It’s a busy Thursday afternoon at the 2023 Folk Alliance International conference in Kansas City, Missouri, and Lillian Werbin, co-owner and president of Elderly Instruments, is in town to co-lead an LGBTQ2A affinity group, catch up with old friends and meet new ones, and head up a workshop titled “The Queer Pulse of Society: A Conversation About Community and Social Sustainability.” Although she has officially worked at Elderly for less than a decade, Lily’s been around the store her entire life: Her father, Stan Werbin, founded Elderly in East Lansing, Michigan, in 1972, making it the backdrop of her childhood. From those early days of “15 or 20 used instruments,” Elderly Instruments has become one of the Midwest’s most celebrated acoustic-music power spots, a thriving community hub that offers new, used, and vintage instruments, accessories, and instructional materials, with an emphasis on great prices and customer service, as well as a role in local acoustic-music camps and music education.
“I gave an award last night to a woman who used to work at the store, and she remembers when I was adopted,” says Werbin. “This life is so full circle, and I get to have those moments all the time. I don’t like to use the word blessed, but I am seriously blessed.”
I’m looking at this ridiculously cute childhood picture of you with Stan and Sandy Werbin on the Elderly website, and I’m wondering: How did a little Black girl wind up running this music store?
I’m, like, six in that picture [laughs]. My parents picked me up when I was seven weeks old, and I went to my first guitar trade show three weeks later. That’s been my life since the beginning: Being in these spaces, talking to and meeting new people who play music.
When did you begin working at the store?
Nine years ago. It’s a short span of time, really, in the big scheme of things. I didn’t really work at the store as a kid or a teenager, but after I got a degree in public relations from Western Michigan University, I realized that I didn’t want to work for somebody I didn’t believe in. So, I asked my father if I could work for him. I was told I’d be an extra body and that I should not waste anyone’s time, which is nice of him [laughs]. But I took his advice seriously and made sure to delve in.
Where’d you start?
In the warehouse. From there, I went to the phone room and showroom sales. I also tried my hand in purchasing and marketing, but I found that I’m better at planning than doing those things.
Having worked at various parts of the company certainly gives you perspective on each employee’s job, right?
I understand the point of each department, obviously, but I have to check in regularly or I would lose touch on how the process goes or how to improve things. I can’t rely on what I learned eight years ago—that would be foolish, I think.
Nine years in, do you feel like you understand every aspect of the business?
All I know is Elderly, and it’s nice to know it as intimately as I do. I don’t think I understood it when I was a kid. It was just this great environment for me to hang out in, if I wanted to. I’m lucky that I get to see the true beauty of it.
What does being co-owner and president entail?
My job is to make sure that everybody’s job isn’t such a hassle that they hate me. Seriously, a lot of what I do is strategic planning, people management, and making sure that everybody is OK. My greatest role is making sure that [Elderly’s employees] can do what they do best, which is to talk about the instruments and the music.
What have you learned from Stan?
Working with my dad has been an absolute joy, and I continue to learn from him every day; just when I think I have figured it all out, I realize that I haven’t. He keeps me accountable, and I keep him young in the sense that he gets to refresh ideas that he hasn’t thought about in 30 or 40 years. A lot of my strategic planning is about balancing his original dreams with our current abilities.
As a business owner, what’s important to you?
I want to be authentically myself in my business, and I ask that everybody else do the same. If someone has to change who they are to walk in the door, I have failed. And if I say it enough, people can hold me accountable. It’s easy for business owners to forget what accountability is supposed to feel like. The more I lead with honesty, the more people can hold me accountable to the words that I’m putting out into the universe, you know?
Amen! Besides instruments, do you still sell CDs and books?
We sell CDs, records, and yes, actual books [laughs]. There’s no easy way to be a retailer of those items, but I think it’s important to support musicians in that realm. It’s a dwindling section—I would not lead you astray—but we also do a lot of camps, festivals, and making sure that we as a business are supporting musicians elsewhere, too.
I’ve been to many music stores that hardly seem interested in supporting musicians.
Then they don’t understand what it’s about, frankly. I grew up with a fondness for getting to know the people around me, and I think it’s too bad that other stores may have forgotten the point to all of this. My dad had an interest in these instruments, as did his partner, and they just wanted to get good instruments into their friends’ hands. They did that, and when they found more friends, they got instruments for them, too.
