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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)

Spellman said he refused to charge the musician, so the performer invited him to a show, but Spellman already had plans to attend. Still wanting to show his appreciation, "the musician said, 'Here,' and took his jacket off and gave it to me."

Clearly enjoying his story, Spellman asked, "You recognize that?" and pointed to the faded maroon jacket with the words "Electric Lady Studios" hanging on the wall in a storage room cluttered with vintage guitars and protected by iron bars.

"It's Jimi Hendrix," he finally said, adding, "This is a funny place."

Although the shop is the antithesis of official Washington -- not very official, not very button-down -- it has come to serve the highest levels of officialdom.

"We built a guitar for George, the senior -- not Washington, but Bush," he said. "And William Jefferson Clinton." They're both left-handed, he noted.

And how much did he charge?

"Not a lot, and you can't overcharge the president," said the bearded Spellman, who has expressive, nickel-shaped eyes and an infectious smile.

He said Bush bought the guitar through his trusted adviser, Lee Atwater, an accomplished guitar player himself.

"Lee used to hang around here quite a bit," he said. "Lee and I used to agree on a lot of things: that blues was good. . . . He was a great guy, but politically a Neanderthal. I owned one of his guitars and he died owning one of mine. We traded."

Besides selling guitars, the shop provides lessons on the third floor, in a space with four tiny rooms, one with two bicycles hanging upside down from the ceiling.

Over the years, students have included Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who has bought guitars and accessories at the shop. "I love the Guitar Shop. I love poking around there," Kerry said.

Spellman returned the compliment, saying, "John Kerry is a fine classical guitarist who studied here before he decided to be president."


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