When we stopped by our favorite local guitar shop, Old Style, recently we were shocked to hear from owner Reuben Cox that the whole thing started basically by accident. And a bit of an odd one at that, considering he's not even really a musician himself.
Reuben had been living in New York for about 20 years, where he was working as a magazine photographer and teaching at Sarah Lawrence and Cooper Union. Working with film, and more importantly his hands, parlayed into a new career as a luthier through a process of trial and error building his own instruments.
When he and his wife Miwa Okumura — who works for Beggars Group — moved to Los Angeles, Reuben opened up Old Style somewhat on a lark. It was a very small storefront space and he started with a stock of just about a dozen guitars he'd made himself, meaning there was low overhead. When people began asking for repairs, Reuben said he just kind of figured it out as he went along.
Since, the space has expanded and has become easily the most comfortable and welcoming guitar store in Los Angeles. Most of our musician friends frequent the store front for purchases, repairs, and even work itself — per Reuben's initial vision, the shop has grown to feel like a real neighborhood store, committed to and supported by musicians.
How did you begin working on guitars?
When I was teaching I had access to the universities' sculpture shop and all their tools. I was always into guitars, although I really can only play a G chord and have no musical talent. I've never been in a band, I've never tried to be in a band, but I knew a lot of musicians through friends and built one or two guitars just learning by trial and error. I'd either give them away or just sell them to someone for the price of materials.
So I had no ambitions for a career as a luthier or anything like that, but I had all the tools and the woodworking skills. When we moved out to L.A. in 2009, it all came out of the blue really quickly. I was really tired of teaching and institutional politics, and maybe it was just a graceful way of having to bow out of being a digital photographer for magazines, since that's the way things were going. And I thought I'd just give this guitar shop thing a try. I had no clue. It was 2009, perhaps the worst moment in American history to start a business. But I was just so naive about it, I just jumped right in.
Where do you source your instruments?
I get it all locally. Once in a blue moon I'll get something on eBay because I know how to restore it and can make it really playable and resell it. But it's really just cultivating a clientele. Now that the shop has been open for a while, people will just bring me things, which is great. I try to be a shop for the people.
There's never anything really good at flea markets but there's usually cheap acoustic guitars that I can buy and fix up and make something really playable that sounds good and has some character, more so than just like a cheap, brand spanking new guitar that's under $500 or under $300. If you're a teenager or a twenty something that kind of cares about the aesthetic, you kind of want that aura around something, rather than spending the same money for something that's playable but soulless.
Where did you learn the skills to even feel comfortable trying to build or repair something as specific as a guitar?
I'd always been interested in tools and building stuff as a kid. I went to art school at Cooper Union in New York, and if you go to art school you're expected to have a handle for materials — wood, metal, paint, plastics, all that stuff. I was close with some really good sculptors there who were teachers and mentors who I remained friendly with over the years, so I was also around people who had very good "hands" as they say.
I was just always interested in making things, making art. Photography can be very process oriented; making a guitar is highly process oriented, which I feel very fortunate to do, living in the future as we do.
What goes into your design for the custom guitars?
They're all kind of one-offs because I like old pickups, so usually it's old parts that I source. They're usually hollow bodies. And I'm just trying to figure out how to make a custom guitar for like $2,000 or less. It's oftentimes close to $1,200 or $1,500, which is kind of hard because of the parts and it's a lot of time to do it. But I want people who are actually in bands to buy them.
I mean if it's some weekend noodler who bought it, it's totally fine, but once custom guitars get in the $5,000 to $7,000 range, of which there are many, and amazing instruments, it attracts a different kind of clientele. It's just much cooler for me or much more fun to see someone who bought it recording with it, playing shows, taking it to Indiana on tour, or wherever. The narrative is much more interesting, rather than "I just sold a guy a guitar for 10 grand and it's there in Van Nuys in his bedroom on his wall."
What has the development of the store been like for you?
We expanded three years ago and I think that's when the shop became a "real shop," because before it was just jammed full of gear and there was no space. You know, it was like an episode of Hoarders. The sound of cheap guitars falling over was constant. And so I was just like this weird guy with a tiny shop, hole in the wall.
As I was and am stuck here a lot, I thought I might as well make it cosy. Most guitar shops are really grungy and have very kind of macho sweat... And it's just like, if you're a girl or you're queer or you're whatever, you can be comfortable, it doesn't have to be people riffing on a Line 6 amp. It's America's most metrosexual guitar shop. We've got Kiehl's products in the bathroom.
Visit Old Style Guitar Shop in Los Angeles' Virgil Village neighborhood: 510 N Hoover St, Los Angeles, CA 90004