How Lexington’s Music Emporium Became a High-End Candy Shop for Luthier-Made Guitar Lovers

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This guitar is one of many that live at the Massachusetts Avenue location of the Music Emporium, where their selection of rare instruments is often impressive: sometimes one of only a few hundred ever made and price tags in the five figures. Effectively, anyone can come in and play one of their many premium offerings.

The Music Emporium is filled with couches, like a “living room of a guy who loved guitars,” Caruso said. He took me on a three-hour tour of their selection, starting with Taylor and Martin, two of the most popular acoustic guitar brands in the world. Then we came to luthiers, the dozen names of guitar makers who rarely make 1,000 instruments a year. We started with Austin-based Collings Guitars, the creation of the late luthier Bill Collings, who started making guitars in the mid-1970s.

Bill Collings was another genius…who probably should have been an engineer or a doctor but decided to go into guitar building,” Caruso explained. “Bill Collings just said, ‘I’m going to make it so hard to do this, to show people that I can do it,’ and he made a guitar louder than any other guitar.”

I played a great sounding 2019 Froggy Bottom H-12, another luthier built guitar with a price tag that said, “‘The Tree’ Quilted Mahogany / German Spruce).” It was $14,500. According to the Froggy Bottom website, the manufacturer creates around 75 guitars a year.

What was the tree? “It’s a 500-year-old log that was found submerged in a bog in a forest,” Caruso explained. “I’ve seen prices ranging from $3,000 to $8,000 just for wood.”

High-end luthier guitars haven’t always been a staple of the Music Emporium, which began in 1968 as a second-hand music store on the second floor of a Pittsburgh art gallery. At the time, “old Martins weren’t called vintage, they were just used guitars,” said then-owner Stu Cohen.

Caruso joined the team around 1994, when the boutique opened its current location in Lexington. Soon after, Caruso said smaller luthiers began to appear all over the United States. The Music Emporium adapted, and these days that’s what the store is known for, especially online. Their website accounts for more than 60% of Music Emporium’s business, Caruso said.

The walls of the Music Emporium are lined with high-end guitars from America’s finest luthiers.Photo by Sam Trottenberg

As an amateur guitarist, I’ve been taught that you never, ever buy a guitar online. The guitars are just too inconsistent and personal. But Frank Manno, who lives in Tulsa, Okla., told me he bought a Collings acoustic guitar over the phone at the Music Emporium last year.

“Two pieces of wood from the same tree, built by the same luthier, can have significant differences in tone, so it’s always a bit of a gamble,” Manno said. “My tastes have refined a bit and some of the instruments the Music Emporium offers cannot be found here in Tulsa.”

Caruso echoed his view, calling parts of the United States “guitar shop deserts.”

Manno said he had a positive experience purchasing the Collings, adding that he appreciated the Music Emporium’s return policy. A few years before buying the Collings, Manno said he bought another acoustic guitar from the store, but returned it and got a refund after the finish started peeling.

Manno primarily shopped over the phone, but Music Emporium said many new customers surfaced through their website, which staff have been working on for much of the past decade.

Jacob Kleinberg (left) and Andy Cambria sat in the Music Emporium’s back office, working on the online aspects of the business.Photo by Sam Trottenberg

“We spend a lot of time and effort on camera equipment and lighting [for the website]said Andy Cambria, the Music Emporium’s principal photographer and videographer. “We really try to do [the instruments] have a vibe and texture that when people watch it, it’s almost like you’re experiencing a little snippet from a record.

Cambria added that the Music Emporium hires local musicians to demo guitars for the website, although they sometimes use store staff. According to Caruso, the store’s sales reached $9 million in 2021, compared to $5.5 million in 2019.

“It was a stupid amount of business,” Caruso said. “I’ve been doing this for almost 30 years, and I’ve never experienced this before.”

Caruso said he also attributes the sudden spike in sales in part to the COVID-19 pandemic, an effect felt by others in the online musical instrument retail industry. Sweetwater, an Indiana-based instrument and audio gear retailer, totaled $805 million in sales in 2019, according to a press release. In 2021, that figure was $1.43 billion. Reverb, a marketplace for new, vintage and used instruments, saw fourth-quarter 2020 sales jump 32% from a year earlier, according to a press release.

“People’s desire to have not just instruments but good instruments, and to really have fun and take their playing seriously” has emerged during the pandemic, Caruso said. Anecdotally, I can back up these claims: I bought a cheap Breedlove acoustic from Guitar Center last year after experiencing a sudden, unexpected financial gain and thought it was finally time to own a decent acoustic.

Caruso added that the Music Emporium has a distinctive advantage because of the amount of its inventory that comes from small US luthiers, who don’t suffer from the same kinds of supply issues as large manufacturers that ship overseas.

The Music Emporium may be a rare breed among retailers, but it’s not unique. On the East Coast, there’s Rudy’s Music Shop in Manhattan, Guitars ‘n Jazz in Summit, NJ, and Carlino Guitars here in Medford, all of which sell luthier-grade guitars.

“But there’s something special about the Music Emporium,” said longtime client Jim Volling, a Minnesota attorney who primarily interacted with the store online and over the phone. He said he went to Boston on a business trip a few years ago and finally decided to stop by the store.

“I spent an entire afternoon in the store, [and] I ended up buying a vintage guitar, which was great. But it was also very good for [the staff] to see me play and learn a bit more about my playing style and what I like about guitars,” Volling said. “There was a lot of value in that. It was really time well spent.


Sam Trottenberg can be contacted at sam.trottenberg@globe.com.

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