CHICAGO — Nestled along a bustling commercial strip across from Millennium Park, Jim Sherry’s classical Spanish guitar shop has confused Chicagoans and tourists for decades.
“You can tell right away when people come in the door, they’re not sure if we sell here or if it’s a museum,” said Amy Foley, who has worked at Sherry Brener Classical Guitar Store for ten years.
Foley, 32, said she didn’t expect to work at the guitar shop for as long as she has — but the lifestyle suits her. She can slip into a practice room to play her violin on slow days. Plus, she’s frequently entertained by her boss, who regales her with stories about the people he's met.
“The store is a reflection of his personality, which is very unique,” Foley said with a smile. “It’s just a manifestation of all his experiences and his travels.”
Sherry, 80, opened the store at 266 S. Michigan Ave. in 1983, and counts the late great Spanish classical guitarist Andres Segovia, the late economist Milton Friedman, and virtuoso Yo Yo Ma among his more famous customers.
The shop is long and narrow, with guitars, violins, cellos and harps lining every wall — floor to ceiling. Customers tip-toed around carefully not to accidentally disrupt an instrument’s placement.
“There’s a lot of stuff in here that’s just old and beautiful,” said Jason Solanes, 23, a tourist from Tampa. “It captures music the way it should be.”
In the dimly lit back part of the store, where a practice chair is set up for visitors, Solanes carefully eyes the guitars before settling on an aged American acoustic model.
“A place like this, I feel like I have to play something or my whole visit is a waste,” he said.
While Solanes strummed the guitar through a jazzy improvisation, Sherry showed a Venezuelan family around the shop. In the back of the shop, Sherry put his hand on a small harp.
“I bought this harp set around 25 years ago at a trade show just for decoration; turns out people wanted to buy them,” Sherry said with a laugh. “It’s the easiest instrument to play. There’s a teaching video that says, ‘Play the harp today,’ and they mean it, you can play the harp today!”
Sherry is chock full of anecdotes and stories from his 60 years in the guitar business, which he said he fell into at just the right time.
In 1953, Sherry started importing classical and flamenco guitars from Spain and Japan. In 1960, the guitar boom hit. The Beatles and Elvis Presley didn’t play the kind of Spanish guitars for which Sherry is known, but he said their performances made people interested in all types of guitars.
“We got about a five-year jump on everybody,” said Sherry.
At a glance, American acoustic guitars look no different than Spanish guitars, but Sherry said the difference is in the materials.
“This flamenco guitar has Cyprus back and sides, spruce on top, the fingerboard is ebony, and the neck is Spanish cedar,” Sherry said while pulling one from the wall.
From the beginning, Sherry housed his guitars in a warehouse he still keeps in Marquette Park and sold his imported guitars at trade shows. One year, he sold 3,000 guitars at a four-day convention.
“This type of business was like working a gold mine,” Sherry said.
Today, Sherry’s long-time business partner, Eva Pardee, runs the warehouse, where he keeps his most valuable guitars (worth up to $20,000) in a concrete and steel bank vault. Sherry has five music teachers on staff, and, despite increasing rent on Michigan Avenue, Sherry said he has no plans of retiring.
“I could go anywhere in the world, and do whatever I want to do,” Sherry said. “This is what I like doing so why should I do anything else?”