yeah. I don’t think there’s a line we don’t have.

I always leave HoG feeling good.

Armand: Yeah.

Bruce: That’s the mission. Yeah.

Armand: Yeah. A lot of our customers have been shopping here so long that they’re really friends. I mean, they are friends. You know, they’ve been shopping here for 40 years, or 50 years, or some 60 years, you know?

So, 60 years. Are you guys gonna retire and hand it over to the family at some point? Or are you gonna drop dead in that store?

Bruce: Hell, yeah. We’re going for another 60 years.

Armand: Bruce and me both have two sons working here that will probably take over. They’ve been working here a long time. They’re already like us. It’s a lot of family and close friends. Like, my sister is on the register up front, and she’s also doing payroll and a lot of important duties. She used to be, like, an English teacher at the DeSales High School, and she was being prepped up to be vice principal. And her husband was principal. But she likes being with the family, you know.

It’s been a family business from day one. Did your mother make it long enough to see the payoff for you?

Bruce: The moment we kind of opened up the new store, this building that you’ve seen, I think she died shortly after that. She also got to see the first building.

Armand: I’m glad about that, because she got to see us successful, you know?

House of Guitars is a uniquely American success story and MMR is honored to salute them on their milestone 60th Anniversary! I absolutely adore the place and there will never be a trip to Rochester, I don’t care how bad the weather is, that I don’t make my way to House of Guitars.

houseofguitars.com

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