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Rockin' Bob, Davis Square Fixture for 3 Decades

Bob Mahoney has run his guitar shop in the heart of Davis Square since 1981, witnessing transformations in the square, the music industry and the lives of small business owners.

Bob Mahoney, a.k.a. Rockin' Bob, has run his business in Davis Square since 1981. Credit: Chris Orchard
Bob Mahoney, a.k.a. Rockin' Bob, has run his business in Davis Square since 1981. Credit: Chris Orchard
Bob Mahoney, also known as Rockin' Bob, has run his guitar business on Holland Street, next to Johnny D's, since 1981.

Rockin' Bob's Guitars sells new, used and vintage guitars and amps, and it's also one of the few places around that will repair guitars and amps.

In the three decades since Rockin' Bob hung out his shingle, Davis Square has transformed, the music business has gone through a technological revolution, and the realities of running a small, independent brick-and-mortar shop have evolved in the age of Internet commerce. Rockin' Bob has been there the whole time, in the same storefront at 31 Holland St.

Mahoney first came Holland Street in 1979 as an electronic technician at the store's previous incarnation: Used Sound, which had expanded into Davis Square from Newbury Street, thinking Tufts University would be a good market for stereo and video equipment. Mahoney ultimately bought the Davis Square business and has been there ever since.

We met briefly with Rockin' Bob to talk about the guitar business, the changing landscape of the music business, and the evolution of Davis Square.

Here's our conversation:

Somerville Patch: Not only has Davis Square changed since 1981, the music industry has changed.

Rockin' Bob: Well, yeah. At that time we were buying and selling TVs and video equipment and audio gear [and] home stereo gear. That was a huge business back then. Since then a lot of things have changed, and [today] TVs are not reparable usually, and home audio gear sort of fell away ten or fifteen years ago with iPods and computers. Everything's changed with that, but nothing's really changed with musical gear. And that's something I've always been interested in, being a musician myself. It just seemed logical to change from a stereo shop that carried a few guitars to a guitar shop that still has a few stereo pieces around. But mostly we do the sale and repair of guitars and associated electronics.

Somerville Patch: Are you near Johnny D's on purpose?

Rockin' Bob: Having Johnny D's and the Somerville Theatre has been really good because Somerville Theatre gets touring bands and Johnny D's gets a lot of local and international music players. So that's been very good.

Somerville Patch: What sort of customers do you have—beginners, intermediates, pros?

Rockin' Bob: I have everything, from little kids wanting to play, to adult beginners, to pros and everything in between. That's why we have a wide variety of guitars, for the well experienced and collectors, too … we cater to almost anybody who wants to come in and buy a guitar.

Somerville Patch: Have you ever sold to any famous musicians?

Rockiin' Bob: I have sold to some people who are touring in bands and stuff, but mostly it's been local people. I also sell stuff on eBay, so I've sold guitars all over the world. I've shipped to Russia, France, England … we ship all over.

Somerville Patch: Online commerce has changed brick-and-mortar stores, are guitars one of those things people need to come in and get their hands on, or do people buy them online?

Rockin' Bob: It would seem like one would want to try a guitar and play it and see what it feels like and sounds like before buying. And that's always been the experience that I've had with guitars. But thousands of guitars get sold online every day. It's one of those things that I'm surprised that anyone would buy a guitar online. But they do. The market is there, so I have to go where the market is … [but] most of what we do happens right here, but we have a much bigger audience by being online.

Somerville Patch: Have you seen any ebbs and flows with the instrument over the years?

Rockin' Bob: Not really. Most people will start with an acoustic guitar, but some people will start with an electric guitar, but it's a bigger expense because you need to have an amplifier.

Somerville Patch: Do you offer lessons?

Rockin' Bob: No. That's one thing we don't do. We don't have the space to do lessons here. But we do repairs, which a lot of people don't do. I'm a master electronic technician, and I do most of the amp repair, and Nick here does most of the guitar repair ... We do a lot of restoration on a lot of guitars and amplifiers.

Somerville Patch: How would you describe the changes in Davis Square over the last 30 years.

Rockin' Bob: It's been amazing. Thirty years ago, Davis Square at night was not a nice place to be. There were a lot of bars, there were a lot of fights. A lot of bad stuff was going on, and the malls were taking away a lot of business, so there were a lot of empty storefronts. Now it's hard to find an empty storefront.

Somerville Patch: Is there anything the city of Somerville can do to make life easier for small businesses?

Rockin' Bob: It would be nice to keep the rents low, but I don't think the city can do that. What would be great for businesses here in Davis Square has always been parking. Parking has always been difficult. They don't want to build a parking garage and then have all these people come in just for the T station. But that's been a major complaint of most consumers in Davis Square, is the parking … I think Davis Square is constantly evolving, which is nice … it's good that it's evolving. It's good that we still have a lot of mom-and-pop businesses here. That's one thing Somerville is trying to maintain in Davis Square, is not have big chains. 

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