Photos by Claire Bégin
The sound of a customer fingerpicking a 1950 Gibson CF-100 in the front showroom of Folkway Music, in Waterloo, Ontario, an hour west of Toronto, drifts into owner Mark Stutman’s office. On the floor lie guitar cases with instruments ready for repair. On one wall is a bookshelf with two decades’ worth of The Official Vintage Guitar Price Guide. On another hangs a framed bill of sale from the store’s most famous customer—more on that in a bit. Over a cup of coffee on an autumn afternoon, Stutman, also a passionate craftsman, shares his story. It’s a tale of a left-handed kid filled with curiosity and an ear for uncommon sounds.
Stutman bought the current Folkway building in Waterloo six months after signing a five-year lease for another store in nearby Guelph. Between 2012 and 2016 he operated both locations. Finally, in 2016, when the Guelph lease expired, Stutman closed the shop there and moved Folkway Music permanently to the two-story historic home in Uptown Waterloo. Built in 1906, this address is where Charles Frederick Thiele, a legendary Canadian bandleader and composer, once lived. In that building, too, he founded Waterloo Music, one of Canada’s first music stores, and went on to build the nation’s largest music publishing house. Perhaps it’s fate that a century later Thiele’s family abode is now home to a world-renowned guitar shop.
An Audiophile’s Sonic Discoveries
“My father is an audiophile,” says Stutman, 46. “He always had a fancy stereo system. Growing up, on weekends we used to go to high-fidelity shops, sit down, and put on a record like Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms on a set of $40,000 speakers. Then, we would just listen. For me, music wasn’t ever about the lyrics or the song, it was about the sound.”
Stutman combined his dad’s affection for hi-fi sounds with an insatiable inquisitiveness about guitars. As a kid, he spent hours tinkering, trying to understand their inner workings. He was always fascinated by the sound of the guitar in all of its forms. “In Montreal, in the 1980s and ’90s, I didn’t have access to many left-handed guitars, so I would constantly search the classified ads,” he recalls. “If I wanted a guitar, I would have to order it, sight unseen, and pay for it upfront. When the guitar arrived, if I didn’t like it, I was out of luck.”
This happened far too many times, so Stutman set his sights on a dream job as a guitar maker. With no formal training in lutherie, the teenaged Stutman kept tinkering and reading voraciously about guitars. At the University of Waterloo, while his peers were busy studying, he sanded away at his Fender Stratocaster, refinishing it in the hallway outside his dorm room. After graduating with a B.A. in geography and unsure of what to do next, his parents gave him a nudge. As a graduation gift, they arranged for him to learn to build guitars from master craftsman Sergei de Jonge, who had apprenticed with Jean Larrivée in the 1960s and is part of the Toronto group of luthiers that includes Linda Manzer and Grit Laskin.
After completing de Jonge’s course, Stutman, then 23, moved back to Waterloo. With no employment prospects, he crafted a resumé specific to guitar building and repair. He had recently joined the Association of Stringed Instrument Artisans and used its member list as a starting point. Stutman put a star next to everybody who was a guitar builder or repair person in Canada, or on the East Coast, West Coast, or Southwest of the U.S., all places he imagined living.
These were the nascent days of electronic communication, so into the mail went 400 stamped letters. Of those countless cold calls, 40 responded, and four were worth a follow-up. One was a guitar builder and store owner in Phoenix, Arizona. Stutman flew down and stayed with this luthier, whose name he cannot recall, for a couple of weeks. “I had no experience with guitar repair and I only knew how to build a guitar one way—left-handed,” he recalls. “After a week, the owner offered to hire me at seven dollars an hour. He said, ‘I will teach you one hour of guitar repair for every two hours of guitar building you do.’ Basically, he wanted me to make guitars with his name on them.”
No surprise, Stutman refused. He returned home to Canada with no employment prospects in his preferred profession. A friend from university tipped him off to a gig with a boatbuilder in nearby Guelph. With no other options, Stutman agreed. He moved there and for the next year was the low man on the totem pole, spending 12 hours a day sanding 1930s replicas of 35-foot mahogany Muskoka boats worth a quarter of a million dollars each. Meanwhile, he put a repair bench in his small apartment and did some work on the side for local musicians and a few music stores in town.
An Auspicious URL
In 1997, Stutman was biking into downtown Guelph from his apartment in the suburbs when he noticed a cool spot for rent for $600 a month in a commercial building. Armed with some savings and a loan from his parents, Stutman—despite having no business plan—co-signed the lease with his father. The original store was small, mainly just a place for the budding guitar maker to build and repair instruments. “I would find a guitar that was broken, or someone would bring in a guitar to fix and it was too much money, so I would buy it and repair and resell it,” Stutman explains. “This was before the internet really exploded. I did anything to make money, including giving guitar lessons.”
Suddenly, more and more guitars arrived at the store. Then, in 1999, for his 25th birthday, Stutman’s sister bought him the URL folkwaymusic.com. At the time he knew nothing about vintage instruments. “I bought all the tools, put up a sign, and waited; I was fixing what I could. I also designed the space to have a real hip vibe, with a coffee machine and a live music component every week—over the years we’ve hosted shows by musicians like Doug Paisley, Joan Shelley, and the Milk Carton Kids.”
