Extended Solo – The Guitar Stop
Jeanne Oster was 10 years old when she began working at her father’s Cambridge shop, then located in the working class melting pot neighborhood of Central Square. As customers clamored into the tiny store full of disemboweled electronics, orphaned guitars, and forms for insurance policies, she’d call out, “Can I help you?” It would take them a few moments before they could spot her eyes peeking out at them from over the sales counter. She’d spend nights plucking out new melodies on guitars that had come into the shop recently – a Martin or maybe a Guild M-20 – until her dad found a customer for them.
The neighborhood has since changed and Oster’s shop has moved locations up Massachusetts Avenue a few times, but her presence in the store and an obsession with guitars have remained the same. The Guitar Stop, as it’s been known ever since Oster built the shop’s website in 1998, has transitioned from a one-stop neighborhood resale shop to an exclusive guitar dealer with 98 percent new products offering repairs and a thriving lesson program. And, as Oster says, things have never been better – the little store is in the middle of its best year since she took over in 1986.
“I think if you’re going to sell something, there’s nothing better than guitars,” she says one morning at the shop, as her dog, Max, naps in front a wall of Fender combo amps. “No one gets excited about buying auto insurance, but when they buy that guitar, they’re skipping out of the store.”
Oster would know a few things about insurance as well. When her father, Ed “Fast Eddie” Oster, first went into business in 1962, he had just received graduate degree from Rutgers (the son of a Russian immigrant, he’d earned his undergrad at the local school – Harvard). He and a friend opened a driver’s education business in Harvard Square, but soon realized that the auto insurance company upstairs from them was making a lot more money. They began selling it themselves soon after, scooping up a decent amount of customers just by being ready when they wandered in accidentally. “People would walk in the door after getting off on the wrong floor and say, ‘Is this the insurance agency?’” says Oster. “He’d just say, ‘Oh yeah, we can help you!’”
Ed soon moved the store out to Central Square and realized he’d need more sales to make up for the slow months in auto insurance – basically all year. “At that time, in Massachusetts, everybody renewed in January,” says Oster. “Most of the year was slow, waiting for everyone to come in and renew, so he starting buying and selling adding machines and typewriters in the early ‘60s. And finally – I’ve always tried to figure out exactly what kind of guitar it was but never could – someone walked in and sold him one used Aria guitar. After that, he started buying and selling guitars.”
Oster named the shop “Central Sales Company” after the move, though his signage obscured the name and focused on another design declaring, “MUSIC.” A tiny, crowded showroom full of odds and ends left most neighbors with the impression with it was a pawn shop. Guitars hung down from the ceiling. “All the good stuff was in the window,” says Oster. “If a customer wanted to see something good, my dad would actually sent them back outside the store!” Much of the local population was Haitian, who Oster says expected to walk into the shop and negotiate for 45 minutes on every purchase.
And even though Ed wasn’t a musician, his shop served as a temporary home to an endless list of classic guitars, buying guitars like Yamahas from jobbers and getting involved in Boston’s then-vast network of music shops’ used equipment. “Just from buying and selling things, you learn a lot of stuff,says Oster. “When you look at histories of all types of guitars now, I can say I sold one of those no matter what you’re talking about. That kind of store had a different sort of atmosphere.”
The shop changed personality markedly once Oster took over and moved farther out to Porter Square, about two miles northwest. She initially got rid of the typewriters and cameras (not to mention several woodwind instruments) and focused on getting lines of new guitars and guitar-related products. She instituted a no-haggle policy. She kept the name the same in order to hold onto loyal customers from the Central Square location, but she soon discovered that no one had known the name anyway. Upon registering for a domain name, she made a change. “I first tried ‘csmusic.com’ for the website,” she says. “But no one know to search for that. Most of our results were for people looking up ‘Christian Science Music.’” On the advice of a cousin in 1998, she looked for a better name – a far easier task in those early days of the web than now – and came up with “Guitar Stop.” It worked great in search engines and was immediately memorable.
Meanwhile, she was becoming a vet at dealing with lines, having landed a variety of them throughout the years and establishing a mainstay relationship with Fender, who makes up the majority of her inventory today. “I’d continue to find other brands like Takamine and Guild and Fender would buy them up anway,” she says.
She’s got five rehearsal studios downstairs staffed by a skilled group of teachers – she requires that they have a degree in music and five years of pro experience. Her brother, Al, does repairs on Sundays (though every employee at the shop can do a setup and minor repairs). She also employs her sister Annette and Annette’s son, Alex.
“We’re good at what we do,” says Oster. “We want people to play and have the right instrument for them.”
“You always read in the trades, ‘Close the sale! Don’t let them walk out the door without making the sale!’ I’d rather tell them to take their time and walk around. Try stuff. We hate returns. It totally bums me out. When we get a beginner in, we tell them, ‘Why don’t you take one or two lessons and see if you want to invest the money and the time.’ Then that builds your student base. You get them to take one or two lessons and they think, ‘I really can do this.’”
Oster chalks it up to a simple love of the instrument. She has no plans to grow the store anytime soon, though she does note that “Guitar Stop” would be an excellent name for a franchise. “If we grew right now, things would change,” she says. “I love my job right now.”