Story by David Konow
Norm Harris has been in business selling rare and vintage guitars since 1967, before there was there was the term “vintage guitar,” and he says he's never had a bad year. Even with the recent economic downturn, Norm's Rare Guitars, which has always been located in the San Fernando Valley, has been doing very well these days, and rare guitars have proven a good investment when times are good or bad.
Harris, who originally started out as a musician, turned his passion for guitars into a business when he was buying and selling instruments to feed his fetish. When he moved to Los Angeles from Miami, he found it a mecca for great instruments right as the vintage market was launching in the mid-'70s. Harris scoured the L.A. Times classifieds, and would trek to the downtown Greyhound station to get the first copy off the truck at 5 a.m. If Norm found something cool in the paper, he would call at 6 in the morning, apologize profusely for calling so early, and would often have the guitar by 7 a.m.
At the time, a lot of musicians were also selling guitars because they came out here to make it, and when their bands didn't take off, they had to sell their gear to move back home. And unlike today, music stores back wouldn't take used guitars back then, so they would often sell them to Norm. “I was buying old guitars practically for what new ones were selling for, and people thought I was crazy,” Harris says. “I didn't think it would ever evolve into what it is today. They thought I was nuts and I'm glad they did.”
Harris's first major client was George Harrison, back when Norm was still selling guitars out of his apartment in Sherman Oaks. Next was Robbie Roberston, who asked Harris, “Can I bring by a friend?” The following week, Robertson showed up with Bob Dylan, and Harris's celebrity clientele snowballed from there. “It showed me there was a market for high end guitars,” Harris says.
Harris went from his apartment to opening Norm's Rare Guitars in 1975, and the store eventually went from 500 square feet to 6,000. As for why rare guitars have proven a good investment, Harris calls it “functional art,” because unlike a painting, or stamp collecting, you can play your investment, and really physically enjoy it.
The vintage market hasn't slowed down because those who love guitars are still buying gear. Harris adds that a lot of people don't know where to put their money right now, and guitars have proven a more stable investment than the stock market. (Harris tells me one person he knows has set up his collection as his 401K retirement plan.)
Yet you don't need to put hundreds of thousands of dollars down for a guitar (as for the holy grail of the realm, the '59 Les Paul) to make a good investment. Harris says there are still plenty of guitars that are undervalued, like the Fender Jaguar, which Kurt Cobain revived in the '90s, or a Fender Jazzmaster, that haven't been maxed out in the market yet, and could double their value ten years down the road.
As for Harris's longevity in the business, in this business your reputation is all you have, and there has to be a lot of trust, especially considering the often insane amounts of money that go around the world to buy great gear. “It's a small community, and if you're not upright and upstanding, word gets around,” Harris says.
As for why Harris is still in the game after all this time, he says, “I don't have to do it at this point. It's all I know and what I love. It's still a big rush to me when I find something I've never seen before that blows my mind and keeps things exciting. It's like prospecting, you never know what might come up.”