It was Saturday, a usual Saturday, as Saturdays go. He got up at seven in the morning, had two cups of coffee, a very large slice of whole grain toast (no butter), brushed his teeth, and then headed out the door for the garage sales.
The predictable garage sale that is, with the used stuff that somebody had bought as treasure and now was of no use to the former hunter. There were records, books, bookshelves, beds, bicycles, old pictures in frames, drinking glasses, lamps without shades, and the other usual finds that might intrigue some potential new buyer. Most of the time there were no musical instruments, and if it happened to be so, they were of no use to a serious musician. They didn’t sound good, were hard to play, and made of plywood by some computerized machine that had no concern for touch, tone, or taste.
He was a musician, a mandolin player to be precise, even though he knew about guitars and banjos that had been made in the “Golden Years” during the 1920’s and 1930’s. A long time ago he had given up the thought of finding any kind of decent instrument at a garage sale. Even so, he was a self proclaimed card carrying “Garage Sale Junkie,” and Saturdays were reserved to support his habit.
This Saturday was no different than all of the rest. He reached the first house by 8am, just as the sale began. By 3pm he had made it to twelve garage sales, and reached his final objective, which was the last garage sale stop on his list. Along the way luck smiled at him out of the corner of her mouth, and he snatched three records from a makeshift holder, right in front of a tall, too slim person with a fixed stare and open mouth, wearing a taco shell cowboy hat. Yes, three black vinyl discs that had been left in the dust by the evolution of the compact disc; a Bill Monroe, a Stanley Brothers, and a Bluegrass Album Band. “Pretty good finds,” he thought to himself. “But nothing to jump up and down about.”
By this time in the afternoon he was somewhat weary, dragging his feet just a little. “I should have done some jogging at my lunch break,” he said out loud as he stopped the car in front of this last house, opened the door, and got out. Then he stepped onto the faded brown lawn that had been touched by the hand of winter, upon which all of the sale items had been non-strategically placed by the seller.
“Let’s see. An old bicycle with flat tires and a rusted frame, ten records by Lawrence Welk, a push lawnmower, a little red wagon with two wheels missing, fifty glass fruit jars, and a bunch of other stuff that isn’t very interesting to me,” he whispered. He kept slowly walking around anyway, browsing. Ten minutes later he completed a 180 degree turn and started to walk back toward the car. Suddenly he saw it.
Out of the corner of his right eye, up on the front porch of the house, almost completely blocked by a small magazine holder, he saw the peg head of what he recognized as an F5 mandolin. Even so, the instant, automatic, involuntary part of his brain produced the immediate thought, “It’s not going to be much.” He was about fifteen yards away from the thing, so there was no detail visible yet. If only he had been wearing his driving glasses that he left in the car he could have made out the blurred inlayed mother of pearl letters on the ebony peg head that held the tuners.
As he got closer, his vision became clearer, and things began to get more interesting. The body of the mandolin had a nicely done sunburst finish, which drew his sight like a magnet, as the warmth of the afternoon sun caressed its surface. And now, closer still, even without his glasses, he was able to read the letters that were still in tact, “Th Gibso,” on the instrument’s peg head, with the third letter of the first word and the last letter of the second word missing.
“Well okay, there are Gibsons, and there are Gibsons,” he muttered. “All kinds of them, new ones, old ones, great ones, good ones, not so good ones, and some made better than others, depending on which year they were made. Hundreds, maybe thousands of them, that fall somewhere along the continuum of the good-bad-and-ugly.”
“Okay if I pick this up and look at it?” he asked. The young woman who was in charge of the garage sale standing next to him replied, “Sure. I put it up here on the front porch because I didn’t think anybody would be very interested in it. No musicians around this neighborhood that I know of.”
