Chuck Levin's Riff 'n' Ready Charm

Brothers Robert, left, and Alan Levin at the Wheaton store their late father opened in 1968. (Nikki Khan -- The Washington Post)
By Claudia Deane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Maybe your junior high school band teacher tipped you off. Maybe your wistful father took you on your 13th birthday. Maybe you heard about the place from Jimi Hendrix's original drummer.

But if none of those things happened, and you just happened to drive by the aqua-tinted, disco-era storefront in Wheaton, with Mr. Levin's jovial, jowly face mostly rubbed off the Yamaha sign on the building's side and some broken glass in the second-story windows, you'd be forgiven for not immediately recognizing Chuck Levin's Washington Music Center for what it is: a retail powerhouse. A local institution. A throwback, a standout, a hangout, an industry legend.

"When you do $50 million of business out of a collection of locations in suburban Maryland, it's pretty anomalous," Brian Majeski, editor of the Music Trades, says of the overgrown mom-and-pop instrument seller. "The biggest two markets for the stuff he sells are New York and Los Angeles. And he outgrosses any individual store in Los Angeles or New York City by a wide margin."

You haven't seen the ads, you say? Yeah, Chuck's doesn't really do much advertising. Also, employees don't really have titles. The two guys running the place -- Levin's sons, who took over when Chuck died three years ago -- don't really have offices. Most instruments don't really have price tags. Until six months ago, the store didn't have a formal return policy. Buy something and your receipt's handwritten.

Yet somehow, out of its jampacked, run-down, bazaarlike buildings, Chuck's continues to sell more instruments than any other single music store in America.

"People are used to these big beautiful box stores like Wal-Mart, Costco and dare I say, chain guitar stores. Our store with its facelift is prettier than it was . . . but by modern standards it's still a pawnshop gone horribly awry," says Paul Schein, for 25 years the store's guitar guru and mad prophet.

"If you walk in on a busy Saturday, you have to be kind of brave. It's like the Carnegie Deli. People screaming orders across the room. 'I need a corned beef here and two Stratocasters on white over there.' "

Asking a man if he remembers his first guitar is like asking a woman if she remembers her first kiss.

"It was a Fender Mustang. It was blue, with a racing stripe," says Philip Leventhal, 49, whose federal judge father first took him to Chuck's when he was 15.

Chuck's, like most music stores, is heavy on the Y chromosome. It's full of men, and boys, and men who wish they were still boys.

They're cradling expensive electric bass guitars in their arms, deeply involved in some serious thumb funk, while their girlfriends look around vacantly. Or they're playing covers on keyboards, side by side, ignoring each other. Dreaming a dream that, thanks to Mick, seems plausible even well past middle age. Thinking that maybe, after 20 years of trying, 2006 is the year they'll get that Clapton riff right.

Howard University grad Aaron "Ab" Abernathy, 23, is at Chuck's picking up an amp for the second keyboard player in his band, Ab & the Souljourners. But he's also come to visit his other love: "My dream is over there -- the Roland Fantom-X8," he says, motioning to a sleek gray keyboard. "It's probably like $3,000, but I'm going to come back and get that Roland Fantom in the next three or four months. Definitely."

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