Those who have been inside the Buy & Sell Music Center have likely ogled at the eccentric array of instruments that hang from the ceiling — displaying everything from classic acoustic guitars to Italian accordions, tiny Jew’s harps and a Turkish oud. It is easy to mistake bongo drums for stools, and an accordion for a cash box. The cacophony of sound that emanates from the store is indicative of Eugene’s diverse music scene.
What Buy & Sell has over online distributors like Amazon is a personal touch. There’s more to buying the right instrument or musical accessory than simply typing what you want into a search bar and ordering whatever pops up online. What people don’t realize is that instruments aren’t immediately ready to play upon getting delivered to your doorstep.
“The first thing about musical instruments is that they are not maintenance-free,” said Dan Kaplan, the current owner of Buy & Sell. “Even when I buy new guitars, they go through my shop. They’re not hung on the wall the way they come out of the box. When you’re buying from small people like me, a lot more eyes and hands have been on the product before it gets to you.”
The Buy & Sell Music Center has been around since 1970. Kaplan bought the store back in 1993 and turned it into a family business. Since then, the store has moved around four different locations, and today Buy & Sell sits just a couple blocks away from the University of Oregon campus, on 11th Avenue and Mill Street.
The door occasionally swings open with college students coming in to buy electric guitars and amps for upcoming house shows. But those items only scratch the surface of what Buy & Sell has to offer.
This family-owned music store exhibits instruments from Egypt, Afghanistan, Brazil, Mongolia and several other countries, as well as the largest music book selection in Oregon outside of Portland.
Music teachers around Eugene frequent Buy & Sell to acquire books for their students because of the affordable prices. Kaplan said that because about 80% of the merchandise at Buy & Sell is gently used and traded in, instruments and accessories are often priced much lower than what buyers would find at big music retailer chains like Guitar Center. Selling used items is one of the many ways that Buy & Sell has managed to stay in business for 50 years, even in an era in which consumers buy almost everything online.
The way that Buy & Sell acquires all these extraordinary instruments from around the world is in the name — through buying and selling them. People who no longer have a need for their instrument fill out an online form and speak with Dan about the condition that it’s in. From there, Dan looks up what the price of that instrument would be online if it were brand new, and figures out a price he can sell it at in order to make a profit.
Shopping in person as opposed to online allows the customer the invaluable experience of testing out an instrument before they buy it. Seasoned musicians know that feeling an instrument in their arms or at their fingertips tells much more than a description of the product online.
Buy & Sell has hundreds of instruments packed into the store, but the number of employees is just three. There was a time when Kaplan had 15 people working for him — but today it’s only him, his son Jesse and one other non-family employee.
Jesse said he remembers spending his childhood in the back room of his father’s business, doing his homework to the sound of plucking banjo strings and drum solos. Kaplan bought the store right after Jesse was born, so Buy & Sell has always been Jesse’s second home.
Jesse grew up amidst countless traditional and nontraditional instruments, but his own musical niche is electronic music recording and sampling.
“Although I never was able to wrap my head around the concept of playing guitar and other instruments, I knew that music was not worth giving up on,” Jesse said.
The emergence in the popularity of electronic music with younger generations has created a problem for Buy & Sell.
“The biggest tide we’re swimming against right now is that young people are not interested in music,” Kaplan said.
That being said, there will always be a market for music-making in the traditional sense, even if the demand for it among college students is on the decline right now.
Jonathan Zilk, a junior at UO, visits Buy & Sell occasionally to purchase picks, guitar strings and music books.
“I like that it’s convenient and close to campus,” Zilk said. “There’s a cool energy and the guys who work there are always polite.”
The last remaining employees of Buy & Sell take pride in connecting customers with instruments. It’s this interpersonal contact that sets Buy & Sell apart from their internet competitors.
“We’re personal. We don’t sell to schools, we don’t sell to corporations, we’re not a corporation. We deal with customers one on one,” Kaplan said.
A large part of the store’s clientele is made up of parents buying their kids used instruments to learn for a middle or high school band. For Kyle Mangan, the most rewarding part of working at Buy & Sell with Kaplan and his son is setting children up with instruments he believes they will play and enjoy.
“You can just tell when a kid is going to adopt music into their life. It’ll be there for them forever,” Mangan said.
For Jesse, one of the most gratifying aspects of working at the store is helping customers who come in because they have the wrong instrument and leave with the right one.
“It’s the best feeling,” Jesse said with a smile.
In addition to unwanted instruments, many people bring their own music and CDs to the store for the employees to listen to.
“There are so many people making music, and you would never know,” Jesse said. “No matter who you are, music can be that unifying factor.”