Outfitter of Rock Legends, Regular Joes
Guitar Lover Has Turned a Cluttered Shop Into a Washington Institution

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.

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."

Instructors have included WJLA (Channel 7) morning anchor Doug McKelway, who taught banjo in the late 1970s.

"He's a monster banjo player," Spellman said.

Howard Bass, cultural arts manager for the National Museum of the American Indian, also taught at the Guitar Shop in the late 1960s and 1970s.

"If you're a guitarist and you're coming to Washington and you're in need of help, a new guitar or repair, you're probably going to end up at the Guitar Shop, walking up those long, dusty steps," Bass said. "It really does have a history and reputation and carries great-quality products and has old-time service that musicians value."

But most who come to the shop are not famous.

And that's just fine, Spellman says, adding that one of his great joys is selling kids their first guitar.

"You're furthering music, which furthers joy and understanding," he said. "Every culture on this planet is connected to music."

He also likes opening his doors to street people.

"They come in and dream, and we assist them in a little dream," Spellman said. "Some of them come up to play, some of them come up for the ambience. Some come to talk to somebody who isn't mean to them. Then we send them back out on the street -- gently." Occasionally, he said, a street person surprises him and buys a guitar.

The collection of guitars is impressive: more than 2,000, not all on the premises, ranging in price from just under $200 to $100,000. Brands include Fender, Gibson and Martin, a brand that started more than 150 years ago.

"When you say you'd like a pre-war Martin, you better tell me which war. I have pre-Civil War Martins," he said.

Selling guitars, he said, is like "breeding show dogs and running the humane society for lost-cause dogs. You have to find homes for all of them."

Recently a nurse from Newport News came by and took a fancy to a $4,000 guitar that she decided to name "Stephen," after Spellman.

"She got that for $3,000," he said. "It should have been a lot more money. I just felt she was the right person for that guitar. She had had some good luck in her life and some bad luck, and I wanted to be on the good luck side. Her husband had been killed by a drunk driver. I thought to myself, 'She loves that guitar.' I felt really special when she bonded with that guitar and left with that."

Spellman, who is married with two grown children, is a world-class conversationalist, which is part of the store's charm. People like to hang out and talk to him.

In addition to selling guitars, "We design and we build them and modify them," he said. "We have a shop off the premises." And, he added, he works with guitar makers across the world: "I critique what they do. Often they send me instruments and talk to me about ideas. My favorite is to work with luthiers who hand-build these instruments."

As he talks, he remembers another detail of his White House appearance with Crosby, Stills and Nash. He said they were all standing onstage. He was near the back. President Clinton walked out and greeted him first.

"Happy birthday, Bill," Spellman recalled telling Clinton as they shook hands.

"He smiled from ear to ear and said, 'Why thank you,' " Spellman said.

After Clinton walked off, Chief of Staff Leon Panetta, who had worked with Spellman's mother in Congress, admonished Spellman, saying, "You should refer to him as Mr. President."

"I'm figuring anyone who calls himself 'Bubba' probably wouldn't mind being called Bill on his birthday," Spellman said. "So I looked at Leon and said, 'Lighten up, Leon, the guy works for me.' "

Panetta burst out laughing when he heard the story about correcting Spellman.

"That's probably true," Panetta said. "If I said it, I probably said it a little tongue in cheek. I wasn't the Gestapo."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company