- Associated Press - Monday, November 3, 2014

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - Before indie rocker Ryan Adams played Northrop Auditorium in Minneapolis on Oct. 14, he made a stop in St. Paul.

At Willie’s American Guitars on Cleveland Avenue, Adams bought the 1970s Fender Stratocaster he played later that night.

“Truly I have never had a more pleasant, Prairie Home Companionesque … guitar store trip than at @williesguitars,” Adams tweeted that afternoon.

Adams is among the scores of big-name musicians to visit Willie’s when they come to town. Earlier this month it was members of Pearl Jam and Ani DiFranco, the St. Paul Pioneer Press (http://bit.ly/ZTOvy7 ) reported.

But owner Nate Westgor doesn’t get star-struck when these celebrities walk into his shop. He sees them instead just as fellow guitar nuts.

His customers aren’t all Grammy winners, though. Many are passionate amateurs; some are collectors who don’t even play. St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman bought his first guitar at Willie’s in 2005, and continues to visit regularly.

Willie’s occupies a pair of non-descript storefronts sandwiched between Snuffy’s Malt Shop and a salon. Inside, it smells like an antique shop — appropriate, since many of the instruments are several decades old.

Westgor buys, sells and takes guitars on trade. Many of his customers have several Willie’s guitars in their collections. For players, a guitar is a tool selected for specific qualities. Some musicians own more than a dozen.

And Willie’s has plenty to choose from. More than 500 instruments — from ukuleles and mandolins to Gibson Les Pauls — hang on every available inch of wall space in the 3,500-square-foot store.

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Westgor first picked up the guitar when he was 12 years old. In the early 1980s, he was playing the occasional gig at night, and working as a repairman by day at a Chicago guitar store called Sound Post.

Over time, Westgor developed relationships with techs and roadies who worked for the big-name acts of the day. They would call on him for emergency repairs when they were in town on tour.

“There was no Internet,” Westgor said. “So, it was all word of mouth.”

His work put him in contact with the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel — both of whom he still keeps in touch with.

“Back then, there wasn’t a vintage guitar market,” Westgor said.

But when American guitar makers began ratcheting up their production schedules to compete with Japanese manufacturers, demand for older guitars increased.

“They got sloppy,” Westgor said of the makers of newer guitars. “So, then, used guitars started increasing in value. Slowly but surely, the used guitars became worth more than new guitars.”

By the late 1980s, the vintage market was heating up. Westgor and his then-wife, Darlene, moved to Minneapolis.

“It was really about my kids,” Westgor said. “My first son came along, and the schools in Chicago sucked.”

Westgor opened Willie’s — named for his stage persona, Willie DelMar — in 1989. The store was small, just 500 square feet. Westgor’s inventory — 13 guitars and 12 amplifiers from his own collection — didn’t take up much space.

But his famous clientele followed him to St. Paul. Within a week of opening, Springsteen made his first of many visits to the store, Westgor said.

For his first couple of years in business, Westgor was on his own, working 16-hour days. As the business grew steadily during the next decade, he was able to assemble a staff of 15.

The store’s footprint grew as businesses next door — a clothing store and a bakery — were shuttered.

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The world took notice of the used guitar market in 1999, when New York auction house Chrisities sold a guitar owned by Eric Clapton at a charity auction for a record-setting $497,000.

“That was the watershed moment,” Westgor said. “People really started to pay attention … That was huge.”

Westgor describes the next decade or so as “a shark feed” on vintage guitars. In 2004, another Clapton guitar sold for nearly $1 million.

These eye-popping figures weren’t confined to New York auction houses, Westgor said. Prices were inflated everywhere. The vintage guitar market wasn’t as mature as that of other collectibles, such as stamps or automobiles.

But the recession had a sobering effect. After nearly tripling during the four years leading up to 2008, vintage guitar prices dropped by half, Westgor said. His sales ground to a halt; many of his competitors were driven out of business.

“I think I’m just too stubborn to go home,” Westgor said. “We were not making money. It was really tough for about two years.”

But the market has since recovered.

Willie’s sells an average of three or four guitars and a couple of amps every day, most of them costing between $1,500 and $3,500. The most expensive guitar Westgor ever sold was on consignment. It went for $300,000.

But he also carries beginner models costing between $300 and $400 — his staff offers lessons.

About 60 percent of the store’s inventory is used. Many of these guitars come in needing significant repairs. On his workbench now is a pre-World War II Martin D-18 acoustic. He’ll price it at around $6,500.

Working on high-dollar instruments — some worth hundreds of thousands of dollars — can be intimidating, Westgor said.

“I have to leave my fear at the door,” he said. “I have to approach it like a doctor approaches a patient.”

But accidents happen. “It’s not the type of thing you can learn from a summer-long program,” Westgor said of guitar repair. “It takes time and it takes a lot of mistakes. I’ve made some painfully embarrassing mistakes.”

Westgor once dropped a screwdriver on a guitar belonging to Jackson Browne, leaving a dent. He felt terrible, he said, but Browne didn’t hold a grudge.

The relationships he’s developed with folks in the music industry give him a sense of job security. Although there are a handful of other guitar stores in the Twin Cities, Westgor doesn’t worry about his celebrity clientele looking elsewhere when they’re in town.

“Now that I’m older, I don’t try to compete,” he said. “I just do what I do.”

Nearly 60 percent of his customers don’t set foot in his store, buying online. This segment is growing, especially in Europe and Japan.

But all of his customers get equal attention, Westgor said. You don’t have to be Billy Joel to leave a one-star review on Yelp.

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Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press, http://www.twincities.com

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