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When Frank Ford and Richard Johnston first met as college students back in the 1960s, introduced by a mutual friend, it was evident they were kindred spirits.
"I was startled to find somebody who knew so much about old instruments. He was really surprised to meet somebody who, upon getting his first guitar, started modifying it right away," Ford recalled. "We found ourselves almost talking in code, boring the crap out of everyone around us, not talking about music itself but the instruments," he laughed.
Despite the friendship-at-first-sight, young Ford and Johnston never expected that mutual music geekery to form a partnership that's lasted half a century, but the homemade luthier business they founded in 1969, Gryphon Stringed Instruments, has expanded into a flourishing repair shop, retail store and local music hub that's this week celebrating its 50th anniversary.
Gryphon, Frank said with a grin, is just another Palo Alto garage startup. He and Johnston began getting together at Ford's Margarita Avenue home and building instruments from scratch. In 1969, they decided to become a "not exactly very formal business," based on a handshake partnership. Searching for a name, they picked Gryphon, inspired by the mythological beast.
"We settled on that because it was the coolest-looking one that had a name that wasn't so unwieldy," Ford said.
After a few years, it became apparent that their homespun model wasn't sustainable and that there was a market for skilled repair work. In 1973 they rented a tiny Palo Alto storefront and also began selling used and new instruments (today they still sell mostly acoustic fretted instruments, including guitars, mandolins, basses, banjos and ukuleles, but also a few select electrics) and accessories. They also met many friends who were music teachers seeking room to give lessons, so they decided to search for a bigger space that could serve that need. A few years later, they moved from El Camino Real to their current location at the corner of Park Boulevard and Lambert Avenue. They occupied only the front half until 1994, when they expanded to fill the entire cavernous space.
Rare in a society where independent, brick-and-mortar shops seem increasingly endangered, Gryphon is going strong, employing around 15 staffers plus hosting a similar number of music instructors, including Carol McComb, who's been teaching group vocal and guitar lessons at Gryphon for decades, and Jack Tuttle, a noted teacher whose children practically grew up at Gryphon (noted musician Molly Tuttle's photo on the cover of Acoustic Guitar Magazine is framed and displayed at the shop). The Gryphon Carolers, which grew out of McComb and Ed Johnson's classes, have been entertaining the community annually during the holidays since 1975.
Lisa Sanchez has been coming down from San Francisco twice a week since 1992 to teach guitar at Gryphon. "The students, many of whom are from the local community, are an interesting, motivated group of people," she said, describing Gryphon as a welcoming, non-threatening environment for musicians of all levels. "The owners are really good guys. Frank and Richard set the tone at the store and they know how to make things work," she said. "I credit them with the store's great success."
Roz Lorenzato, who's been teaching guitar, mandolin, banjo and bass for 14 years, told the Weekly she still considers herself a "newbie" compared to how long some have been there. She described Gryphon as a "pop-and-pop" shop with a close-knit, family feeling.
"They have helped me immeasurably with everything from referring students, fixing instruments and guiding me with my silly projects. But more than that, they have let me be a part of their clan," she said.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon visit, Ford and Johnston did indeed imbue a paternal air of pride as they introduced their staff members (many of whom are also musicians and instrument builders in their own right).
Paul Jacobs, working at the checkout counter near a display of handmade "Frank's Cranks" string winders, noted he'd seen many local music stores shutter since he was a music-loving teen in the 1960s. "Palo Alto's changed a lot," he said. Gryphon, along with Gelb Music in Redwood City, seems to defy the odds.
Employees are provided lunch each day, Ford explained, a perk to make up for the frequent interruptions and busy schedules that make longer breaks impractical. As Ford worked in the bustling repair area on restoring a mandolin that he himself had built in 1970, Johnston led a tour of the catacomb-like upper floor of the shop, filled with a wide variety of instruments in various states of repair, including a banjo from the 1890s. "Keeping track of it all drives us nuts," he admitted with a laugh.
"Our primary goal and mission is the service we do on the instruments; it's what makes us different in an industry dominated by the likes of Amazon, the big-box places," Ford said. Keeping Gryphon going over the years hasn't been easy.
"Nobody is recession-proof around here. Our business had a devastating depression centered around 1983-84," Ford said, when "literally 85% of the music market went away." Many factors contributed, including a general economic downturn, a defunding of school music programs, a changing demographic as boomers turned away from musical hobbies and an increase in synthesized and electronic music.
"We saw music store after music store drop out. We were paralyzed; we went for a couple of years with literally no business at all," Ford recalled. "Our accountant came and said, 'You may not know it but you're out of business, you need to sell everything until you have nothing left.' We said, 'No we don't, we'll stick it out; the world is going to come back to playing guitar.'"
Sure enough, acoustic music made a comeback and Gryphon carried on. The enthusiastic return of the ukulele in recent decades has also been an unexpected boon. "We couldn't be happier about that," Ford said.
Gryphon has had to evolve with the times, as they now, somewhat reluctantly, also do plenty of business via the internet, employing a photographer to help catalog and market instruments for online sales and maintaining an informative website and blog.
Alex Jordan, a longtime customer and touring musician who eventually became a part-time employee, said it's not only the expertise and range of instruments represented but the community feeling shared by the customers, staff and especially the support of Ford and Johnston that make Gryphon a special place to shop and work. "I've visited dozens of music stores around the country and none are quite like Gryphon," he said.
Customer Mark Fassett agreed. "It's really rare to live near such a resource these days. I had a friend come from out of town and one of the required stops on his tour of the Bay Area was Gryphon."
On Sunday, Sept. 29, noon to 5 p.m., Gryphon will celebrate its golden anniversary with a low-key party. Instruments made by Ford and Johnston will be on display and there will be live music from Gryphon employees, associates and alumni; refreshments; a raffle; special sales and some giveaways.
"We're real simple guys," Ford said. "All we want to do is acknowledge to our customers and friends that we've been here a good long while."
More information is available at Gryphon Stringed Instruments.