For Gibson Buffs, OK Guitars Is The Sound of Dreams
By Robert Burke Warren
Charlie Gelber makes dreams come true.
A semi-retired NYC film editor and director, Gelber collects and deals stringed instruments, specializing in the shapely Gibson ES-335 electric guitar. From his Kent, CT store, OK Guitars, he sells them, mostly to men aged 48 to 68 who desire the instrument made famous by players as diverse as rock god Eric Clapton, bluesman B.B. King, jazz legend Larry Carlton, and even stadium rocker Dave Grohl. The 335, introduced in 1958 for $335 (roughly $2700 today), can set a guy back some serious coin, but Charlie Gelber makes sure it is money well spent, because he’s been on the other side, as a player, a buyer, and a dreamer.
“You want the thing you wanted as a kid,” he says, “but you couldn’t afford it. Now you’re older, you’ve got some disposable income, so you go for it. It’s a guy thing; in 13 years of business, I’ve sold one guitar to a woman. And it’s mostly men of a certain age. I’ve joked that I should have a prostate exam table set up!”
That would be difficult, for various reasons. Aside from the obvious, OK Guitars is tiny, housed in a charmingly up-cycled train car, and packed with approximately 30 gorgeous instruments. Gelber likes it that way; he’s been collecting since he was a 14-year-old kid in 1966, surrounding himself with guitars as he worked for decades as a film and TV editor. “When I saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan,” he says, “I had to have a guitar. My dad bought me a [cheap] Kay. But I always wanted an ES-335. The first one I saw was a red one played by Johnny Rivers on Hullabaloo, and I just loved it. But they were expensive. I didn’t actually own one until 1980.” (To date, he has owned more than 500 guitars.)
When the Gibson guitar company introduced the ES-335, they affixed “ES” to it to differentiate it from the very popular Gibson Electric Hawaiian – or “EH” – slide guitar. Hawaiian music was all the rage, alongside this newfangled fad called “rock and roll.” Because the guitar shape we all know is Spanish in design, “ES” stands for “Electric Spanish.” The semi-hollow ES-335 offered a cross between an acoustic guitar and an electric, with exquisite workmanship, making it pricey but ever popular. According to Gelber, it is the only guitar model never to have gone out of production, and vintages in particular are extremely valuable.
Inspired by guitar transactions on eBay, Gelber began selling, “mostly for fun” in 2002. He started his collector business online, expanding it in 2010 with an engaging blog, www.es-335.org. (He has a degree in English and it shows.) Here, he dives into the geeky minutiae of his beauties, but also offers accessible anecdotes, passion-fueled descriptions, and fetching photos that’ll make you want to hold – or better yet, buy – a fine electric guitar.
Gelber’s weathered a lot since he started, including the economic downturn. Nevertheless, while continuing as a film editor (mostly on documentaries) he and his wife moved from Manhattan to Kent in 2012, and he opened OK Guitars. Since then, things have started looking up; apparently, the collectible guitar trade is an accurate bellwether for the financial health of the U.S. economy, and he’s happy to report business is good, and getting better, especially as his reputation has grown.
OK Guitars allows Gelber to share his expertise and love of guitars in real time, three days a week and by appointment. From behind his burnished wood counter acquired from a cigar store, he’s had some Antiques Roadshow-type moments with people seeking appraisals.
I had a Gibson 1913 mandolin come in,” he says. “It was fun to tell the owners it was worth $4,000 and see their jaws drop. But also, because some 335s look vintage to the untrained eye, people sometimes think they have something really valuable when they don’t. But they’ve still got a great guitar.” Just not one that’ll put their kid through grad school. Gelber has seen 335s valued at $50,000. (Eric Clapton’s sold for $1 million.)
Unlike many brick-and-mortar business owners, Gelber has nothing bad to say about the Internet. OK Guitars, in fact, depends on it. “It’s 90 percent of my business,” he says.
But the store is where he has the most fun. Because he recalls from his youth fussy guitar shop owners forbidding him from playing their merchandise, he freely allows anyone to take down one of his guitars and strum away, even local schoolkids, who get the rare pleasure of holding a fine instrument that some men never stop dreaming about.
11 Railroad Street, Kent, CT
Friday through Sunday, 12—8 p.m., or by appointment