Beat of a different strummer. Counterculture at home in little shop of rockers

WHEN U.S. News & World Report did a story on child prodigies in January, Mac Randall, a 15-year-old composer and electric guitar player, told them that if the magazine wanted a picture of him looking really at home, the photographer should catch him at the Cambridge Music Center. For a lot of musicians, that's how it is with this second-story shop, the musical equivalent of the town barbershop.

In its own way, the vintage electric guitar store of Dennis Keller and Wendell Post seamlessly combines the '60s ethic of its ex-hippie owners and the '80s musical savvy of its clientele. Their shop bridges the 20-year gap: Younger customers who weren't even born when Jimi Hendrix died come in searching for an old Stratocaster that just might give them his searing, psychedelic sound; older patrons who were strumming along at Woodstock in '69 want to see the latest Gibson model.

With its rows of shiny, colorful electric guitars - Stratocasters, Gibsons, Rickenbackers, and Tokais, some with the well-worn patina and belt-buckle-scratched backs of much-loved and used instruments - the store gives a glimpse of life played to a definite backbeat.

All guitars are free to handle; even the few ``antiques'' behind the glass case are readily available for playing. ``We don't want anyone to be intimidated here,'' says Mr. Keller, a one-time hippie who has made good in the 1980s. ``We get the guitars out from the glass case for people only because once somebody mistakenly put one in wrong and it fell.''

``I know it sounds funny, but I still hold true to some of the ideals of that time,'' says Keller, who seems not so much a throwback to the '60s as a stray curveball that landed two decades later with ideals still intact. ``You know - question authority, treat each person like a human being, regardless of their social status - I still believe in that.''

``We wanted to have a music store that we would want to go to,'' says Mr. Post. He and Keller, friends since junior high, opened the store five years ago, when they both were searching for the right thing to pursue. Their longtime musical interests merged into a solid idea, the Cambridge Music Center. ``We didn't want the kind of store that we experienced as kids growing up. You know - `Whaddya want, kid? Don't touch the goods, because we know you're not going to buy anything' - that kind of approach.''

``Most of all, we wanted this to be a friendly place,'' says Keller.

And friendly it is.

Neophytes and professional musicians mingle, connected only by their love of guitars. The clientele - mostly male, although the owners would like to see more women get acquainted with the instruments - is a varied bunch, but they all get the same infatuated look in their eyes when they see a vintage '61 Strat. Aside from the minor celebrity/prodigy Mac Randall, famous musicians drop by when they are in town, but usually the store is filled with budding guitarists. Young men trickle in and each heads for a particular longed-for guitar. They sit down wherever there happens to be room, plug their fretted gems into various amplifiers, and fill the air with multilayered riffs - a sort of scaled-down battle of the bands. They seem to speak a language all their own - these would-be Eddie Van Halens - through the fuzzy, distorted twang of electric guitar strings, always searching for that ultimate sound, that ultimately perfect solo that will express their real selves, that will make their instrument talk for them.

``I just came in to look at it again,'' says one young man with a sigh, putting down a guitar tenderly. ``A few more paychecks and I may be able to swing it.''

But money is rarely the issue here. The store credit policy is generous, even lenient. There is an unspoken understanding that a guitar is one of life's necessities. And an equally unofficial honor code that payments will be made as soon as they can be scraped together.

``People say we're going to get ripped off,'' says Keller. ``Well, if that's the price we have to pay for our philosophy of being nice, so be it. But we have never even had a bounced check,'' he says, adding that neither he nor Post had any formal business training before opening the store. Their qualifications included playing together in a band in the '60s, and a love of electric guitars. ``If you treat people like human beings, they respond, because they've never been treated that way, especially in a music store.''

The cooler-than-thou attitude that marks many electric guitar stores is nonexistent here.

Andy Rogers knew this was the right place to sell his eclectic collection of guitars the minute he walked in. He came back a couple of weeks later with 10 electrics, including a Phantom 12-string, a Vox, and a '66 Mosrite; the latter had been considered unsellable by bigger stores around town.

``When I brought in my weird old Mosrite, everybody in the store stopped what they were doing to look at it and play with it. Rather than consider it an obscure oddity, they displayed it prominently in its own case in the store. That really affected me,'' he said. ``They felt as strongly about my guitars as I did.''

Another wandering minstrel was welcomed home.

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