Old Mystic guitar dealer Bergeron turns his passion into a book

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For almost 60 years, rock 'n' roll has been associated overwhelmingly with the electric guitar. Even casual fans with no particular musical prowess can name at least one of the two main instruments that serve as THE six-string delivery systems for rock. They are the Fender Stratocaster and the Gibson Les Paul.

To be sure, those two models have inspired dozens of expertly crafted, high dollar designs and other guitar companies, but — symbolically and otherwise — Most Things Rock can be generally traced back to Gibson and Fender.

What's missing in this discussion of elite instruments, in the explosion of post-Beatles/Stones/Hendrix guitar mania, is the fact that few novice players could afford a Les Paul or a Strat. To combat the sudden and overwhelming demand for electric guitars, dozens of Japanese, Korean, Mexican, European and American companies began churning out $100 instruments, available at music stores or through department store catalogs from Montgomery Ward or Sears.

"There were so many guitars and guitar companies in the '60s based around the idea that a kid bugged the hell out of mom and dad because they wanted to be the Beatles," says Joel Bergeron, the sole proprietor of Mystic Guitars, an online company that buys and sells electric guitars as well as acoustic, basses, harmonicas and other related minutiae.

Bergeron is seated in a Dunkin Donuts on a brisk December morning, leafing through a copy of his new book, "Mystic Guitars — Vintage Stringed Instruments and Their Stories." The thick, glossy pages are full of witty text and well-staged photographs of rare, odd and peculiar instruments. Most were made to appeal to budget pocketbooks and are from off-brand companies; others are actual vintage instruments of high pedigree. But Bergeron got his start with the cheap stuff.

"There was a generation of kids who thought they'd learn how to play, but parents were understandably skeptical and didn't want to spend a lot of money if the instruments were going to go into the closet in about two months. And of course, in most cases, that's what happened. The thing is, those instruments were really fun — wicked-cheap stuff that looked cool, with crazy body shapes and sparkle finish or bright colors. And I just started buying them for the hell of it."

"Mystic Guitars" is a beautiful book, an eight-by-eight square edition that would work elegantly in the ol' coffee table context. But don't place it there at the expense of actually reading it. Divided into chapters according to instruments — Guitars, Basses, Banjos, Lap Steels, Mandolins, Dulcimers, and Ukuleles — "Mystic Guitars" is based around Bergeron's distinctive online sales web site.

Rather than clinical, stiffly conceived photos of instruments on a work bench, Bergeron takes advantage of the local Mystic beauty and, with tongue slightly in cheek and iPhone camera in hand, might pose an instrument against a moss-flecked stone wall, on the weathered planks in an old barn, amidst circus-toned autumn foliage ...

The text descriptions of each instrument are word-for-word copy he uses online to advertise each instrument. And, far from a dry recitation of specs and pedigree, Bergeron's descriptions are often funny or contain pop culture references or interesting facts about the instrument makers or famous musicians who might have played similar models — all the while providing the necessary info required by a collector.

"Yup, this guitar is a mother! No, I'm serious ..." Bergeron writes as the intro hook for a 1971 Univox "The Mother" guitar. Of the 1986 Hondo Fame 760H/12-string, he shares that the Hondo brand is really named for the John Wayne film "Hondo" and that Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo played one of the guitars in the band's "Silver Rocket" video. And, describing a Vintage Vegas Style Semi Hollow-body with an American flag inlay, Bergeron comments, "When I saw this guitar I didn't know whether to salute it or buy it."

While Bergeron hasn't done any signing events yet in support of the book, he hopes to after the first of the year. In the meantime, "Mystic Guitar" is available on Amazon.com, on Bergeron's mysticguitar.com web site, and through a distribution company called IngramSpark.

"I didn't rewrite any text for the book; this is the online copy," Bergeron says. "I try to put some personality into it. I've had people tell me the copy reads the way I talk. I think that's mostly good. I mean, on one hand, I'd be embarrassed to show any of this to professional writers or editors because I write stupid stuff. But it entertains me. And people might read the copy and say, 'Well, that's weird,' but by now I do know that it captures their attention."

To spend any time talking to the cheery Bergeron is to quickly understand why his online guitar shop pitch strategy is successful. An "interview" with the man doesn't really follow the normal path. Now 62, Bergeron is a Willimantic native and longtime resident of Old Mystic. But he grew up and went to college in South Carolina. He spent several years in Myrtle Beach and El Paso and, along the way, pursued a variety of activities including computer consultant, data analyist, hotel bellboy, producer for local news affiliates, recording studio owner, website designer, and so on. He's so friendly and so adept at illustrating points with hilarious and wild stories — anecdotes peopled with characters nicknamed things like Cupcake, Jesus-More-Or-Less and Maggot — that it's quickly apparent why "Mystic Guitars" easily transcends the usual collectors photo-book template.

Oh, and does he play guitar? Marginally. He tried, he says, but quickly realized he lacked the genuine spark required to elevate to a level beyond mere hard work.

"You know Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000-hours rule?" he asks, referring to the Canadian journalist's principle that anyone who commits 10,000 hours of serious practice at anything will become world class in that endeavor. "Well, I figured out in not many hours that it didn't apply to me as far as the guitar is concerned."

What clearly stuck, though, was that passion for weird guitars. "I'm fascinated with the stories behind these guitars — where they come from and how they came to be. It's amazing history."

Bergeron speaks eloquently about guitar companies or specific instruments from all over the world that almost spontaneously erupted into existence once the Beatles hit.

"Don't get me wrong," he says. "I love Strats and Les Pauls and well-made instruments. But a new Strat or Les Paul is like a loaf of bread. If you have the money, you can walk into any music store and easily get one. I like to focus on the weird stuff, the less-known stuff."

Bergeron started buying the obscure instruments he'd come across for fun. He made presents of them to neighbors, friends, his godson Ryan Marks (an excellent player to whom "Mystic Guitar" is dedicated), and even Bergeron's significant other, Trish LaPointe, a designer/illustrator who designed "Mystic Guitar" and, according to Bergeron, is also a far better guitarist than he is.

While Bergeron still does contract web design gigs and other freelance work, Mystic Guitars is his main job these days. He says he's sold over 400 instruments in the last few years and, rotating stock frequently, typically has 20-30 guitars for sale at any given moment. His favorite method to obtain product is to hop in the car and randomly cruise the region's pawn and consignment shops, music stores, antique dealers and yard sales.

Bergeron says he's found quite a few great bargains — situations where the pawn or yard sale dealers had no idea what they were selling — but that there have been instances where he thought he'd found a treasure only to find out he was wrong.

"Ultimately, the reason I do it isn't to make a big score on an instrument," Bergeron says. "I just love guitars. There are thousands of them out there, and they all have stories."

Because so many of the guitars he sells go through third-person dealers, Bergeron is unaware if he's sold anything to famous players.

"A lot of stars love the same sort of guitars I do," he explains. "Clapton loves cheap guitars, for just one example. In the book is a Melo Bar guitar with a scooped headstock. (Pink Floyd's) David Gilmour had one exactly like it that he sold at auction for $55,000. Of course, most of that's because he's David Gilmour, but it's still a rare and valuable guitar."

Bergeron says it never occurred to him to make a book out of his hobby/business until a friend visited his home and commented on the variety of strange guitars.

"Then he saw my web site, pointed at a photo and the copy and said, 'You ought to write a book about all this.' 

"And I thought for a minute and said, 'You know what? I think I already have!'"

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