It’s a strange thing to stand in a room full of instruments without music. Thankfully, near closing time at 312 Vintage Guitars in Bridgeport, two inquisitive girls stroll in, shuddering from the cold, and ask if they can try out an acoustic sitting on a stand near the door.
“Feel free,” owner Robert Dain, a Chicago native, says warmly. His voice carries a bit in the humble but brightly lit room. Moments later, one of the girls starts strumming. The music fills and completes the space.
“It’s amazing to come into work every day,” Dain tells me with a youthful, broad ‘aw-shucks’ smile. “I’m giddy as a kid. You’ll see me skipping down the street to work because I get to come to this everyday.”
I didn’t witness any skipping firsthand during my time at 312, but it’s easy to imagine he really does. He gives off all the positive energy one might expect from a kid who owns and operates his own candy store. And 312 is a candy store of sorts–gumball red, licorice black, and lemon-drop yellow are among the many colors that shade the dozens of guitars on the store’s walls.
312, though open for just over a month, is a place that has existed in the heart and mind of Dain for years. His introduction to guitars as a teen and classic rock fan at Carl Sandburg High School was typical enough: a friend played, sparked a bit of adolescent envy, and led to him picking up a Fender Squier Stratocaster–the first guitar of many a cash-strapped novice. What followed, though, was anything but.
“For my own benefit–to get better equipment or equipment I wanted–I started to buy, sell, trade any of my equipment I had to get something that was just slightly better quality, or something that I wanted, and it turned into an addiction.”
He brought his addiction to college, where he swapped guitars and gear regularly, building up a near-encyclopedic knowledge of the instrument and its craft along the way. Although he’s since been able to turn that experience into a nascent music career as the guitarist and vocalist for local band The Sweeps, Dain recognized early on that his relationship with the guitar extended beyond just playing and performing.
“I just kind of had a vision all along of what I wanted to do and I just loved music–and even if I couldn’t be a rock star or go out professionally or be a studio musician, I wanted to be involved with guitars and equipment. It’s always just been a passion of mine.”
Having spent half a lifetime as a walking, talking local guitar shop, Dain started putting together plans to open 312 about three or four years ago. He was partly inspired by Player’s Guitars, a small shop on 95th Street he’d visit when he was younger. For Dain, Player’s was more than a model for how a shop of 312’s size could work as a business–it was a reminder that a music store can occupy a unique and vital space in a community by bringing together people–young and old–animated by a common passion.
At 312, beginners can come in for lessons, to get a string replaced for free, or for advice on what kind of gear best suits their desired “tone,” that elusive personal sound many electric guitarists spend years trying to perfect. Old hands and collectors can browse the walls for some of Dain’s rarer pieces. There is something for everyone–Dain even keeps snare drums and keyboards in stock.
It is this mix of accessibility and expertise that makes 312 an inviting space, built with an understanding that the relationships between a guitarist and his guitar–and between that guitar and the musician’s chosen music–are highly personal. It’s a well-soundtracked story, a story in which the proprietor of a guitar shop can be a peripheral character or a major figure: perhaps a mentor or a friend. As such, Dain is highly adaptable. This becomes clear as soon as I invite him to show me some of his favorite pieces. Through the tour, the affability never goes away, but Dain perceptibly changes, taking on a clear-eyed focus and speaking in a second language picked up through years of exchanges and conversations with fellow guitarists.
“I’m a big fan of that guitar there,” he says, indicating a shiny guitar up on the wall with a gradient of red-to-yellow wood grain. “That’s a ’66 Gibson all-original ES-125 TC. The T stands for thinline, the C stands for cutaway, so easier access to the higher frets. Original P90, which just growls and howls when you put a little overdrive or distortion behind it and it sounds like B.B. and it sounds like Howlin’ Wolf, you know….”
Dain, like many local musicians, had long been frustrated by the paucity of shops catering to guitarists in the area.
“It just blew my mind how–Pilsen, McKinley Park, Hyde Park, Canaryville, South Loop–there are no guitar stores–or music stores, period,” he says. “If you want to go get a pack of strings or a set of picks or something simple, you know? Unfortunately somebody decided along the way that the South Side shouldn’t have any music stores.”
Ultimately, he feels major chains shoulder a lot of the blame.
“A lot of the big-box stores have made it hard for small businesses –obviously–to compete. You have Guitar Center and Sam Ash which cater to high volume and lower prices but…the service and quality of vintage instruments and selection is just not there.”
After a while the strumming stops. One of the girls has her eyes on an acoustic up on the wall.“Is it cool if she takes one of these down and tries it out?” her companion asks.
“Yeah, feel free!” Dain repeats. “And if you need a tuner, just shout.”
Soon enough, the strumming starts up again and Dain smiles throughout –delighted, perhaps, at not merely the prospect of a new sale, but at the sound of the music he’s brought to an underserved community.