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Ye Olde Guitar Shop

McCabe's Has Been the Steadily Beating Heart of the String-and-Pick Set for 40 Years. And in the Capital of Transience, That's No Small Feat.

January 11, 1998|Faye Kellerman and Jonathan Kellerman | Faye Kellerman is the author of 11 novels, most recently "Serpent's Tooth" (William Morrow). Jonathan Kellerman is the author of two volumes on psychology, two children's books and 13 novels, most recently, "Survival of The Fittest" (Bantam). Faye plays mandolin; Jon plays guitar

He couldn't live anywhere but Los Angeles. We write about crime, and what better setting? Rife with geologic and social disaster, saddled with an economic chasm between the haves and the have-nots worthy of a Third World nation, dominated by a film-biz ambience that encourages faddism and transience, L.A. hurls more stories at us weekly than we could use in two lifetimes. Sometimes we wonder if Dante operated this way, strolling the canals of Venice, picking up bits of dialogue from errant knights and scheming peers in order to create his vision of hell.

Of course, there's a downside to all this manic motion and impermanence: a near-total disregard for architectural and historical integrity. In L.A., landmarks have a shorter half-life than a studio CEO. How many of us have shown up at a favorite cafe or club, only to encounter boarded up windows and a change-of-ownership notice? To use sobering specificity, once upon a time, L.A. had more Victorian structures than San Francisco. Now ours have been herded to Carroll Avenue. And yet some wonderful enterprises do endure, not as dusty relics or retro make-overs but as viable concerns that reveal more than a little about this city's heritage.

One such treasure sits on the north side of Pico Boulevard in Santa Monica, about a mile west of the 405. Virtually unchanged since its founding in 1958, McCabe's Guitar Shop is one of the last local havens for aficionados of acoustic music--by day a guitar shop, by night an intimate concert venue. Wannabe rockers may strut into any Sunset Strip guitar emporium and plug Strats into Marshall stacks, but McCabe's is the place to strum and finger-pick a mellow spruce-and-rosewood box without risking hearing loss.

Under the proprietorship of principal owner Bob Riskin (furniture maker and folk music fan Gerald L. McCabe founded the store in 1958), McCabe's is, and has always been, quiet, friendly, honest, unpretentious. Hearteningly, it thrives--never have we seen it devoid of customers. Virtually all the folk greats and many jazz performers have graced the back-room stage: Doc and Merle Watson, Chet Atkins, Dave Van Ronk, Shelly Manne, Kenny Burrell, Ray Brown, Bola Sete, Ry Cooder, Laurindo Almeida, Chris Hillman and the Desert Rose Band, Linda Ronstadt--just about every bluegrasser and Irish string band of note.

For us, the shop is a veritable Rolodex of memories. For 21 years, we've attended wonderful concerts in the back room, never having to divvy up five times the face value to scalpers, because McCabe's sells its own tickets. During our college dating period, waiting for admission on Pico--while holding hands and discussing Things That Matter--was a profoundly romantic experience; how better to begin a relationship than with melody and harmony? Must have worked; more than a quarter century later, we're still singing along.

Nineteen years ago, McCabe's was also one of the few child-friendly settings in greater L.A., offering Sunday morning concerts for the tyke brigade. Queuing up with the rest of the car-seat-in-Volvo crowd, we spent many a weekend pacifying our firstborn with folk music. In those days, requesting a highchair in a restaurant evoked a level of scorn worthy of Bette Davis' finest moments, so the respite provided by these Munchkin hootenannies was more than welcome. Dozens of wide-eyed toddlers and baffled-but-amused infants, cradled by severely sleep-deprived parents, bonded while in guitar-hypnosis. Early on, our son learned how to bob his grapefruit-sized head to the beat, which may be why, though enamored of the ear-bleed world of electric thunder, he's maintained an appreciation for the more subtle pleasures of folk and jazz.

Entering McCabe's is like being sucked into a time warp. Pull the guitar-neck door handle and you encounter the same atmosphere decade after decade--a lot more Woodstock than Lollapalooza. It's a woodsy, fragrant place stocked with tons of stuff that no one ever hard-sells. The famous container of free guitar picks remains in precisely the same place, though the barrel is now a jar and the limit is one instead of three; coffee and local telephone calls are gratis to considerate customers.

Hundreds of instruments hang on the walls, inviting the itchy-fingered to pull one down and play. Racks and shelves are crammed with hard-to-find CDs and books on everything from how to build a hammered dulcimer to Brazilian jazz chord extensions. Most astonishing are the same faces. Landing a job at McCabe's seems to merit the same tenure as a Supreme Court appointment.

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