From the street, Mike’s Music looks like Swedish kitsch. Devoid of clean lines, its wood-shingle awning and barn-askew clapboards bespeak a Midwestern-Nordic collision that has outlived every other building on the block. And it’s a block, it must be said, that has settled into itself with age. Apart from Mike’s, this particular stretch of Cincinnati’s Vine Street is a middling retail draw. Next door is a head shop in the throes of a bong and black-light fire sale; next to that, an adult bookstore called Saturday’s (“No Kids, No Babies, No Strollers”); and just down a ways, somewhat predictably, a Papa John’s.
Which is to say that you’re not quite prepared for what awaits inside Mike’s. Before eyes can be made to adjust and wits jimmied loose, you’re staring point-blank down the rosewood-and-mahogany barrels of several custom Les Pauls, pearly inlays shining like bars of fluorescent light. In fact, all manner of vintage Gibson is sprawled out around you, some of it very serious payload worth upwards of the Audi Q5 parked incongruously out front. Were this L.A. or New York, the entryway alone would’ve long ago marked Mike’s as a camera-strap tourist portal. But because it’s in boondocks Cinci, where it shares sidewalk with Saturday’s, it’s the inverse of that, something more akin to a well-loved local taco stand.
After you pry yourself from the front room, you’re in the Fender space. One after the other they appear, hypnotically at first — 1970s Stratocasters, despite their glam and glow, are like relics from lost worlds, cosmic and impermeable — then in ever-increasing bandwidth, until you’re sick at heart at never having owned anything so pretty. Next comes a field of Marsh amps, which make a nice palate-cleanser before you plunge into a warren of sideline models like Charvel, Danelectro, Rickenbacker, Gretsch. Up a level is the acoustic room, the bass room, the keyboard room, and the drums room. All the way up top lies the interplanetary, museum-quality shit, where you might find, say, a $70,000 Gretsch Penguin or a $200,000 Martin Dreadnought, as well as a whole new range of emotions for processing things.
All of this is the purview of a guy named Mike Reeder. Reeder grew up across the river in Kentucky, the son of a railroad man. At age seven he was baptized in the fire of rock ‘n’ roll by his older brother, who introduced him to the Beatles, the Who, the Stones, etc. The music seemed immutable proof of a higher order, a gateway to sonic rapture, and Reeder has spent the rest of his life, in one way or another, attempting to distill it. There were years of drifting around L.A., of factotum in-betweenness, of playing in ’80s cover bands, Zeppelin cover bands, blues-soul cover bands, and the inexorable wedding band. Until an epiphany struck in 1991.
“I remember finding a few Goldtop Deluxes,” Reeder says of the classic Gibson shredded by face-melters like Page and Townshend. “I bought three in one week and sold them all for a profit. I was like, ‘Oh.’”
All the way up top lies the interplanetary, museum-quality shit, where you might find, say, a $70,000 Gretsch Penguin or a $200,000 Martin Dreadnought, as well as a whole new range of emotions for processing things.
That year, he opened his first shop, a puffed-up flea market with a few vintage guitars stashed among the ancient pie-safes and ladder-back rockers. Collecting morphed inevitably into obsession. From the moment he opened the Vine Street shop in 1993, Reeder was a man on the run. Leaving his wife in charge, he roamed the countryside, buying up whatever he could find. As it turned out, Reeder had stumbled into the vintage guitar market more or less at its genesis.
“Back then, you could drive around to local flea markets and pawnshops and fill up a van with unbelievable stuff,” he says, “’70s Strats, custom-colored ’50s Fenders, you name it. Nowadays, you couldn’t do that if you drove across the country twice.”
Fueled in part by Japanese collectors and by players like Stevie Ray Vaughan, who single-handedly launched a Strat craze, the marketplace went ballistic. “It was a full-on frenzy to find guitars,” Reeder says, adding that the Chicago Music Exchange opened around the same time as Mike’s, bringing more Midwest muscle into the game. Caravans of seekers were soon converging on garage sales and antique depots from Presque Isle to Yakima.
“I knew enough to know that if I hesitated, it would all be gone,” Reeder says. In three years, it pretty much was. “I was real lucky. The early market was all speculation, because ‘70s guitars weren’t very old yet. I didn’t know where things were headed. None of us did. And the bigger the guitars got, the scarier it was. I couldn’t afford to make mistakes.”
Chronically short on cash, occasionally spiraling in a nimbus of fear and angst, Reeder nonetheless managed to buy the Vine Street building for a song in 1994. Ten years later, he opened a second location in nearby Covington, Kentucky, which today holds nearly as much capacity to astound as Vine Street does. Around 2004, his business steadied and Reeder began at last to breathe.
The Vine Street shop, with something like 2,000 vintage guitars parceled through its three otherworldly floors, has become an anchor to a small but intense local music scene that’s easily among the country’s best. Outside of Cinci, the shop’s fame, such as it is, tends to travel mainly among professional musicians. Bands are known to book shows in town purely as an afterthought to hitting Mike’s — widely considered one of the best vintage guitar shops on Earth.
If the vintage guitar market was a dying star in 1991, its remains are a black hole of exclusivity. Like so much else in this world, the best stuff has by and large sunk into private hands, Reeder says. “It’s a lot like collecting rare 78s. There are maybe 30 people who own most of the super-high-end stuff,” he says. “Occasionally something will turn up, but not often.”
Mike’s deals in its share of freakish, upper-atmosphere, Zuckerberg-money guitars, the kind of glass-case artifacts you’d be lucky to see from a distance, let alone play. More than anything though, Mike’s focus is on rare-but-affordable pieces, from bruised $200-$300 numbers that become new limbs, to dusty classics that might’ve had pickups or a tuner replaced, to epic porch-players that can see you safely through a midlife crisis. Personally, I’d find it unconscionable to pay good money for something that didn’t unzip my skull and spoon out my gyri. At Mike’s, fortunately, these things align in infinite ways.