Guitar Slinger Music in Girard combines retail, repairs and rockin’ out
By Robert Guttersohn
Varg Freeborn bends over a slender guitar neck, smoothing its surface under the combo of fluorescent and incandescent lights that share ceiling space with his “bone yard” of guitars in his shop’s basement.
There in his custom-guitar-making laboratory, he scrapes a Japan-made shinto rasp, a woodworking tool, along the neck’s surface until its shape is just right. The room, kept warm and humid to protect the wooded instruments that enter, is only a third of operations at Varg and Katie Freeborn’s Guitar Slinger Music, at 14 S. State St. But it’s Varg’s lab, where he often spends nights on one of the three workbenches. There he sleeps under a President Calvin Coolidge quote that hangs on the basement wall: “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence.”
And if any one word can define what runs the guitar shop that saw business grow exponentially in 2011, it’s persistence.
“I’ve fallen asleep on the board many times,” Varg said, sporting a thick beard and donning a newspaper-boy cap. “I’ll work all night, fall asleep, wake up and go back to work.”
For the 36-year-old Varg and 27-year-old Katie, its persistence born from passion for music, for being with one another and for bringing to the Valley something its guitarists and musicians needed: a place to customize guitars, a place for repair and a place to jam.
Guitar Slinger’s first floor is split between its retail side, with one wall covered in posters of rock and blues musician folklore, and its repair shop, where Katie spends most of the day fixing acoustic and electric guitars.
A stage fitted with amps and a drum set takes up a quarter of the retail space for Slinger’s Thursday jam night.
“You get to play with people you’ve never met before,” Katie said.
And the jams have even acted as band matchmaker, drawing musicians who enter as strangers but leave as a newly formed trio or quartet.
The first floor has been part of the business’s year-and-a-half existence, or two-year existence if counting the time Varg and Katie spent selling custom guitars out of their Jeep Cherokee at flea markets.
The duo met while studying at Youngstown State University and melded over a shared love of music. By then, Varg had been traveling the country learning to customize cars, splitting them in halves and quarter in order to rebuild them. He said the same creative prowess it takes to do that directly translates to customizing guitars.
Katie has carried on her education, taking graduate courses for counseling between fixing guitar knots, fretting boards and replacing pickups.
And although Varg didn’t finish his degree at YSU, they are both certified luthiers — makers of stringed instruments — out of the Galloup School of Lutherie in Big Rapids, Mich.
After mastering at flea markets the cycle of using revenue to buy more supply to then create more revenue, Varg and Katie decided it was time to invest in a physical location for their young business.
They stripped down their lifestyle to bare necessities, and year and a half ago, they picked a place on South State Street in Girard, which Varg calls “422’s sweet spot.” He said Girard is safe; it’s between Warren and Youngstown and the rent is much cheaper than U.S. Route 422 in Niles.
Back then, the repair shop on the first floor consisted of only one table. But business grew, in fact, doubled in its first month. So, they expanded. They brought three tables to the repair shop, created and filled Varg’s custom shop with precision woodcutting tools in the basement and in January hired their first employee, 19-year-old Dustin Byler.
In 2011, they repaired and customized 400 guitars.
“You don’t get that kind of volume without doing it right,” Varg said. “We get lots of repeat business.”
“We always have a line,” Katie said.
And 2012 doesn’t seem much different, given the long line of projects Varg has listed on his dry-erase board in the basement and that they are fielding orders from as far as Syracuse, N.Y.
“I’ll look at the board and just keep my nose to the table,” Varg said.
Guitar Slinger’s is a case study on how a small business starts and succeeds in the midst of a recession. And Varg has developed his theories.
Varg said companies created during economic good times build up too much overhead that will bog it down in bad times.
And, of course, there is the customer base, the Valley’s musicians.
As musicians themselves, they were aware of the need for such a shop as their own in the Valley. Outside of the commercial chains, they were a pair of guitarists living in a guitar-shop desert. And the passion they have for the stringed axes is reciprocated by the customers that enter their glass door.
The Valley’s “level of passion is extreme,” Varg said.