Heights Guitars closes its doors

Heights Guitar store managers Samantha Wandtke and Darrell Branch.

Heights Guitars, the independent guitar store that had been a fixture in the Cedar Lee Business District since 1992, has closed its doors.

A post on the store’s Facebook page stated in part: “We are closing, don't know how else to say it, our sister store is staying open and doing well, any consignments/repairs will need to be picked up, we're making the calls, or call us to set up time. Any gift certificates or trade slips can be used at the Toledo shop, or u can come pick up a check. . . .”

The closing came as a shock to the store’s employees. Darrell Branch, one of the store’s managers, said he got a call from the store’s owners on Monday, March 3, telling him they were closing the store. The next day, they began clearing everything out of the store.

Samantha Wandtke, the store’s other manager, was visibly upset by the closing. Both she and Branch said they had no idea the store would be shut down. They blamed the closing on competition from the big-box musical-instrument retailers, including Sam Ash and Guitar Center. The managers acknowledged that the store hadn’t been performing as well as it had in the past, but both nonetheless said they were surprised by the decision to close it.

One of Heights Guitars’ original owners was Greg Stiles, who became sole owner in 2002. After he died from pancreatic cancer in February 2010, his widow decided to sell the store. It was purchased by former Cleveland Heights resident John Carden and his partner, Jim Ross. Carden, who now lives in the Sandusky area, operates another Heights Guitar store in Toledo, and owns four retail record stores called Allied Records, also in Toledo. The Toledo guitar store remains open.

Despite its name, Heights Guitars didn’t just sell guitars. It also offered keyboards, brass instruments, percussion instruments, accordions, PA gear and sound equipment. Guitars were the store’s focus, though, and it carried four major brands: Alvarez, Gretsch, G&L and Guild. In addition to new guitars, the store also sold used instruments. “We always had a lot of vintage Gibson and Fender guitars,” said Branch.

In addition to its retail business, Heights Guitars offered guitar, bass, drum and mandolin lessons, held in one of the back rooms of the store. The shop also employed expert guitar techs who could repair broken or damaged instruments. “Our turnaround was usually about three days,” said Branch. “That’s a lot quicker than the big-box stores.”

Last year, Heights Guitars began having open-mic nights, which were hosted by local musician Charlie Mosbrook. Those ended after a few months, but the store had planned to resume the open-mic sessions sometime in April.

Over the years, Heights Guitars had its fair share of well-known musicians come by and purchase instruments. Blues guitarist and singer Joe Bonamassa bought a vintage banjo and a ukulele at the store. Singer-songwriter Dar Williams bought a guitar, and legendary jazz bassist Stanley Jordan also purchased some instruments there. “Tons of bands would come through here,” Wandtke said. “With the Grog Shop and other venues located nearby, the artists playing there often came to our store.”

Both Wandtke and Branch live in Cleveland, but love the Heights area. “There’s something special about this community,” Branch said. “With the diversity and all of the art and entertainment, this is a really special area. And we loved to support local businesses and the residents as much as we could. We often donated guitars and other musical instruments to charities and other organizations to help them out.” The store once gave a 13-year-old boy a guitar because he wanted to learn how to play the instrument, and the guitar that was used in the play "Aliens" at Dobama Theatre also came from the shop.

It’s that personal touch that made Heights Guitars special. “We always encouraged people to not just play anything,” Branch said. “We tried to help them find the right instrument that worked for them. And if someone couldn’t afford a certain guitar, I would try my best to help them out.”


James Henke

James Henke, a Cleveland Heights resident, was a writer and editor at Rolling Stone magazine for 15 years. He is also the author of several books, including biographies of Jim Morrison, John Lennon and Bob Marley.

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Volume 7, Issue 4, Posted 2:46 PM, 03.05.2014