Old Boise Guitar Co. owner Johnny Pisano's last name is one letter away from "paisano"—Italian slang for friend or pal. It's a fitting term for a man who makes his store a gathering place for friends new and old. It's a relationship that started with humble beginnings.
"When I moved to Boise, I got a job working at a guitar store that used to be in Hyde Park called Guitar's Friend," recalls Pisano. "I worked there for about a year, and then the guy who owned it decided to shut it down. I thought it was a shame that there wasn't going to be a guitar store in Boise, at least that kind of store, so I scraped together some money—I didn't have a lot—and opened up my first store in the basement of the Belgravia building in 1984."
Downtown Boise was different when Pisano opened his guitar shop. There was the impending construction of the Boise Towne Square Mall and a general feeling that the downtown area was going to suffer a nasty fate. "That was that whole time period when they were predicting the downtown to blow away [because of the mall]," explains Pisano. "For the first few years it was pretty slow ... but my costs weren't that much."
Downtown Boise didn't blow away, of course. Eventually, it became a thriving and vibrant city center. It's something that Pisano thinks wouldn't have happened without a group of enthusiastic shop owners who were willing to take a risk and do something they were passionate about.
"There were people who were trying to bring something independent to downtown. We weren't trying to predict the market, but instead just do something that we cared about. It was more passion-driven than market-driven." Pisano continues, "Some people try to guess what the public wants and then they pander to it. Places like the Flying M and the Neurolux just do something they care about, and stick at it long enough until it becomes an institution. Not that one approach is right—ours is just different."
Within a few years of bringing something he cared about to the basement of the Belgravia building, his situation had improved enough for Pisano to upgrade his store space. He decided to move the store down the street to its current location at 515 Main St., next door to Pengilly's Saloon. It was a move that carried a lot of risk.
"It was a big chance to move to a new place," says Pisano. "It was a bit of a struggle—it has always been a struggle—but I think that is the nature of passion-driven business. I have no business training. I just cared enough about something—in this case music, instruments and people—to stick around all these years."
And Old Boise Guitar has stuck around. Many of the best players in Boise—folks like Ned Evett and Tom Moore—have been knocking around the store since their early playing days. It's something that Pisano revels in. "Tom Moore started showing up and taking lessons when he was in junior high. He was already good then. Then he went to Berklee [College of Music] and graduated in three years! He is very methodical and pragmatic, but he also has feeling. He came back after Berklee and wanted to teach at the store. Even now, he comes up every week from law school and shows up at the store. It is like an extended family or a neighborhood kind of thing. You can't manufacture that artificially."
The relationships that Pisano has built are the secret to Old Boise Guitar's longevity. In the old days (prior to mega-stores and Internet shopping), the adage was that if you had a music store, all you had to do was unlock the door and people would show up. Pisano never thought of it that way. He claims he has always striven for service that included friendship and education.
Now in its 23rd year, the educational aspect of Old Boise Guitar spans multiple generations. There are kids taking lessons whose parents took their first lessons there. The store's teachers are some of the best, including Dan Costello, Joe Cefalu and bass player Rob Hill.
Jonah Shue, a violin, mandolin and guitar instructor, gives some insight: "I've taught for seven years at Old Boise Guitar. I think it is a magical paradise amongst guitar stores. Teaching situations in other places are not as equitable—back East, it was a nightmare." And by that, Shue refers to the fact that nearly all of the money folks pay to take lessons at Old Boise Guitar goes to the instructor. "The funny thing about working here is that I am Jonah Shue and John's stage handle is Johnny Shoes. People think I own the store!" Shue laughs.
The heart of Pisano's focus on education is simple: He loves to see people discover a new passion. "When someone is starting to play, they have to get a guitar. I look at it as me helping them get a guitar," Pisano says. "Remember when you got your first guitar? You weren't any good—but you could play that first chord and it got you excited. [Witnessing that happen for my customers] really grounds me. How can you have that when you have been playing for 35 years? I get a whiff of it when I see these people. That is something that they are giving me," says Pisano with grin. "It's a touchstone. It is like getting down on the floor and playing with kids. You know, it is fun. It's weird—but so fun."
But it's not just the intangible joy of seeing novice pickers discover something new that floors Pisano, it is also, of course, the instruments. "No matter what's going on, when a new guitar comes in the store, I get to open the box and play it. It's like Christmas for me," laughs Pisano. "No matter how stressed I am—I get to play a new instrument."
Old Boise Guitar, 515 Main St., 208-344-7600, 877-216-2965. Open Tues.-Fri., 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sat. 11 a.m.-5 p.m.