by Clint Burgess
Just off I-90 in Post Falls, Idaho, sits a quiet, unassuming house. It's a typical house with a typical yard. Nothing out of the ordinary here, except there's a simple red neon sign in the front window that reads "Vintage Guitars." James "Red" Bowers is the President, CEO, and Chief Financial Advisor of Vintage Guitars. Total number of employees: 1.
Red operates his business out of a single room in his home. Upon first inspection the room seems to be no larger than 15 feet by 15 feet. Every wall is strewn with guitars from ceiling to floor. You have to walk carefully to avoid even more guitars, giving off that musty guitar smell, lacing the walkway.
At a glance, the room looks to be in need of a serious expansion to accommodate the burgeoning collection, but it also holds a sense of comfort and good old hospitality. Red begins to unravel his story of where he has been, how he came to live in North Idaho and how he got into collecting guitars.
He says he likes the slow pace of Post Falls. "I get to meet a lot of nice people, some good musicians, and some fine guitar players," he says. This sort of business, evidently, isn't about making money.
"It's a lousy business but a good hobby. It keeps me off the streets and out of the bars," says Red with a smile.
Born and raised in Arkansas, he was shipped off to World War II at 18. When he returned from the war he headed west for Reno, Nevada. Red spent 39 years working construction in Reno and says that he just kinda fell into collecting guitars.
Red opened his first guitar shop in Reno in 1983, but his store was broken into twice in one year. His luck wasn't so good so he took a bit of a hiatus. He came to the Post Falls area in the spring of 1984 to help his daughter build a home and he has been here ever since.
The first year that Vintage Guitars was open in Post Falls, Red had another bout of that bad string of luck he apparently picked up in Reno. Five teenagers broke into his shop one night and stole quite a bit of gear. Red didn't even know he had been robbed until the next morning, when the police found a pile of stuff out on the side of the highway near his shop. After a little legwork, the cops traced the instruments back to Vintage Guitars. Fortunately, Red got all the stolen items back except one guitar.
Since that time, the shop has been fitted with bars on the windows and an alarm system to keep that string of bad luck from visiting again.
When you talk to Red about guitar collecting his youthful enthusiasm makes it hard to believe that he is 75. He says that "the chase is usually better than the buy" when it comes to collecting. Red's impressive collection includes several depression-era Gibsons, a group of Larivee acoustic guitars that are worth more than my car, and what he calls the "would-be crown of my collection" -- a 1953 Epiphone Switchmaster, said to have been owned by Elvis Aaron Presley. Red has a paper trail that links the guitar to the King, but he doesn't have solid documentation, such as a photo, that definitively links Presley to the guitar.
A throng of banjos ranging from the very ornate to the very basic -- but all very valuable -- hangs on the walls. There are a few electric guitars scattered here and there, including a Gretsch Silver Anniversary finished in Cadillac Green and a 1952 Gibson Les Paul Goldtop. Red also shows off the guitar he loves to play, the Larivee Deluxe Special, weighing in at $5,600.
About seven years ago Red wanted to get out of the business. He was getting older and felt like it might be time for him to give up collecting. He ended up selling 250 guitars to a collector who eventually started a guitar shop in Spokane.
"I thought it was time but I wasn't quite ready to get out," says Red. "Know anybody who wants to buy a house and a vintage guitar collection?"
Red says that his collecting is pretty much haphazard and he loves what he does.
"It's exciting, always wondering what's gonna come next," he says. He doesn't go out looking for guitars; they usually come to him. He doesn't advertise either -- all his business is from word of mouth. And believe it or not, but that has brought a few well-known musicians to his little house off Interstate 90. To name a few, Ricky Van Shelton, Leo Kottke, members of Asleep At The Wheel and in one instance, some alarming fellows.
"I looked out the front window and saw four pretty grungy looking guys coming up the sidewalk," says Red. "I went to go get my gun and then I noticed a huge bus parked out on the street. It was the Kentucky Headhunters."
Red is a down-home guy. He is genuine in his speech and generous with his time. He recently did a few minor repairs on a guitar for a woman. It just took a couple minutes. When she asked how much she owed him Red replied, "Not a darn thing, it didn't cost me dime."
The woman returned the following day with a plate of brownies. "She hit my soft spot right there," says Red.