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Photo by Jack GouldAir guitarists don't survive for long in the World of Strings. They can't. The solemnly serene atmosphere of serious craft that permeates the Long Beach shop is too thick for them to breathe. "This place is not like Guitar Center," says Chris Hanlin, who has been making his living at World of Strings for 10 years. "We don't want a lot of dumbasses hanging around."
Such is the ambiance in World of Strings that those harsh words pass Hanlin's lips almost ethereally. They come across more like firm wisdom etched on a stone tablet than a snippy, knee-jerk brickbat. "I hope you can tell," Hanlin adds, just in case you can't, "that I don't say that to be snobby."
Oh, you can tell—no, really, you can—even if you may have begun to feel a little short of breath for a second there.
World of Strings is the home of heir guitarists—and violinists, cellists, standup-bass players . . . there are even a couple of dulcimers and a harp among the lutes and ukes and mandolins and stringed things so unusual they keep 'em behind glass in a display called "The Museum of the Hard to Believe." World of Strings is a store for genuine musicians and artisans, people who have been bequeathed a tradition and who, each in their own way, are living it.
This population isn't as exclusive as it may seem. Ultimately, in fact, World of Strings is probably more egalitarian than the huge chains that gobble up most of America's musical-instrument sales and repair business. It's a small operation that has been situated in the same frayed Long Beach neighborhood for about 40 years—nobody seems to know exactly how many—surviving despite a trickle of walk-in traffic, poor on-street parking, city regulations that discourage live performances, and an advertising budget that consists of an occasional coat of paint on the quaint sign that hangs over the sidewalk. From its ownership to its employees to its customers, those who consider the World of Strings their world seem to sort themselves out. And they are still a pretty mixed bag.
"This is a real crossroads for musicians," says Hanlin, front man for the Dibs when he isn't selling, repairing or making guitars for others at World of Strings. "Our customers come from everywhere, from punk bands to the LA Philharmonic, from blues to jazz to rock. Hang out here, and you could easily form a new band yourself—like, a new one every week!"
Jon Peterson came to Long Beach from Nevada in 1964 and figures he bought the shop "about 20 years ago." He teaches a repair workshop every year in Nevada with an affiliate of the Violin Society of America convention. And he's even better at fixing standup basses. There's a room full of them—40 or 50, lined up and leaning like a platoon of soldiers at ease—waiting for Peterson's healing touch. "Some come in pretty banged up, almost in splinters," Hanlin says while Peterson carves away, oblivious to the conversation. "That bass over there was the victim of a marital dispute."
Hanlin came to Southern California from Indiana in the late 1980s after a romantic fallout of his own. His apprenticeship with classical guitar maker Bob Mattingly—the previous owner of World of Strings—led to a job at the shop in 1991. A half-dozen other repair experts work there, too. "We can honestly say that we have people who can work on any stringed instrument under the sun," says Hanlin. Most of them—like the noted C.B. Hill—also custom-make instruments.
"I was 17 years old the first time I went into World of Strings," says Bruce Baldwin, a customer who just turned 49. "I'm still in there all the time. It's always been a mom-and-pop operation. A neighborhood place. But there are probably few places in the country that are any better. That's why it's been able to compete with places like Mars and Guitar Center. And survive."
World of Strings was founded in a small store directly across Seventh Street from its current location. It has expanded twice since—first to the west, into a former hair salon, and now to the east, into a former liquor store. That liquor store burned during the riots of 1992, prompting Peterson to move out every instrument and piece of repair equipment. But when the uprising was over, he moved everything back in.
"This is our place," Peterson says with a shrug. He's kind of an anonymous guy, small and thin, who wears wire-rimmed spectacles that magnify his piercing blue eyes, a beard that seems to double the size of his face, and a pineapple-print Hawaiian shirt that swims over his torso. But then he shakes your hand, and there's no missing the power in his grip, which draws your eyes to the large, veined hands of a craftsman. He stops attending to the standup bass that is strapped down to his workbench and rolls a cigarette without looking. "We've always been a place that people have to seek out, but what we do is at a high level, so people take the trouble," he explains.