Ned Quist, the Peabody Conservatory of Music librarian, says the last time he bought guitar strings from Ted Martini, the owner of Ted's Musicians' Shop asked him how much they cost. The price was $10 the previous visit, Quist replied. Ted said that was fine and charged him the same.

At the incredibly cluttered store opposite Peabody on Centre Street, prices vary depending on whether the octogenarian owner likes the buyer or thinks he needs a financial break, longtime customers say.

He has often rented instruments at the rate of $10 for two months, with no deposit.

"You have losses," he says, shrugging. "You can't do much about that."

For half a century now, Ted has been a fixture in the firmament of his Mount Vernon Place neighborhood. His generosity has subsidized generations of Peabody students and struggling musicians through the years. And his shop is a treasure trove of rare instruments and musical oddities.

The other day, for instance, Barry Talley, director of musical activities at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, made a pilgrimage to Ted's in search of "a dozen instruments that play, but not necessarily that well."

His middies were producing "The Music Man," he said, and the play called for defective instruments that arrive on the Wells Fargo wagon. Talley said he'd been coming to the store for 25 years.

"I keep my customers," remarked Ted, a frail-looking man of 80 who has largely turned the operation over to Fernando Roman, 33, an employe for 20 years.

"I'm the only one that knows instruments," Ted said. "Call me if you need help," he told Fernando on his way to his upstairs apartment.

"So much about Ted is sort of half truth and half legend, and you can't ask him because he doesn't always know the answers," said Quist.

He was born Ted Evenchick, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, on New York's Lower East Side. Ted came by the business naturally: His father had a music shop next to the musicians' union office, and Ted traveled with him and later to Germany with his brother Eli to buy violins for the shop.

Eventually, Ted struck out on his own, opening a music store near the Juilliard School of Music in uptown Manhattan. It was there he met his wife Evalina Fine, a Baltimorean and a now-retired violinist who became one of the first women to play in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

"I went in to see about a small-size violin," she recalled. "He purposely didn't have it ready so he could deliver it to me and get my address." They married in 1933 and moved to Baltimore, where Ted changed his name along with his address, part of making a new start, he told Quist.

The store opened in 1935 or thereabouts; Ted isn't sure of the date.

Whitey Keith, 75, a former vaudeville and big-band musician, has been a customer since the early days. "He put in everything -- fishing rods, tackles, miscellaneous items. He had just about any item you could dream of and some you couldn't dream of," said Keith, who was in the store the other day buying reeds for his son.

Instruments on hand range from 18th century violins to new electric guitars. There's also a collection of rare instruments that are not for sale, including a ram's horn used to welcome the Jewish New Year, a one-man band percussion set, carved African drums, a Bolivian armadillo-skin string instrument and a violin made from a shoe.

There's a striking wooden bust of Beethoven, carved and presented to Ted in return for a guitar the sculptor could not afford to buy.

Above the first floor shop are two more stories where instruments are repaired. There's a horn room, a drum room and a wind room.

Ted's is reputed to employ the best instrument repairmen in town, among them his brass man, Chano Kimbalana, 62, who is from Tripoli and has been with Ted off and on for 35 years.

"It's a joy doing something you like," said Kimbalana, who was unfreezing valves and cleaning up horns in a dingy second floor room.

In the upper floors, as below, countless instruments hang from the ceilings and are stuffed onto shelves. In an annex next door are more instruments, instrument cases and volumes of sheet music.

The place has so much atmosphere, it could be a setting for a film. In fact, reported Fernando, "a guy just called up from New York. They want to rent this store for three days and make a movie here."

The best of Ted's is not immediately apparent, but a browser can turn up a dazzling variety of items, from the 15th edition of the Zither-Scheule Practical Institute Book for the Zither, published in 1884, to a sheet music anthology of Depression-era music to Easy Piano Top Hits of 1981.

Among the browsers recently were Gila Zelinger, 20, and her husband, Jonathon Zelinger, 24, who had met at Bais Yaakov, a Jewish high school in Baltimore, and now live in Munsey, N.Y. When they visit Baltimore, her hometown, he said, they stop by Ted's. "We try to make it a major part of our trip," he said.

Jackie Blake, 43, a flutist who said he has been a customer "since I was a little boy," said he also comes "to relax . . . because it reminds me of New York."

Thus far, Ted's neighborhood has largely escaped the encroachments of city chic that have transformed the Inner Harbor area to the south. He and his shop have survived as renowned relics, but it has not been easy. His shop has had two fires in recent years. (After one, a fireman was charged with theft when he was caught walking out with a banjo under his arm.)

After the second fire, Ted suffered a heart attack. And last June, two would-be robbers mugged him in the street in front of the store. He had been returning from lunch at Peabody, where he customarily ate.

Since then, Fernando and others say, Ted has been in failing health. But he hangs on, and, when he is in the store, insists on answering the phones and being in charge. "He still makes the decisions," Fernando said.

Tn Ted's absence and in the future, Fernando is determined to carry on the same traditions. "I don't want to change what Ted's been doing," he said. "I will try to keep the same pricing policies. Maybe the place will be a little more organized. Not modernized, but organized."

Christopher Edison, a 32-year-old drywall finisher and guitarist who has been a regular at Ted's since he was 12, remarked, "Ted's got so much stuff, he doesn't even know what he's got." Ted was not there to argue.

Fernando sold Edison three packs of strings. "I break 'em," he said, "trying to stretch the notes." Then, without thinking, he called Fernando "Ted." "I always call him that," he said. "Little Ted." Fernando smiled.