Mourning the closure of the Guitar Shop

John Kelly
Columnist December 21, 2011

I never actually went inside the Guitar Shop — I’m a drummer; guitar stores are kryptonite to us — but I never failed to look up as I walked past. I was always buoyed by the sight of the shiny six-strings that stared down from the upstairs window at 1216 Connecticut Ave. NW. Downtown D.C. is not the most musical of places, but here was an oasis of blues, flamenco, rock, classical, gypsy, mariachi, any music that could be picked, plucked or strummed.

Last month, after nine decades in business, the Guitar Shop closed its doors.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

“The new retail and shopping paradigm is that people want to buy things online, and I’m going to let them buy them online from us,” said Steve Spellman, who owned the Guitar Shop since 1968 and will now put his 2,000-guitar inventory on the Web.

Steve took over the shop from Sophocles Papas, who was the Johnny Appleseed of the guitar in Washington. Papas, an accomplished classical guitarist, went into the business after World War I. He opened the Guitar Shop in 1922, selling instruments and offering lessons.

“It was amazing without us really knowing it was amazing,” said Myrna Sislen, a Papas student and later a teacher in his shop. “There was so much activity.”


Guitar Shop owner Stephen Spellman, right, with customer Dave Robertson of Arlington as Robertson picked up a 12-string acoustic guitar that had been dropped off for some work. (Tracy A. Woodward/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Papas was friends with Andres Segovia, the Spanish virtuoso who popularized classical guitar, and hosted him in Washington each year. Students included the likes of Charlie Byrd, Danny Gatton, Roy Buchanan, Mama Cass Elliot and Grammy-winner Sharon Isbin.

“We all were part of a very tightknit community, because at that time, studying classical guitar was not that easy to do,” said Myrna, who owns Middle C Music on Wisconsin Avenue. “The fact that he was able to make Washington, D.C., the center of American classical guitar is really important.” Papas died in 1986.

The Guitar Shop was the kind of place where Crosby, Stills and Nash could borrow four exquisite Martin acoustics — and Steve Spellman (he had to sit in for Neil Young, who had missed his flight) — to perform at the White House for Bill Clinton’s birthday.

Steve said the shop made guitars for every recent president but Richard M. Nixon. His was a bipartisan shop. GOP operative Lee Atwater traded Steve for a Gibson SG. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) took lessons there.

The Guitar Shop was on the second floor, up a narrow staircase that opened into a space that seemed more old-fashioned hardware store than antiseptic mega-music mart. It could be intimidating. Some customers complained of poor service, others of being quizzed by Steve before he brought out guitars for them to look at.

Steve says he was just trying to gauge their needs. “Sometimes they feel as if I’m prying,” he said. “I’m not. I’m trying to help them.”

To Steve, guitars aren’t like fast-food meals that you order by number.

Some of the Guitar Shop’s teachers are offering lessons a few blocks away, at 17th and R NW. As for the shop itself, it’s being turned into a bar: the Guitar Bar. Here’s hoping it has some Byrd and Buchanan, some Gatton and Segovia, on the jukebox.

The Marvelous Merv

In other melancholy musical news, Merv Conn passed away Tuesday at 91. Merv was the accordion kingpin of Washington, the force behind a collection of squeezebox schools throughout the area, including his main accordion academy on 14th Street NW.

For reasons I can’t quite remember, I once hired Merv to perform Sousa’s “Washington Post March” in a meeting of high-ranking editors here at the paper. It was supposed to be a joke — here comes an accordionist! — but Merv was a pro, insisting on performing the entire number.

When the Beatles came, most of Merv’s student body switched to guitars, but he soldiered on without rancor. “You admire talent, and when you admire talent you don’t get angry, you envy them,” he said of the Fab Four.

Children’s Hospital

We’re coming down to the last two weeks. Now is when we need your help. Please make a tax-deductible donation to Children’s National Medical Center’s uncompensated care fund. Go to washingtonpost.com/childrenshospital, or send a check or money order (payable to Children’s Hospital) to Washington Post Campaign, P.O. Box 17390, Baltimore, Md. 21297-1390.

Donors who give $250 or more will receive a $20 gift certificate to the Chef Geoff family of restaurants.

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