Interview and photos by Kyle Cochrun
Occupation: Co-owners of Staff Music
Hometown: Akron, Ohio
Current Neighborhood: Ellet
Staff Music, a snug guitar shop in Ellet, is of the purest variety of mom and pop stores, run day after day by just William “Lee” East and his son Lee “Dig” East. The two sit around playing guitars, listening to Rock ‘n’ Roll, drinking coffee, giving advice based on years of experience and helping customers set up their guitars by straightening the neck, polishing the frets, dropping the action, etc. When you try talking business with the Easts, they inevitably turn the conversation to music; they can’t seem to delineate between the two. These guys love music and have kept their shop’s inventory limited to what they know best: guitars and drums.
How did the business start?
Dig: Dad (William “Lee” East) and Virgil Lay started the shop in ’64. They were building guitars at a location down on High Street. The city wanted to put a fire station on the property, so they had to move. Virgil wanted to stay in the guitar manufacturing business, and started Lay’s Guitar Shop on Kenmore Boulevard, which is kind of world-renowned. Dad wanted to stay in retail. So we came out to Ellet in ’68, and the rest, as they say, is history.
How did Dig end up joining the business?
Dig: When Dad started the business in ’64 I was 3 years old, so the store’s pretty much been here all my life. I had music pounded into my head. I’d go to jam sessions Dad was having. As a toddler, I’d fall asleep in front of the bass drum. I was in the school band. I’ve played everything from heavy metal to opera. I went out and played on the road for a while. A million bands, a million different musicians. Lot of fuzzy memories of good times. So I’ve been involved [with the store] at different levels throughout the years, but I’ve always, in some way, been a part of it.
How have you seen the industry change over the years?
Lee: We had to make a lot of changes over the years, because you’ve got to fly with the times, you know? Back in the day, I carried high-end Martins, Fenders and Gibsons in here, brand new. You could buy a new Les Paul out the door for five hundred bucks. Today that same guitar costs me over $3 thousand just to stock. And who am I going to sell it to?
Dig: The industry has changed so much, especially with the advent of the internet and big-box stores. It’s hard for mom and pop stores to compete. But it’s about changing your mentality.
And the music scene in general has changed. There’s so much electronic music now, and things like that. Back in the ‘70s, if you played guitar you were a god. Now it’s like, “ehh, whatever.” There’s still a market there, but you’ve just got to stay ahead of the changes.
At the end of the day, I’m not getting rich. But I’m buying and selling music equipment, and if I can use that to pay my bills, that’s pretty cool.
What is something you wish you had done differently with the business over the years?
Lee: I don’t think I’d change anything I did, really.
The more you add on to any equation, the more complicated it becomes. I tried opening different stores. I had three stores at one time. That went over like a lead balloon. When you’ve got more locations and more personnel, you’ve got all this stuff to worry about, like doing bookwork, social security, income taxes and all that stuff. So I got rid of those stores and cut it down to just Dig and [me]. If you keep it mom and pop, it’s simple. Like Clint Eastwood said, “A man’s got to know his limitations.”
Fortunately, my work is my hobby. It’s like Christmas every day here.