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Around The Valley

Oldies but Goodies : Norm's Aged Axes Are the Scepters of Rock 'n' Roll Royalty


The flaky white paint, the roll-away burglar bars and the clutter of dated merchandise in the window all say "pawnshop."

But nothing would tell you that the nondescript shop at Tampa Avenue and Vanowen Street is really a piece of rock 'n' roll history.

Just inside the entrance to Norman's Rare Guitars, a showroom is filled with colorful electric guitars: Fender Stratocasters, Gibson Flying Vs or Les Paul Standard sunbursts--names that mean nothing to the uninitiated but can send a chill down the spines of the cognoscenti--line the walls and floor.

There are no price tags, implying that all is negotiable. But this is no place for an ignorant buyer. These guitars range in value from $100 to $100,000, with the strangest things making the difference.

Take a look at the 1957 Stratocaster with the cream finish seemingly cast aside along with a dozen others obstructing a hallway. It's been used and shows it: nicks in the paint, gold plating wearing off the fittings. In this condition, it's worth about $20,000.

Lucky it's never been refinished. It would only be half as valuable.

Like a drab guitar case, the store's forgettable facade hides the glitter of a place that occasionally draws shoppers like Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Eddie Van Halen. The downscale look is also not a bad expression of Norm Harris' priorities in life. At 46, he still has the bounce of a teen-ager in his bearish frame and the youthful love of guitars in his heart.

"If it was up to me, I'd keep them all," he said. "I sell them out of necessity."

His clients frequently feel the same. He once sold a $5,500 guitar to a guy who drove a $1,500 car. No surprise. A guitar is simply more important than a car.

Harris has known that since back in the 1960s, when The Who was making a spectacle of themselves by bashing guitars to pieces during their concerts. Though he too was an aspiring musician, he couldn't hurt anything as beautiful as a 1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard.

He began collecting them. From the beginning, it was business.

"I had to get practical," he said. "I saw my musical career wasn't going to do what I had hoped. This made more sense."

By 1975, Harris had so many guitars that he realized it was time to open a shop. Even though Hollywood was the center of the recording industry, Harris had no qualms about locating in the Valley, his home since he moved West with his family as a young man.

"The people who come here pretty much know what they want," Harris said. "They find us."

In the 1970s, rock 'n' roll dealt Harris an unforeseeable favor.

After the British Invasion, every semi-rebellious kid in America wanted an electric guitar. The American manufacturers who dominated the world market--Gibson, Rickenbacker, Fender and Martin--met the swelling demand by expanding production. And they compromised. The quality of the wood declined, the finishes grew thick and heavy.

"Through the '70s and '80s, basically there was a lower period in the quality of guitars," Harris said.

The electric guitar, having come into existence not long before World War II, had already reached and passed its golden age in the 1950s. In only another decade, professional musicians and those who will pay for sentimentality were searching for the kind of instruments Harris had. At least partly because of The Who, there weren't that many around.

Harris' guitar collection did better than much of the stock market. In the past decade alone, prices have multiplied four or five times, he said.

Originally, Harris was one of only three or four vintage guitar dealers in America. Today, there are 20 in Los Angeles alone. The competition is fierce, he said, but trade is brisk, not least because Japanese and English buyers scour the globe snapping up vintage American models.

Many factors set the value of a guitar: its age, its manufacturer and model, even its serial number. An original is worth much more than one that has been altered or refurbished.

Nostalgia has a lot to do with it, too. Some of Harris' clients are doctors, lawyers or other middle-class professionals who once pleaded unsuccessfully with their parents for a guitar. Now that they can pay for it themselves, they buy the best.

A guitar that Dylan played on tour or one signed by Graham Nash, for instance, is more valuable to the memorabilia collector.

But, above all, the signature of a great guitar is its sound.

"The instrument design was so good [in the 1950s] that even though most companies have R & D, they never have been able to improve on them," Harris said.

That's what brings music pros to the shop. Dylan came in looking for a mature acoustic guitar. "I had something he wanted," Harris said. "I told him I would have to trade with him."

So Harris got the guitar the superstar had played on his Japanese tour.

"I was happy. He was happy."

Van Halen would come into Norman's before he ever signed a record deal. He used to fantasize, Harris said, of owning a '59 Les Paul.

"When he got his first deal, the first thing he did was buy two of them from me."

Though obviously tickled by his associations with rock immortals, Harris is no pushover. On Tuesday, he was making a deal over the phone with a studio that needed a guitar for Rod Stewart to play in a video.

The agreement he struck was that if Stewart would sign the instrument, it would be a loan. No signature, they'd have to rent it.

The studio wanted to fax a copy of its credit card as security. Harris required that they send it with the runner, so he could take an impression.

Business is business, after all. For Harris, a father of two with a home in Calabasas, guitars are the equivalent of stocks and bonds.

"They're my children's future," he said.

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