Looking at the mass of people gathered behind his store for its grand opening, Mike Watson smiled beneath his bushy red beard.
He not only opened an independent musical instrument shop, West Lake Music, at 274 West Main Street in Patchogue, he also hosted a full day of live music.
It was free for anyone willing to come and listen.
Ernie D’Alessia, one such attendee, said he was glad to see live music back in the village. “Oh my God,” said D’Alessia, 59, of North Babylon, his head cocked to the sky. “It’s like a breath of fresh air.”
There was no shortage of excitement inside the store, as dozens of people entered the shop every hour to try and talk about all things guitar.
For Watson, 51, of Medford, the day was a dream come true.
“I’ve always loved music, I played in bands for years, but as I’m getting older now I just want to be around guitars,” he said. “I like talking about guitars, talking about music. Any excuse to do that, and if I can make a buck off it, fantastic.”
Setting up shop
Watson said he and many of his friends collected enough instruments over the years to start with a modest inventory.
They began selling instruments in December on Reverb.com, a third-party instrument seller, while they waited to open their physical location.
They shipped instruments around the country, and even to Canada, England, Germany and Australia, Watson said.
Over 60 stringed instruments canvas the walls of the compact shop that opened its doors the last week of January.
Some pieces, like the various Epiphone Les Pauls and Fender Stratocasters, came easily from their collections or estate sales.
Other pieces, like a black Silvertone 1448 electric guitar accompanied by a hard-shell case with a built in amplifier, required some leg work.
Watson came across the case and had a local electrician repair the amplifier. After doing some digging, he found a Southold buyer with the proper guitar that would complete the pair. He said the item is something that was likely sold in a Sears catalog back in the day.
“I love it, that thing, it’s just so unique and it’s actually just so fun to play,” he said. They must have been great to get as Christmas presents in the ‘60s after the Beatles played on Ed Sullivan.”
For now, Watson’s business is dependent on the procuring and selling of used guitars. He is an authorized retailer for new Vox and Blackstar amplifiers and Electro-Harmonix effects pedals, but he cannot yet carry new guitars.
Watson said the COVID-19 pandemic has stunted factory production of several guitar manufacturers he contacted, and they are not looking to take on new retailers.
“A lot of companies told me to call back next year when they’re at full bore again. That was something I honestly didn’t anticipate,” he said.
“We talk, we bond, we make friends”
A natural bassist and modest guitarist by his own admission, Watson said he grew disconnected from music stores in recent years.
“I got tired of the corporate scene, I got tired of the coldness,” he said. “Music is about connecting with people. I’m trying to make a music store that people are comfortable coming to and they don’t want to run out.
“They hang out, we talk, we bond, we make friends.”
On Saturday’s grand opening, it was clear that Watson’s dream guitar shop was becoming a reality.
“I think a band practically formed in here before,” said Ed Rivera, one of the store’s managers. He said two teenage boys, a guitarist and a bassist who had never met before entering the shop, started jamming to songs by Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Led Zeppelin, and Foo Fighters. “The bands were out there playing, and they were entertaining us in here.”
Rivera, 52, of Medford said the boys exchanged numbers and the bass player’s mother put a deposit down on the Fender American Standard Jazz Bass her son played. The bass has been placed in solitary confinement at the back of the store, as Rivera said the mother intends to purchase it as a high school graduation gift for her son.
Music in the air
For nearly eight hours on the windy Saturday, various local acts graced the ramshackle stage of pipes, plywood and a pickup truck bed behind Watson’s store.
For the audience as well as the musicians, the return of live music was long overdue. “I was rusty as hell,” admitted JT Thomson, guitarist and vocalist of Gypsy Highway. “But I redeemed myself in rehearsal last Wednesday, or so the other guys told me.”
Thomson’s group took to the stage around 7 p.m. for a 10-song set, in which they covered Eric Clapton, B.B. King, Santana and The Allman Brothers Band for a chilled cross-armed audience.
For some of the local artists, Saturday’s grand opening was a chance to debut new material they wrote during the pandemic.
“We got no hope, cause we’re living in a quarantine world,” belted out Darren Gallagher, accompanied by a nine-piece band, four of whom stood in front of or alongside the cramped stage.
Gallagher, 55, of West Islip, played his three latest singles: last year’s “Quarantine World,” “Coming and Going,” and “Live Inspired,” a tune written in memory of a friend he recently lost which became available to stream three weeks ago.
The musician of nearly four decades, who is planning to release an album of original tunes by the year’s end, also fronts various cover bands.
He said Saturday’s brief set left him hopeful that people are ready to experience live music again, which would mean a busier summer season for him compared to last year. His latest cover project, Playin’ English, recently booked its first gig for June 4 at KJ Farrell’s in Bellmore.
Kristen “Goldie” McBrien, who runs the shop’s social media efforts and booked the live acts for the grand opening, said she sensed the artists’ eagerness to play after a stifling year. “No one said no,” she said of her booking efforts. “And no one wanted money.”
McBrien, 50, of Middle Island, spent much of the afternoon monitoring a folding table covered end to end with West Lake Music t-shirts for sale, alongside a poster board displaying a 50/50 raffle to raise money for Suffolk County police officer Christopher Racioppo, who was stabbed and hospitalized on Apr 10.
The store also auctioned off an acoustic guitar and a ukulele during the grand opening to generate more donation funds. Watson heard about the officer’s injury and said he wanted to take the opportunity to have “a couple of humble little efforts to help.”
With the community response on Saturday, Watson said the outdoor music event may not be a one-off. “I’m so happy to be a part of this village in a positive way,” he said “I can’t wait to do this again.”