BUCKTOWN — Ask Jose Leon what's changed about Bucktown in the 34 years he's been repairing acoustic instruments on Western Avenue and he has a one word reply: "Everything."
But inside his dimly-lit Western Guitar Shop at 2141 N. Western Ave., not much has changed, said musician Ramiro Barajas, a longtime customer of Leon's who was stopping by on a recent Friday to pick up his Baja sexto, a 12-stringed guitar used in Mexican folk and mariachi music.
"This man is famous," Barajas said, pointing to Leon, 69, who speaks limited English and specializes in repairs of all kinds of acoustic instruments, though has carved a niche with hundreds of the city's mariachi musicians.
"And he needs no sign, no website. Everybody knows him," Baraja said.
A second-generation luthier, or stringed instrument repairman, Leon is from Paracho, Mexico, a small city in the Sierra Madre Mountains that's been known for its guitar manufacturing for centuries.
Leon said his family has been repairing instruments since 1930, a craft his grandfather taught his father, who then taught him.
Leon moved to Chicago in 1969 and began repairing guitars in Pilsen before moving to a shop at Division Street and Rockwell Street in 1975.
In 1979 he opened Western Guitar Shop at 2141 N. Western Ave., in a small storefront that has no sign.
Though Leon has no desire to ever learn to play an instrument because he said he's "too busy fixing" them, he is dedicated to trying to make the most battered instruments play music again.
Currently Leon is trying to rebuild a cello that a musician refuses to part with, even though it will cost about $500 to repair several of its parts.
Leon said that some Mexican musicians are very attached to their instruments and try to make them last as long as possible, so they must frequently visit his repair shop.
Guitar player and cellist Jose Vargas drove to Bucktown from Cicero, a trek he's been making for the past five years.
Vargas said the fingerboard fell off of his cello and broke into two pieces, so he waited in the shop for Leon to repair it, keeping him company while he works.
Vargas performs for special events and is often hired by Mexican restaurants to play for families while they're eating, he said.
Vargas said of Leon: "He is the best."
Western Guitar Shop, 2141 N. Western Ave. Hours 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday-Friday; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. Ph: 773-486-1752.