As he gently picked it up he found himself asking, “Where did you get it?” “Oh, it belonged to my grandfather. He was a player in an orchestra, and a number of small bands a long time ago. He played it often, at various venues, and I guess that’s why it has the scratches, and the letters on top of it don’t seem to spell anything. Nobody in the family played the mandolin, but we kept it anyway, just as a good memory. But now it’s time for it to go, because we’re moving and we really don’t want to have another thing to pack. It’s been kept in the case up in the attic for all these years. He bought it new.”
Clutching it a little tighter in his hands, he felt an unexplainable overwhelming sense of warmth coming over him. “No visible cracks on the front or back, just surface scratches,” he thought, as he adjusted his now in place reading glasses. “The peg head doesn’t appear to have been broken off and re-glued, so that’s a plus.”
Just then, from the inside of the mandolin, a faint yellow glow emerged from the two well worn labels that had been carefully placed at the time of this instrument’s birth. “Better take a closer look at the small print,” he thought as his excitement grew. The label beneath the “F Hole” under the pick guard and deep inside the mandolin had words and sentences, many of them now unreadable, and only the last three digits of the serial number remained. But what was readable, “The Gibson Master Model, Kalamazoo, Mich. USA,” elevated his enthusiasm and hope to a new level.
The other label, the one beneath the treble side “F Hole,” seemed to be more readable than the first. The sun was down now on this winter afternoon, and he couldn’t see it clearly. “Do you have a flashlight I can borrow?” “Sure, just a minute,” she replied with a slight smile.
Now holding the flashlight, the words on this label jumped out at him clearly as he read, “The top, back, tone-bars, and air-chamber of this instrument were tuned and the assembled instrument tried and approved.” Most of the rest of the label containing the birth month and day of this creation was unreadable, but clearly what was distinguishable was the year that this mandolin was made, “1924.” The year was immediately followed by a signature, “Lloyd Loar, Acoustic Engineer.”
Suddenly he was light-headed, losing his balance for a moment. He knew what he was holding. There are a number of these Gibson Lloyd Loar signed mandolins unaccounted for, their whereabouts unknown and undocumented by those who keep written track of this sort of thing. And he knew it. It was more than intuition that convinced him that this mandolin was one of those. Everything about this mandolin was correct; the detail of workmanship, the curve of the scroll, the two points of the body, the angle of the letters on the peg head, the neck placement as it met the body, everything. It was a treasure. A treasure waiting to blossom when the original owner bought it, and a treasure now that was in full bloom. He knew that the monetary value of this mandolin exceeded the price of many a home these days.
Pulling a tortoise shell pick from his watch pocket (he always kept it there) he strummed the strings. “Like nothing I’ve ever played before,” he thought as his musical sensibilities overtook him. He was now holding unbridled avarice at bay, but for how long he could only guess. After playing three tunes, “Bluegrass Stomp,” “Jerusalem Ridge,” and “J.S. Bach’s Prelude from Cello Suite No. 1,” all doubt had vanished that this instrument was a fake copy. “No way.”
Now he was sure of what he had. And at the same time sure that the owner didn’t know what she had.
For her it was a fond memory of a distant relative’s musical instrument. For him it was the chance of a lifetime. It was the actual opportunity to purchase a musical two hundred ounce “gold nugget” from the past.
He knew what he should do. He knew that he should tell her what she had, and what it was worth on today’s market. He knew the right thing to do. The right thing that he had done all life, his unwritten rule for himself, the rule he lived by, and by which he judged all others. “DO THE RIGHT THING!”
But at the same time he knew he didn’t have much money, nowhere near what this mandolin was worth. Why, he’d have to sell or take out a second mortgage on his house to give the owner what she could get for it through a dealer or auction house. He thought about it, about what he should do. It seemed like an hour had gone by, although it was no more than a minute.
Then a voice he had never heard before came out of him as he asked her, “How much do you want for it?” “Oh I don’t know, make me an offer,” she answered in a soft voice that was barely above a whisper. “I don’t think it’s worth much, money wise. Do you?”