McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica — which happens to house one of the most storied concert halls in the Los Angeles area as well as being a mecca for acoustic instrument sales and lessons — has gotten to enjoy a Tom Sawyer-type fate this week: attending its own funeral.
The Los Angeles Times ran a story online Monday with the headline: “After five decades, McCabe’s Guitar Shop owners are retiring, citing coronavirus.” It was an accurate header… as far as it went. And that’s about as far as most would-be readers went as the piece spread like wildfire across social media, with each new positing accompanied by an “RIP” or “Heartbroken” caption, inevitably followed by dozens of tear-faced emoticons in place of likes.
But what’s not to like? The venue is not only staying open but planning for the future, with ownership staying in the family — great news by any standard. And it was in the Times’ story, in a caption to the introductory photo, and in the text itself, eventually, several paragraphs into an anecdotal lead. With few readers venturing that far, though, it was as if the entire musical city set to mourning.
“We actually had somebody send us flowers today,” laughs Walt McGraw, who is taking over the business with his wife, Nora. “Which was very nice! It turns out a lot of people just read a headline and saw a photo and didn’t read the article.It was a nice story, and to be honest with you, it’s been a good thing. Obviously we don’t want people to think we’re closing, but the outpouring of concern and emotion and well wishes has just been great. As the guy who’s taking it over, it’s nice to see that the community is out there backing us.”
On Twitter, the venue was swatting away sympathy cards — nicely. Actor Michael McKean tweeted simply: “S—.” Singer Chely Wright wrote, “This is heartbreaking. McCabe’s Guitar is one of my favorite venues on the planet to play. I had two shows on the books for April. I’m sending all my love to the entire team and their patrons.” Rosanne Cash wrote, “Another terrible loss. I have many happy memories of McCabe’s Guitar. There was no place like it.” The shop cheerfully replied, “There is still a place like it! We’re not closing. Our head honchos are just passing things along to the next generation.”
As the Times’ story accurately conveyed, Bob and Esperanza Riskin, the store and concert halls’ owners for more than 50 years, have decided to retire, and it is because of coronavirus. But it’s because of wanting to protect their own health, now that they’re in their 70s, not because the pandemic is forcing them to shut down (although the store has suffered the same setbacks as most businesses and received a loan).
“Bob and Espie have been talking about the transition for years, and our plan was to do it probably two, three years from now,” said McGraw, speaking from the Pico Blvd. storefront Tuesday night. “And the only thing that’s changed is that they want to retire a little sooner and it’s mostly just because they’re a little older and want to be careful about their health. But we’re still working hand in hand. I drove down from Seattle last weekend just to kind of help out. Espie has been coming down quite often, and my wife and I have been exhorting her from afar to spend less time in the store, and so I think we managed to make our case. Our kids are 15 and 12, and we were waiting for them to be a little older before we did the full handoff, because obviously it means that we’ll be spending a lot more time in L.A. instead of Washington state. So our family plan had been to wait a few years. [Laughs.] The only thing that changed was we’re doing it faster. But that’s life — it’s a little messy sometimes. No worries.”
Don’t expect the concert hall to reopen any time soon. Even if live venues were allowed to reopen under the same 25% capacity guidelines that the state of California just applied to movie theaters going forward, in a room that seats 150, narrowing shows to fewer than 40 patrons would make the McCabe’s experience really intimate.
“We’ll probably dip our toe into streaming and see if we can help people out that way and get some good music out there,” McGraw says, “and look forward to when we can open it up for real, probably in 2021.”
Everything else for this nationally known mecca for all things acoustic is, if not full-stream ahead, a work in progress. “We’re open for curbside now,” he says. “We’re planning to open up for retail probably this week, maybe Thursday or Friday. That’s another reason that I came down: I’ve been busy putting up Plexiglas and proper signage and six-foot distancing markers. For repairs, we’re all set with that: When instruments come in, we set them aside for four days before we look at them. For lessons, it’s still kind of on the horizon. We’re trying to figure out what’s the right balance between doing some of those group lessons on FaceTime and Zoom and when we can bring the students in. When we’re looking at things like that in the future, we’re thinking about at first keeping (lessons) to a half-hour versus an hour, just to help reduce exposure. … We’re hoping it can be soon, but safety first.”
There was good reason for grief over the idea of the back-room concert hall potentially going dark, with its 150 folding chairs and walls full of stringed instruments of every sort. Among the artists who’ve taken the stage as headliners or guests are R.E.M., Beck, Jackson Browne, T Bone Burnett, PJ Harvey, Odetta, Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Liz Phair, John Hiatt, Lucinda Williams, Richard Thompson, Laura Nyro, Steve Earle, Tom Waits, Richie Havens, Bruce Cockburn, Linda Ronstadt, Bill Monroe and Spinal Tap. Live albums have been recorded there by artists ranging from Townes Van Zandt to Henry Rollins.
The local and even national scare over the closure that isn’t a closure has been mirrored in other situations as the lockdowns have gone on. Recently, Amoeba Music announced that it had determined it would shut its Sunset Blvd. location down for good — leading to a lot of condolences for the retail outlet from patrons who only saw that in a headline and didn’t read on to see that the action was being taken so Amoeba could start moving to its already planned relocation spot nearby in Hollywood even sooner.
McGraw had some advice for how to spin, or not spin, this article. “If you can write the story without a reference to Monty Python — you know, ‘We’re not dead yet’ — good luck,” he laughed.