A Real Fender Bender

An obscure zoning law may spell the end for local guitar guru Ed Oleck's shop

For twenty years Ed Oleck has collected vintage guitars. He has purchased, repaired, and sold hundreds of them -- Fenders, Martins, Gibsons, Gretsches. Rock stars and wannabes have sought out his west Dade shop for rare instruments, hard-to-find parts, or the perfect reverb.

Now Oleck says his store is on the verge of extinction.
Ed's Guitars, a compact, unassuming galaxy of axes that has served players including Jimmy Page and Iggy Pop, is losing money for the first time in its history. The trouble started about three years ago when chains such as Sam Ash and Guitar Center came to town. Then in February the Miami-Dade Police Department delivered more bad news. Sgt. Kevin Mahoney announced the store could no longer buy used instruments from walk-in customers. Mahoney vaguely mentioned a zoning violation, employees say, and even hinted at incarceration. "They were constantly threatening to arrest us without giving a reason," recalls Michelle Oleck, who helps run her father's business.

Ed's, located on SW 96th Avenue just south of Bird Road, is in an area zoned for stores like supermarkets and card shops. The county allows merchants -- including guitar vendors like Oleck -- to buy secondhand goods only in places zoned for pawn shops and large enclosed malls. Moreover, Oleck has been officially prohibited from buying instruments since the Sixties, police maintain. He just didn't know it.

Oleck is a lifelong musician who worked as a session man in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, playing bass on dozens of R&B records. He started collecting six- and twelve-strings while touring with several bands. By the time he opened the store in 1978, Oleck had accumulated about 100 guitars; he simply stocked the store from his living room.

A last outpost of guitar culture, Ed's offers things chain stores cannot, like an early Eighties American Showster -- an electric guitar shaped like the tail fin of a '57 Chevy, complete with working brake light. Or nineteenth-century European zithers and mandolins. Then there's the service. (When New Times visited, a Guitar Center employee was dropping off his instrument for adjustment.) Among Oleck's customers is local musician Nil Lara. Repairman Carl Hefley converts six-string electrics into treses -- Cuban guitars that Lara uses for his unique sound.

The police order to stop buying used merchandise couldn't have come at a worse time. Big stores have taken most of Oleck's new guitar business. And two major American manufacturers, Rickenbacker and Martin, recently removed Ed's from their list of distributors because their guitars were selling faster at other stores.

Though Oleck buys only 30 to 40 instruments a month, the restriction's effect on his sales is considerable, he explains. Anyone who enters with something to sell may also buy. If Ed's disappears, musicians will lose, Oleck believes. "My edge is that I know about guitars, and those other morons don't."

Isaac Cohen, owner of the strip mall where Ed's is located, is concerned about his tenant's fate. Soon after the police visit, Cohen hired well-known Miami zoning attorney Stanley Price. After meeting with police June 18, Price instructed Oleck to stop buying used guitars. Now Price awaits county administrators' advice on how to legalize purchases. "I just need someone to tell me what to do," he declares.

Oleck must obtain from a citizens' board a zoning variance that would allow him to buy, says Diane O'Quinn Williams, acting assistant director of zoning. The application costs about $5000 and the process takes at least three months. The board's approval is by no means automatic, even for a venerable institution like Ed's.

Limiting the purchase of used guitars to properly zoned locations is necessary, contends Miami-Dade Police Maj. Elizabeth Buchholz. If every store could buy secondhand, "How easy would it be for the criminal element to get rid of stolen goods?" she asks, and says that Ed's is not being singled out. Police have visited every secondhand store in the Kendall district and have even made arrests. "We're trying to work with Ed's, so we've given them the benefit of the doubt," she declares.

 
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