Outfitter of Rock Legends, Regular Joes

In his nearly 40 years as owner of the Guitar Shop, Stephen Spellman has accumulated a huge collection of guitars, and tales of the trade.
In his nearly 40 years as owner of the Guitar Shop, Stephen Spellman has accumulated a huge collection of guitars, and tales of the trade. (Photos By Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)
By Allan Lengel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 30, 2006

When the rock band Crosby, Stills and Nash came to Washington for a White House gig celebrating President Clinton's birthday in 1994, they had one small problem: Their guitars had not arrived.

They solved that crisis by running up 28 worn, wooden steps to the Guitar Shop on Connecticut Avenue in downtown Washington, where they'd shopped before. Owner Stephen Spellman, a longtime friend, lent them three acoustic-electric guitars, and the trio invited him along to play on the White House lawn.

"I had a great time," despite a gentle scolding over protocol by Clinton's chief of staff, Spellman recalled.

In nearly 40 years of business, Spellman has amassed a rich repertory of amusing tales. The past 35 years have been spent at the same spot near M Street NW in a cramped, cluttered space that has the feel of a clubhouse and the look of a garage sale. Guitars are everywhere, in every crevice, and the desks are stacked with papers.

Although it might not look like much, this little shop above a Fuddruckers restaurant is to guitar players what the Capitol is to politicians: a venerable Washington institution.

Little known outside the music world, the store is a treasure for an eclectic clientele that has included the working class and white collar, musically gifted and musically challenged, street people and presidents, senators and, Spellman says, such musical icons as Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, George Benson, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Bonnie Raitt.

"It doesn't matter if you're living in a shelter or you're the president, in here we're all enamored of the guitar, and we're all, on some level, guitarists," said Spellman, 62. "I love the guitar. I have a passion for it."

The son of the late Rep. Gladys Noon Spellman (D-Md.), he graduated from college in Pennsylvania and took classical guitar lessons from Sophocles Papas, a world-renowned teacher and scholar of classical music who had owned the Guitar Shop since 1922. He died in 1986 at age 92.

Spellman bought the shop from Papas in 1968.

"He had decided, probably as punishment for my inability to master the classical guitar, I should stay here and run the shop until I did master it," Spellman said in jest. "I'm still here."

He learned to repair guitars and design them and in time earned a reputation that attracted customers of varied stature, including one very special one in the late 1960s who was known for being a little hard on his guitars.

The tall, slender musician with a large Afro came to the shop, which at the time was around the corner on M Street, Spellman said, without revealing the musician's name. The man was performing in town and needed to repair his Stratocaster guitar. His bass player also needed repair work.

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