Crazy Rabbit Hole
One day a customer brought Stutman a refinished Gibson. “I had no clue what this guitar was,” he remembers. “The guy told me it was a Southern Jumbo [SJ-200], known by vintage guitar collectors and aficionados as ‘the king of the flattops.’ I felt like a total idiot! I’m supposed to be the expert. From that moment on I learned everything I could about vintage guitars and went down this crazy rabbit hole.”
Stutman hired another craftsman who knew a lot more about vintage guitars, and the pair spent endless hours scouring eBay for vintage instruments, at a time when certain models could be had on the cheap. “In 2001, you couldn’t make any money on vintage Martins, since they were already selling for big dollars,” Stutman says. “But you still could on Gibsons. I would stay up until 2:00 AM to find and bid on L-OOs, J-45s, and J-35s.
“Every penny I had went to buying guitars on eBay,” Stutman continues. “I was in debt like crazy, spending way more money than I had, and I still had no business acumen. I was always at the bottom of my line of credit, but I had these guitars, and this slick website, and figured eventually people would find me.”
The Gibson Guy
In 2000, Stutman was contacted by one of his parents’ neighbors about selling a portion of his collection—$90,000 worth of vintage high-end Gibsons. “This was the real deal!” Stutman says. “Maybe it was a terrible idea, maybe it was a great idea, time would tell. I borrowed money from my parents and bought them all.”
Having those Golden Era Gibsons, among them a 1934 Jumbo, a J-35, and a L-OO, put Folkway Music on the map. But the investment took a toll. “It took me nearly eight years to sell all those guitars because I overpaid for them due to my naiveté and had to wait for the market to catch up,” Stutman recalls. “I relied on the seller’s knowledge. He was very persuasive as to their worth and I was still young and new to the game.”
These lessons learned drove Stutman to increase his Gibson knowledge. He devoured Gruhn’s Guide to Vintage Guitars and other sources. Mainly, he learned by doing, just like when he was a teenager in his bedroom tinkering with his first acoustic guitars. As he began to do more and more repair work on vintage Gibsons, Stutman used mirrors and flashlights to see how they were built. “My knowledge is an aggregate of every guitar that has ever crossed my bench,” he says.
Those guitars begat similar guitars and were especially valuable as marketing tools to build the Folkway Music brand online. Slowly, Stutman became known as the Gibson guy. Social media marketing has continued to build this reputation, as the store posts daily to Instagram, showcasing the latest guitars for sale, along with tips and tricks on guitar repair.
A Bespoke Experience
Though Folkway’s core business is vintage, it boasts a curated selection of high-end new acoustics from brands such as Martin, Gibson, Taylor, National, and Collings. Also for sale are vintage electrics by Fender, Gibson, Gretsch, and other makers; Deering Goodtime banjos; Eastman mandolins; and Kiwaya ukuleles.
Whether Folkway Music sells a $60,000 instrument or an entry-level model, the customer service approach is the same. “Even if we are selling a $500 guitar, we are doing it in a different way,” Stutman explains. “It gets set up before it gets to the floor, we are teaching people about humidity, about tone, and how you hold your pick . . . it’s very personal. It has a bespoke vibe without the pretentious overtones and financial repercussions.”
Beyond selling guitars, repair and restoration of vintage acoustics remains where Stutman’s passion truly lies. It is the foundation of the business, going back to the store’s roots in 1999. “That is my gig,” he says. “I do historically accurate restoration work. Anything I do to a guitar results in it looking totally original.”
Stutman employs two full-time repair technicians and one part-time junior technician, who does most of the setup work and builds guitars in his spare time. Listen closely and you can hear these repairman at work upstairs sanding and winding strings. “Some might think our repairs are expensive, but we do more and have the same hourly rates as other shops,” Stutman says.
Today, customers from around the world ship guitars to Folkway Music for repairs. They trust Stutman and his staff to handle each vintage instrument with care. Due to the pandemic, the store does not get many touring musicians stopping in these days, but a who’s who of guitar players are loyal Folkway Music customers. As Stutman says, “You may not have heard of them, but you’ve heard them,” like all of Norah Jones’ band from the singer-songwriter’s Come Away with Me era [Kevin Breit, Bill Frisell, Adam Levy, Adam Rogers, and Tony Scherr]. Grammy-winning musician John Leventhal is a regular customer, and singer-songwriter Joe Henry is not only a long-time client but a friend.
Oh, and there’s also a famous customer whose framed bill of sale hangs on Stutman’s office wall: Mr. Slowhand himself—Eric Clapton—who bought a mint-condition 1929 Gibson L-1 like the one seen in the most famous photograph of blues legend Robert Johnson. Selling guitars to the stars is cool, but for Stutman, it’s the regular collectors who are as passionate about their instruments as he is that he most loves dealing with. “It’s not about the celebrities,” he says. “Sure, it’s fun, but it’s the everyday people who want a nice guitar. That is what it’s really about.”
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.