So my girlfriend and I were out on a photo adventure in Southern Arizona today and we ended up at a thrift store in Wilcox. Kim is — among other things — a collage artist and always on the lookout for cool old magazines for her collage work. Wilcox is one of the places we like to get away to and we’ve been to this friendly thrift store before. It’s nice having familiar places scattered around out in the middle of nowhere.
As we walked through the front showroom, I saw this dusty little beat up Stella guitar leaning up against the wall. My response was, “Wow! How cool!” But my enthusiasm was immediately dampened when I saw the whopping $50 price tag. Not only was the thing really beat up, it was missing the original bridge and one side of the tuners were messed up. Being that it was Stella, had it been playable as-is and had a nice tone, I might have considered buying it at this price just because my girlfriend and I were having a really good time together and somehow buying the guitar together would have made it more like bringing a little bit of that good time back with us, but the guitar was a total piece of crap and I’d feel like a chump for paying that much for it.
Still, while helping Kim find cool old magazines in the back room, I was obsessing over the guitar in the front room! Why couldn’t it have been that miracle find that everyone dreams of? Why wasn’t it a pristine copy for $10?
While I kept bringing it up, Kim asked how much I’d be willing to spend on. I said really, I’d only want to pay $10 for it in its current state and it probably wasn’t even worth that in any rational sense. She said she was going to ask how much they would take for it when she bought the magazines. I told her not to bother.
Anyway, while buying her magazines, Kim started telling the guy that I was interested in the guitar, but that it was priced way too high for anyone to buy. He started off by offering it for $40 and told us the story of the man that brought it in and how he said it would be worth $800 if it was fixed up. I kind of scoffed at this. It was too beat up to ever be a collector’s piece and was barely at the ragged edge of even becoming a player — even in pristine perfect shape, it wouldn’t sell for more than $200 tops!
We ended up all joking around while good naturally bargaining — there was no real pressure because at this point I didn’t even think I wanted the guitar. Kim could tell that in my heart though, that I did want it so she offered to buy it for me.
Even with her buying it for me, when she got the guy to come down, $25 still seemed too high. I reluctantly told the guy that $20 was the most I’d let my girlfriend pay for it and in the end he let it go at that. Kim told the guy how I was going to have so much fun getting it put together and working and that I’d be playing it forever. The guy laughed and did some contorted air-guitar antics to show me how I’d look playing it when I was a hunched up old who turned eighty. We all really laughed. There’s just something about guitars that just makes people happy and I thought, there’s gotta’ be worse ways to turn eighty!
So I ended up walking out the proud owner of this beat-to-crap little Stella parlor guitar that needs lots of love just to become playable again. Still, there is something about it that just feels right for me — like walking into Memphis, down on my luck, with a guitar slung across my back on a length of clothesline for a strap and hoping for the best. As beat as my new Stella is, it is obviously worn with love and not abuse. Divots are worn into the fret-board beneath all the common open chord fingering positions and the edges are all worn ragged. This guitar was played to death by its previous owner and I’d guess he played it until he died. I doubt anyone would be so committed to an instrument like this for so long and just let it go.
While I am in no way a guitar collector, I had read about the Stella brand guitars because of their legendary status from being played by some of the great blues players like Lead Belly and Robert Johnson. I don’t know what my guitar has seen in life before I got it, but since it has the Harmony star on its headstock, it is post-war production and not Robert Johnson era vintage. Strangely, my guitar doesn’t have the signature Stella criss-cross trapeze tailpiece, but instead a solid metal one. Perhaps the original one broke and was replaced at some point in its lifetime. Perhaps I got a really scarce model guitar, who knows? I doubt it, but since there are no model markings on my guitar, I probably will never know anything about it except that it’s cool it came to me in a really nice way.
From strumming the three mismatched strings that are on the guitar now, it seems to have a pleasing tone. The neck seems remarkably straight. It took me almost two hours searching on the internet, but I found some new old stock floating bridge blocks that almost look like original Stella replacements. I also ordered a bone bridge and nut that will fit the guitar along with a new set of tuners. It will probably take a few weeks for these parts to come in so I’ll figure out how best to clean and make small repairs to the guitar body while I wait. There is a small amount of wood that had been broken off the back of the guitar that I want to replace somehow, mostly just to make sure it’s stable.
Sometimes it’s not the money that really matters. $20 is less than the price of cheap tacos for two, but for Kim to step up and get me this guitar because she knew I wanted it turned it into something special. Once I put the new parts and some new strings on it, it will have cost way more than it could possibly be sold for, but it’s not for selling, it’s for playing. There’s something about this guitar that makes it a positive addition to my life.