"People want to come in and play the basses. I hear this over and over, they say 'I've always wanted to come,' or 'this is the shop! I've always imagined what it looked like,'" says Toni Buffa, who has run Lemur since she and her late husband Jerry purchased the company in 1995.
Players of the upright bass – also known as the standup bass or double bass – know Lemur as the gold standard for the instrument in the western U.S. The company provides basses, bows, amplifiers and accessories to a worldwide clientele.
"When we took over the business in '95, it was the beginning of what I would call a golden age of bass. Buffa says. "It was just booming – our business tripled in less than two years."
"It's a destination spot for all upright bass players," adds Lemur staffer Miguel Gonzalez. "People come visit us from all over the world – they'll be on vacation in Vegas, and make the four-hour drive just to come and hang out on the showroom floor and play some of the basses that we have here."
And who could blame people?
A Mecca for musicians, known only to a select few, is tucked away in an unassuming shopping center in downtown San Juan Capistrano, just two blocks from the train station. Lemur Music, a premier upright bass shop celebrating 50 years of operation, beckons bassists from far and wide on a pilgrimage to the shop's legendary showroom to try out the massive instruments on display.
The elite pedigree of Lemur's product line requires a high level of maintenance, which their staff luthiers provide on a daily basis. Each bass is finely tuned (sorry not sorry) to the genre of music the bass will be used in, from orchestra and opera to jazz, rockabilly, Americana and folk. The basses are specified to each individual player's height, hands and playing style – no small feat for instruments that often stretch to seven feet tall.
"One-third of our business is the repair and restoration shop. When we buy basses, they come partially assembled, and we do all the finish work here to get them put together and set up to be played," Buffa says. Turns out there's also a lot of regular maintenance involved as well. Since this is an acoustic stringed instrument of the violin family, these basses are not glued the way a guitar is glued. They're meant to come apart, meant to last for a long time, and it's meant to be repaired. "And the older they are, the better they sound," Buffa says.
The owner's connection to her customers and the bass community is basically familial. Keeping up with new bass makers – like Orange County's own Blast Cult- and other industry innovations is a major responsibility at Lemur Music, and one that Buffa doesn't take lightly. Lemur shipped product from San Juan Capistrano to all 50 states and 38 countries last year, and staying on top of the needs of players worldwide keeps the staff informed and engaged.
"The music industry in particular is very relationship-driven. So many businesses, especially in Europe and even retail businesses in the United States, are multi-generational," Buffa says. "You build relationships, which you might inherit and pass along to your children or the next owner. We consider ourselves really well integrated in the bass community."
Lemur maintains one of the world's largest collections of sheet music for upright bass, and their showroom plays host to events that include monthly clinics and 'Meet the Maker' events, which highlight bass makers from across the globe. In January, just in time for NAMM, Lemur will showcase Roland Wilfer, a fourth-generation master bass builder from Germany. The company has also been known to take its show on the road as a regular participant in the International Society of Bassists' biennial weeklong convention, scheduled for June 2015 at Colorado State University.
Keeping the customers happy in a field as exacting as the upright bass is a huge part of Lemur's mission. When servicing players from Santa Barbara to Phoenix to Tijuana, ranging from local high school bands to Orange County's Pacific Symphony and the L.A. Philharmonic, high standards and a personal touch are the norm.
"I want [Lemur] to be everything that I would want to walk into a business and get, which means white glove, Rolls Royce service," Buffa says. "If you have a broken string and you're in London, I'll have you [a new] one tomorrow … that's part of what keeps me interested after 20-plus years – the variety of services, and the variety of encounters that we have with our customers."
Lemur's concern for the real-world travails of the touring musician led to the creation of a road case and rental bass called the FlyAway, a customized package that allows players to travel easily without raising the hackles of the TSA every time they board a plane.
"The FlyAway bass is the most important product that we've developed in the last five years," Buffa says. "You can keep it in your hotel room, and it fits in the back of a taxicab … the airlines are not easy to deal with when you're traveling with something seven feet tall in a case."
In a music scene increasingly dominated by DJs and digital samples, the Lemur team is confident that walking into a room with a monstrous upright bass will continue to be the ultimate showstopper.
"It's just the sexiest thing you've ever seen," Buffa says.