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COMMENTARY

Sean Kirst: A Buffalo legend says farewell to his shop of fine guitars

Sean Kirst

Ken Kerr grew up in the Riverside neighborhood of Buffalo. His childhood home was only a few blocks away from Ed Taublieb’s String Shoppe, a little storefront crammed at peak with about 300 guitars and string instruments. A place like that was magical for any child with a love for music, and Kerr would stop in from time to time as he moved from boyhood into his teen years.

It took another four decades for him to fully understand what disappeared when the String Shoppe shut its doors for good a week ago.

“We didn’t just lose a guitar store,” Kerr said. “The city just lost a little bit of its soul.”

Taublieb, 75, opened the place 48 years ago. Raised in Buffalo, he graduated from the University at Buffalo Law School, and went on to practice law for 40 years. Yet his “heart and soul,” he said, was wrapped up in passion for acoustic guitars, a connection that grew from an early affinity for the Kingston Trio, the Limeliters and Peter, Paul and Mary.

As a teenager just learning to play the instrument, he would hang around at open mikes at such coffee houses as the Limelight, on Edwards Street. At the Limelight, Taublieb met John Kay, who lived for a time in Buffalo before he went on to rock fame as a founder of the band, "Steppenwolf."

Taublieb remembers being asked to be a regular performer by the owner of a place called the Boar's Head. Taublieb was surprised. He wondered out loud if better guitarists were not available.

"Yeah," the guy said to him, "but you show up."

It was a characteristic Taublieb lived out at his own shop, for almost 50 years.

Celebrated local guitarists Joe Mahfoud and Shannon Street, a deputy Buffalo fire commissioner, inside the String Shoppe. (Ken Kerr image)

As he grew older, Taublieb said, his own tastes broadened, “basically going backwards in time,” and he fell in love with the “old acoustic blues players from the '20s and '30s.” At the same time, his deep appreciation for the instrument put him on a quest to always find a better guitar. He remembers responding to a classified ad and deciding to make a straight trade for two guitars, believing he could keep one for himself and find a way to sell the other.

It worked. He liked the feeling. That got him buying, selling and repairing guitars from his apartment, until one company said he could have a dealership if he found a brick and mortar location. Taublieb and his wife Nancy embraced the notion. They were already upset about losing several guitars in a burglary.

They started driving through neighborhoods not far from their home, hoping to find the right spot, until the day when they noticed a little storefront available in Riverside.

By 1970, Taublieb had settled on Ontario Street. The place – with a broad collection that included high-end and often difficult-to-find acoustic guitars - became a destination over the years for many musicians, walls and counters covered with guitars and cases, with tools and guitar straps and spools of string and wire. While Kerr, 51, remembers the store from childhood, it was only in the last decade or so that he came to appreciate the breadth and quality of what Taublieb represents.

Kerr and his wife Liz used to run Bertha’s Diner on Hertel Avenue. One day, Kerr made a spontaneous stop at the String Shoppe, and something in the serenity of the place kept pulling him back in. Taublieb speaks of how Kerr provided some valuable lessons in using the Internet for selling his guitars, especially by showing him the value of eBay.

Told of Taublieb's gratitude, Kerr describes his digital lessons as no big deal when compared to the lasting friendship he discovered in the shop.

“He was just there when I needed it to provide some guidance, to be almost fatherly,” said Kerr, who was struggling with health issues that eventually led to the sale of the diner. Eight years ago, he made headlines for winning $1 million from a scratch-off state Lottery ticket. Looking at it from the outside, Kerr knows people might assume the winnings provided him with the freedom to give up his business.

That was not what led to the decision, he said. He was ready to step away from the frenetic pace of the diner, and  he found a certain quality he needed in the String Shoppe.

“Ed gave me a refuge from the world when I couldn’t deal with it,” Kerr said.  “It was a place where I could just go and relax and learn.”

Taublieb also extended an ultimate gesture of trust, handing Kerr the keys to the shop door. About five years ago, Taublieb reached a point where he was only opening on Saturdays, and Kerr was often there to watch as local guitarists stopped by to check the inventory, sometimes pausing to play for a while.

As for Taublieb, he had moved from Buffalo to Olcott, making travel to the shop more time-consuming – and Kerr's proximity all the more valuable. Taublieb said he knew it was time to close based on a simple emotional calculation: It used to be, throughout the week, he looked forward to returning to Ontario Street.

A time came when much of that hunger went away, while the cost of running the place was only going up.

He made his decision. Last weekend, liquidators sold almost every instrument.

Kerr compares the sense of farewell to losing a committed neighborhood cobbler, when the alternative is buying your shoes at a mall. While Taublieb was always glad to sell a guitar, some dating as far back as the 1890s, it did not seem to Kerr as if that is what mattered to him most.

In a space revered by those who loved the acoustic guitar, Taublieb could sense it when visitors loved the place as much as he did. Kerr speaks for many who are feeling that connection, more than ever.

Like countless others who made the pilgrimage to the String Shoppe, it always left him wistful when the moment came to leave.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at skirst@buffnews.com or read more of his work in this archive.

 

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