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The experience of walking into Chuck Levin’s Washington Music Center—known to patrons as simply “Chuck’s”—has not changed in years. The staff, many of whom have worked the floor for decades, still write sales tickets by hand. There are no clean lines or trendy lighting in the space. The colors are rather drab, save for the instruments on display. The overall feeling is one of organized chaos. And yet, after six decades, people still come.
This year marks this local institution’s 60th anniversary, and it’s an example of an independent retail operation that is not only surviving in the face of big box stores and web retailers, but is thriving. Chuck’s is commemorating 60 years in its own unique way. Rather than just a series of events, a number of partner manufacturers are making limited edition instruments stamped with special logos and features, all available on the showroom floor. Most notable is an exact recreation of the “Big Chuck” wah-wah pedal, a piece of equipment sold in the ’70s that has now become part of Chuck’s lore.
“There are certain tweaks we’ve had to do, obviously, but for the most part, we’re a big dinosaur,” says Alan Levin, whose parents opened up shop in 1958. “What we do, we do really well.”
Charles “Chuck” Levin opened the original location at 12th and H streets NE, and staffed it along with his wife, Marge. The two had been in the pawn shop business prior and dealt with musical instruments and musicians regularly before shifting their focus on musical equipment in their new venture. Their children—brothers Alan and Robert, as well as sister Abbe—also entered the family business as they came of age, starting at the bottom and working their way up, as their father felt it necessary to teach them every aspect of the business.
“I mean, it was just always jumpin’,” Alan Levin recalls of those early days. “They opened the store in ’58, so right when the store was getting its legs underneath it came The Beatles and The Beach Boys, so everybody wanted to be a musician.”
Dark times did arrive, however, in the form of the uprising that took place in various parts of the District after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. No one on staff was present when the violence broke out, but there was nothing left of the store by the time the smoke cleared, according to Alan Levin.
The Levins decided to move the store out to Wheaton and the Washington Music Center has been at its current location, which was formerly a furniture outlet, since 1968. Now, the company owns several buildings that include multiple showrooms, instrument repair workshops, storage facilities, and a sister company that equips large-scale customers with their audiovisual needs.
Chuck Levin ran the business until his passing in 2002, at which point his children took over, with help from Marge, until she passed in 2010. Robert Levin succumbed to an aggressive cancer in 2013, so the current leadership is comprised of Alan and Abbe Levin, as well as Adam Levin, Robert’s son, who joined the company in 2010 and is poised to take over as the third generation of Levin leadership.
“Family” and “community” are words that come repeatedly when people talk about Chuck’s. Adam Levin credits the store’s tight-knit staff with helping him cope with the sudden loss of his father.
“Having a 150-person family to back you up, I would not be the person I am today without this place,” he says.
Paul Reed Smith founded the Maryland-based PRS Guitars in 1985, and its endorsers include legendary players like Carlos Santana, fusion pioneer John McLaughlin, and Rush’s Alex Lifeson. Smith’s relationship with Chuck’s started in his childhood, a time when “going to Chuck Levin’s was like going to Mecca,” he says.
In the mid-’70s, Smith started working at the store. When PRS Guitars formed, Chuck Levin was among the first people who signed an order for its guitars, and these days there can be as many as 200 of them in stock.
“Mr. Levin was a teacher. He would drop these gems for you to live by. He was extraordinarily smart, very skilled and knowledgeable. He was the daddy of the music business,” says Smith, whose company is supplying a limited run of guitars to this year’s anniversary festivities.
Everyone involved with Chuck’s has a story. Mark Rishebarger, who began working at Chuck’s in 1985 and now manages the accessories department, recalls the time his brother, Scott—who also once worked at Chuck’s—had a child and brought in cigars for the staff. The staff lit their stogies in the store and Mark worried that the haze permeating the store would anger the boss. At that moment, Chuck stepped out onto sales floor with a smile and a lit cigar of his own.
“When you’ve been here as long as a lot of us have been here, you watch people grow up, and then you watch their kids grow up,” Rishebarger says. “I’m on like the third round of that so it’s really wild.”
Rishebarger is just one of several staffers who have put in decades with Chuck’s. Naturally, the level of expertise from the sales team is unmatched, which in turn brings in business and a loyal customer base via word of mouth. Some of those clients include some serious A-listers in the music world, like Stevie Wonder, who visits the store on a nearly annual basis.
“It’s like a neutron star that sucks in matter,” jokes Paul Schein, a 37-year veteran of Chuck’s guitar department, describing Wonder’s visits. “The store empties toward the key-board room in the back. He’s always cool about it and even plays for people.”
The staff will proudly tell you that, even when celebrities come into the store, they do not get special treatment—nor does any salesperson who waits on them. When Fender Guitars made a signature model of its Telecaster series to honor D.C. legend Danny Gatton, it sent a batch to Chuck’s. Lou Reed placed an order with Schein for one of them, but Schein miscalculated the shipping cost and $1.38 was taken out of his next paycheck. The charge-back slip remained on the staff bulletin board for years.
O.A.R., a band whose members came together while students at Wootton High School in Rockville, have deep ties to the store. Carl Culos, a now-retired staffer in Chuck’s’ sound department—his son, Chris Culos, is the band’s drummer—mixed and mastered O.A.R.’s first album. O.A.R. guitarist Richard On bought his first electric guitar at Chuck’s while in middle school and continues to shop there.
“They still treat us like we’re nobodies, in the friendliest way possible,” he jokes. “I still get goosebumps when I walk in there because I have so many memories.”
Similarly, Matt Rippetoe, who plays saxophone for Thievery Corporation, See-I, and a host of other bands, has been going to Chuck’s since the ’80s. When he was 24, he wanted to sell a saxophone to get some cash. Chuck Levin himself tried to talk him out of it, not realizing that Rippetoe still had an-other horn.
“It’s cool that it was more important to him to encourage some kid to keep playing music than to make a deal,” Rippetoe says.
Employees like Rishebarger and Schein are a significant part of the value that a store like Chuck’s offers, even in the face of large-scale competitors. The company is adapting to the current environment, but in a way that stays true to its ethos. Ten years ago, Sean Robinson, another long-time employee, convinced the owners to set up a space for educational clinics. Since then, a number of prominent artists—including Rodrigo y Gabriela, bassists Marcus Miller, Stanley Clarke, and Ron Carter—have given masterclasses and performances on the stage.
Adam Levin’s first major contribution to the store since coming on board was to revamp and dedicate a team to Chuck’s’ online operations. Online sales currently represent just a fraction of the overall business, but other technological changes emerged as a result, including new inventory and payment systems. Levin also set up a professional photography studio onsite so web customers can see the exact instrument they’re purchasing. And, to boot, they simultaneously have web access to Chuck’s’ revered staff to talk through purchase decisions. The developing model is one where the web business is complementing the physical business, rather than replacing it.
“If all the computers fell to shit, we’d be okay,” Levin says. “I can still call you on the phone and we know how to talk on the phone.”