“Come on in—smell the wood, smell the old!” Shop manager Joe Little tends a quiet store Tuesday night at Imperial Vintage Guitars, 864 N. Main St. in Orange. It’s an hour before close, it gets dark early on this winter evening, and except for guitar instructor Sydney Ellen and one of her students in the loft upstairs, he’s got the store to himself.
This neighborhood is too far north of Old Towne for foot traffic. The Santa Ana River cuts it off from passersby around Angel Stadium and the Honda Center. Despite that, store ownership was deliberate about this location because the area is well known for gear buffs.
Paul Morte’s shop is down the block, he’s a foremost name in amplifier repair and modification. The Pro Music Exchange is kitty corner, and Tone Merchants is around the way. Friedman Amplification, a boutique amp and effects maker, has roots in this area as well. If you’re a gear head, you have a half dozen reasons to come to north Orange.
The newest kid on the block, and arguably the best one if you’re a guitarist with a sense of history, is right here.
Ducking out from behind this MacPro desktop computer situated in the front of the store, the shop manager leads the way into the back showroom. It’s a quaint space, with room for 50 guitars hanging from the wall. There’s the usual stack of amplifiers to navigate, a stool or two, and cables for patching in.
Among the guitars hanging on the wall, a pristine sunburst Stratocaster with a maple wood neck. It’s a ‘58 which means it predates the death of Buddy Holly. Little says it only had two previous owners. Somebody inherited from an uncle and it found its way into the collection. You can make it yours for $25,995.
There’s a Telecaster from 1968 with a paisley finish. Hold it and you feel like the cover of Disraeli Gears. Below that is the real oddball: a ‘89 custom shop Telecaster built before Fender concocted the idea of custom shop guitars. Assembled by master builder Fred Stuart in Corona a few years after Fender re-purchased the brand from CBS, it features a rare, chunky rosewood fingerboard that looks more at home on a big Gretsch jazz box.
And speaking of Gretsches, you can’t help but pick up the big White Falcon and strum a big E-minor to C-major and a few snarling blues licks, because who can resist feeling like Neil Young for a few minutes? Next to that, the original red finish on a ‘55 Jet Firebird, a guitar made famous by George Harrison, still dazzles the way its makers meant it to capture the imagination of the earliest rock ‘n’ rollers.
The store is full of guitars like these and behind each lives story. “This is Los Angeles, one of the biggest media markets in the world, so it makes a lot of sense” Little explains. “The reason we have this kind of inventory in here is because we are rotating it out enough. We’re buying strong and we pay fair. We actually make a little less but sell them faster.”
This location is the third opened by Imperial Vintage owners Tommy Kay, a jazzman and session player living San Fernando Valley, and his business partner, Shai Ashkenazi, an Israeli-born instrument collector and dealer. They opened their first in Burbank in 2012. When they started tripping over guitars there, they opened another in Sherman Oaks, also where they fix and service the guitars they buy. They filled that store and looked to Orange County, opening about six months ago.
They considered West LA but decided on north Orange. “We want to expand but don’t want to get big if you know what I’m saying,” Ashkenazi says. “No matter what expanding would have been a hassle for me because I like to get around to every store, and I felt like there was absolutely nothing in the way of guitar shops in Orange County.”
Kay, a long-time guitar dealer working at California Vintage Guitar and Amp, wanted to stake out on his own. Ashkenazi, who primary sold and shipped guitars from an online storefront, needed a storefront for his collection. The Burbank location blossomed with the garage rock scene north of Los Angeles, as well as with some celebrity clientele, who Kay is careful leave unnamed. He does admit he works with “big time names” in the industry when it comes to sourcing and selling six-string instruments with five-figure price tags.
“Half the time we don’t even know who they are,” says Little, who drives down from Burbank to man the shop. “I’ll be sitting here talking to someone, and then it’ll hit me. Oh, I’m talking to Ed Helms.” One unabashed fan is comedian Jeff Garlin, who you’ll find on YouTube strumming a vintage Les Paul in a panda suit at the Burbank store.
Now with three stores, Imperial is solidly a brick-and-mortal operation. Their social media profile drives most of the sales with the brand doing roughly 60 percent of its business online. “That’s turned into us having fun, just showing pictures of what we think is cool,” Little says. He remarks that the music scene in OC is prime for a guitar shop like this one.
“Here in Orange there are lots of musicians in bands which is awesome,” says Little, an Musicians Institute graduate who put in time as a Los Angeles session player. “That hired gun thing doesn’t exist out here. It’s amazing to drive an hour and see the difference.”