Inside D.C. entertainment

Atomic Music: In this laptop age, a shop where the guitar is still king

February 22, 2012 - 12:31 PM
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(Facebook/Atomic Music)

It's been a while since Washington was a guitar town.

From the sample-heavy club music of Thievery Corporation to burgeoning national hip-hop stars like Wale and Tabi Bonney to the Moombahton sound colonizing nightclubs around the world, the local music scene is far more friendly to laptop heroics than Marshall stacks these days.

But the instrument that first put D.C. music on the map of most rock fans in the '80s and '90s, from Fugazi to Clutch to the Dismemberment Plan, still has pride of place at Atomic Music, the long-running store for working musicians in Beltsville, Md. Rows of amps and a two-tiered wall of guitars, ranging from the familiar Stratocasters to off-beat, no-brand instruments, dominate the store.

Buying and selling secondhand instruments and accessories has been the store's focus since 1994, when co-owner Luis Peraza began selling his own collection with partner and fellow Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School grad Eric Schwelling. "I had a few guitars and he had credit — which I had none of," Peraza recalls. Their first store in College Park, founded when Peraza was 27, was about the size of the foyer of the current store.

Drummers and keyboardists can still find what they're looking for at Atomic, but the flip from Fugazi to Fat Trel hasn't affected the store as much as changes in the economy and technology. According to the National Association of Music Merchants, the recent recession caused U.S. sales of music products to fall from a 10-year peak of over $7.5 billion in 2005 to a low of under $6 billion in 2009.

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(Facebook/Atomic Music)

"It was unlike anything I'd seen before," Peraza says. In 2008 he saw an onslaught of customers selling gear to Atomic but fewer people coming to buy. In that year and the following year, gross and net sales at the store declined after a period of mostly steady growth since 1994, and only recently has the store come close to pre-2008 levels.

Those who do buy are more careful about spending too much money on that sought-after vintage amp or rare guitar.

"Five or six years ago we would sell more stuff in the $800, $700, $900 range, now it's more stuff in the $300, $400, $500 price range," says Matt Leary, who has worked the floor at Atomic for 10 years. "You're not getting people buying things because, 'Hey it's cool, I'd like to have one of those.'"

Peraza credits the secondhand side of Atomic's business for helping it survive the recession: The store sells very little gear that hasn't had a previous owner. "I think if we sold all new we would've been under, instantly," he says.

So while the stock may look, uh, well-loved, it fits the store's vibe. Atomic more resembles the basement of a schizophrenic hoarder than a pristine Guitar Center. With a cello propped up against a Marshall amplifier cabinet and Kiss and B-52's posters on the walls, it's clear that Atomic is catering to music obsessives for whom sometimes the older and weirder something is, the better.

"You can't walk into a regular music store and buy stuff from 1952," says Scott Hedges, a Silver Spring recording studio owner and Atomic customer on a Saturday morning who says he's been coming to the store for about 10 years.

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(Facebook/Atomic Music)

While the high-end purchases have fallen off, the store has been able to attract a different clientele who previously wouldn't have bought used. "I think a lot of the people in the area are people who just like to buy something new," Peraza says. "Well, once they get strapped for cash they no longer have the money to buy something new. They suddenly become part of that price-savvy clientele. I got to see a growth of customers in our database who hadn't been there for 18 years."

The shakeout among music stores means that Atomic's biggest competitors are now Craigslist and eBay. "When people have a '72 Les Paul Custom or something, they used to always bring it to us. Now they put it on eBay and they maximize some money that way," Peraza says. "And it's a little bit of a risk but I don't blame them."

But one thing Atomic has over online retail is that all its guitars can be played, not just looked at. And unlike other music stores where customers get dirty looks for playing with the merchandise, at Atomic, fiddling around is encouraged. "A lot of times you go to a guitar shop and everything's behind glass … and it doesn't feel like you can touch anything, whereas this is a lot more interactive," says Leary.

While Atomic has had to keep up with competition from new technology, it doesn't pay attention to shifting music trends. "There might be less guitar-based music coming out of D.C., but to be quite honest there's a lot of older dudes that keep playing guitar that weren't there in the '70s," Peraza says. But the younger generation hasn't passed them by either: "Guitar Hero six, seven years ago created an onslaught of 10-year old prodigies." At Atomic, of course, those prodigies can upgrade from plastic guitars to the real thing.

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