Rich Chodak believes and worships the Holy Trinity, but it’s not a trio that most people are familiar with.
His ideology focuses around the guitar–a string instrument he also happens to sell, repair, and teach as the longtime owner of Bluebond Guitars near the corner of Fourth and South streets in Philadelphia.
“It’s like a puzzle,” Chodak said of his business model in the simplest terms.
Growing up as a high school freshman in the suburbs of Cherry Hill, New Jersey during the 1980s, Chodak spent his free time playing guitar in a band, but his primary focus was on woodworking, a hobby he unfortunately had to put on hold later during his college years. It wasn’t until after school in 1993 when Chodak found an opportunity to fuse his pastimes, thanks to his backdoor neighbor Dale Bluebond, who happened to own a guitar repair shop on Queen Street in the city.
“A guy had given me a 12-string acoustic guitar that had a hole in the front of it. So, I repaired the hole, but I didn’t have a spray booth to paint it, so I brought it to Dale,” Chodak said. “We started talking, and the next thing you know, I started doing an apprenticeship with him. I did it for a year, and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
The original Queen Street shop was founded under Bluebond’s rule in 1989, but five years later, and only one year after Chodak became close with his master, Bluebond passed away at the young age of 32. It was during Bluebond’s funeral when the 28-year-old Chodak realized that the shop had to live on in his late friend’s honor, which insisted on keeping the business’s name and operations the same.
“He meant a lot. Dale changed my life,” Chodak said. “It was one of those things where I had no plans on leaving. I would’ve been working for him all these years.”
Since 1998, Chodak has been in charge of the shop’s current residence. Inside, the Holy Trinity is tangible. At first glance, the customer’s eyes are attracted to vibrantly colored guitars displayed on pegboard paneling, but in the back corner of the room, guitars can be seen under the knife, ready to undergo some major surgery in Chodak’s own intensive care unit. Chodak likes his setup, as he wants customers and students to see what tools, equipment, and elbow grease goes into fixing his “patients.”
“When we moved down here [to South Street], I actually built this place to look just like the other store,” Chodak said. “It was set up exactly this way because I wanted people to walk in and almost go, ‘Wait a second, is this the same building?’ And it worked. Part of what I like about this place is that it’s like a behind the scenes look when you peak behind the curtain. Most people never see the inside of a guitar.”
While Chodak oversees the majority of repairs, Bluebond Guitars isn’t a one-man show. On the second floor of the building is the shop’s music school, which has operated for over a decade. Upstairs, Bluebond teaches students of all ages, ranging from local teenagers who aspire to be musicians to surgeons who pick up a guitar as a mode of therapy. The younger students work and learn together. They pick the songs they want to learn. And by the time they’re fully in tune (within three months), Bluebond organizes weekend concerts for the kids and their families. But the band program doesn’t end there–the shop also offers open-mic nights for adults.
“Guitar playing is guitar playing,” Chodak said. “They pick what they want to play, they work on what they want to do, and then we get surprised at the show. I think that keeps kids more interested. You see these kids putting in so much energy and you see the love of it in them, that it really makes you proud because you’re helping them.”
Another person helping with lessons is local musician John Faye, who’s worked at Bluebond since 2005.
“I tried leaving here several times,” Faye admitted while chuckling. “But the kids keep pulling me back in.”
Repairing guitars isn’t brain surgery, but it requires patience and a keen eye for the slightest details. Even though Chodak was taught the rigorous craft by Bluebond, he’s been reluctant to train anyone else, as if he holds the secret formula.
“People have asked me why don’t you do apprenticeships and teach people how to do this kind of stuff,” Chodak said. “And it’s difficult because one, in Philly, all you’re really doing is creating your own competition. If you teach someone how to do all this and then they just leave, well, what are they going to do with that information? It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. So I try to find people who, if I’m going to teach them stuff, I want them to want to stay here. It makes it more of a family.”
According to Statista.com, guitar retail sales have increased steadily in the United States over the last five years, with sales reaching as high as $1.2 billion in 2016. While consumption of vinyl record albums, digital songs, and CD’s took a nosedive in Nielsen’s most recent Year-End Music Report, a market for actual musicians still remains, and with Bluebond’s balanced cash flow via sales, repairs, and lessons, statistics haven’t influenced Chodak’s business.
“Some of the music stores that have opened up over the last 10-15 years around here, most of them have failed because someone has a dream,” Chodak said. “I’m going to open up a shop that specializes in guitar effect pedals. Well, that’s great, but there’s not enough people buying them to stay in business. Not too long ago, there was a guy who had beautiful acoustic guitars. Custom-made acoustic guitars. They were beautiful. But how many $3,000 guitars are you going to sell in a week? He didn’t last either.”
Not only does Chodak want students and customers to find their own sound, but he also wants to be involved in the final product, which, of course, is the instrument eventually being played. Chodak has seen employees come and go–as well as other shops–but Bluebond’s tight-knit family has kept the business alive for almost 30 years.
“The secret to here is the personalities, because everyone who’s here fits,” Chodak said. “Being in the same location and doing what we do, we’ve become a part of the community. To the college musicians, we are a repair shop and a place you get used gear. To the 12-year-old kid, we’re the school. We have parents who love us who don’t play instruments at all because of everything we’ve done for their kids, so people see us in different lights.
“It’s hard to own a business on South Street. It’s the triad of repairs, school, and sales. Without all three, a mom and pop shop can’t exist.”