How many acoustic guitars do you stock in an average month?
We currently have around 700 acoustic guitars, new and used. That number can fluctuate significantly depending on what’s coming in/going out (consignments/used collections) or when we have a large batch of new guitars scheduled to arrive.
What’s the coolest acoustic guitar currently in stock?
Cool is in the eye of the beholder! My answer is probably a bit boring or mildly sappy, but the Martin Elderly 50th Anniversary model tempts me daily. It has a special stamp on the back of the peghead, and the inside label is hand-signed by C.F. Martin IV, my dad, and me, so it has a bit of my heart. We have a few of the 50th customs, but this one is the one I love the most.
What’s the ratio of new vs. used vs. vintage acoustic guitar sales?
In general, around 75 percent new and 25 percent used/vintage, with used and vintage swapping every few weeks.
What are the most popular guitars in each of those three categories?
We’re currently “sweet Martin-heavy.” What’s most popular? I can only speak for myself, but my favorite among the new guitars is a Martin Custom 000-28. There’s also a 1947 000-28 and a used 000-28 Ambertone from 2017. As you can see, I stuck to a body size I might enjoy.
How has Elderly’s acoustic guitar inventory evolved over the years?
There’s been more fluctuation in the last few years, but we try to keep our level of acoustic guitars at a certain percentage of our overall inventory. We’ve never gone for simply one style or type of acoustic guitar but rather what the customer and our staff are interested in. Our inventory evolves with our community’s interest.
How do you think your customers’ attitudes have changed over the years?
People are forgetting the importance of just jamming without perfection, you know—just playing to play, whether it’s their livelihood or not. There should be a sense of community and whimsy to it, but that’s just my opinion.
What would you say to someone who’s running a store like yours in times like these?
If you haven’t looked into every corner of the business in the last five years, now’s the time, and as soon as you think you’re done, do it again. Don’t be afraid to change, because we have to.
What kind of changes are you navigating at Elderly?
Last year we launched a loyalty rewards program and got into SMS [text message] marketing. This year, besides painting the walls again and making sure everybody likes the lighting, I want to revamp our online lessons to also be in-person. In a couple of months, we’ll be planning our annual camp, and we’ll be doing a pop-up store in Indiana. Every year flies by, and we just keep changing things, improving ourselves.
Tell me more about the camps.
The Midwest Banjo Camp and Midwest Uke & Harmonica Camp aren’t owned by Elderly, but my dad has partners for each. The idea for banjo camp came to my dad here at Folk Alliance eight years ago. That’s one of the reasons I come to these conferences—who knows the next camp that needs to be started?
Are the camps near Elderly?
Historically, they’ve been in Michigan, but this year we’re going to try Indiana. We’ve had upwards of 350 campers and 40 faculty for Banjo Camp, and 12 to 14 instructors at Ukulele Camp. And it’s not just banjos and ukulele. Banjo Camp also has flatpicking guitar, mandolin, and occasionally fiddle. I like camp a lot because you get some of the best musicians around teaching those who just want to know how to do it. The camp we run is friendly and comfortable, and it’s really about the people.
How does the store stay connected to the to the local community?
Elderly sits in a neighborhood called Old Town, and I’m on the board of the commercial association. I do a lot for my neighbors and the merchants in my area, and we sponsor local festivals in Michigan.
Is Elderly involved in music education?
We do demos for schools—I recently went and explained the banjo to kindergartners and first-graders. And if somebody needs 150 recorders, we can figure out how to get it done [laughs]. I know how hard it is for the public schools to decide to bring in a whole new program, so when we are invited, we make a point to be there.
Are there groups of musicians connected to Elderly, too?
My dad helped start a few concert series and ukulele strum groups in town over the years. Our local programs aren’t as organized as the national work that I do, but it’s easier to get it done when it’s right in your backyard.
If someone was thinking about opening a brick-and-mortar music store in 2023, what kind of advice would you have?
Listen to your customers and employees. Listen to your staff. Listen to those who make a living playing music. Explore new ways to interact with music, instruments, and musicians. Most of all, make sure you really want it, and be ready to stay focused on the dream, even if it seems like it’s not working out.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.