Matt Brislawn got schooled about the intersection of music and money when he was growing up in Vancouver. There was a single musical instrument store in town and everything it offered was new and pricey enough to be out of reach for eager, undercapitalized young musicians like him, he said.
Local musical equipment shopping options have grown tremendously since then, but the grown-up Brislawn, owner of downtown’s Briz Loan & Guitar, proudly sells the same sort of used, affordable, entry-level guitars and gear he wished for back when he was young and forced to save his nickels and dimes.
“I bailed on music for years,” he said. That’s because he couldn’t afford even a cheap guitar.
Ironically enough, the coronavirus pandemic drove sales and reclamation of pawned instruments at Briz Loan and& Guitar from healthy to positively booming for a while, Brislawn said. Activity has slowed down again, he said, but that’s typical for summer.
“Music is the ultimate indoor sport,” he said. “In April and May, guitars were sailing out of here.” The shop’s front window still reveals a plethora of irresistible musical goodies, but hidden around an interior corner are plenty of empty wall-mounted guitar racks, he confessed.
“Everybody’s been bored at home and everybody got those extra (stimulus) checks,” Brislawn said. “When that check dropped it was like Christmas and tax-refund season rolled into one.”
It’s also been a season of youthful malaise, he added.
“Parents are feeling like they’ve got to get something into their kids’ hands,” Brislawn said. “Other than the PlayStation.”
PlayStation was what Brislawn himself fell back on when he was a bored kid. Brislawn, 49, grew up near what’s now Allen’s Crosley Lanes bowling alley and remembers skateboarding the streets of “ghost town,” that is, downtown Vancouver when it was silent and still.
The biggest thing happening downtown in those days was a used-stuff swap meet, said Brislawn, who managed to save $100 for a new guitar by pulling a wagon around the event. Then he discovered his mistake: A new guitar would cost him closer to $300.
Discouraged, Brislawn blew his $100 on that PlayStation. But his dream didn’t die, he said. When he was 18, a punk-rocker friend stuck a bass guitar in his hands and Brislawn fell in love with music again. Then his friend took him shopping in downtown Vancouver’s pawnshops for a used amplifier.
“My life was changed forever,” Brislawn writes in a brief bio on his shop’s website. “I was now a pawnshop hound.”
After Brislawn graduated from Bates Technical College and relocated to Seattle, he played in a successful band called Scar Crow.
“At one point we had a CD in every Tower Records in the world,” he said. But he couldn’t get time off from his day job to go on tour. Meanwhile, Brislawn started frequenting a new pawnshop near his Capitol Hill apartment.
“The boss knew everything about pawns. He knew jewelry. He knew all the stuff that comes through a pawnshop,” Brislawn said. “The only thing he didn’t know was musical equipment. He wanted to hire me but I knew my parents would kill me if I told them I dropped my day job and went to work in a pawnshop.”
In the end, they didn’t kill him. Brislawn’s new boss gave him flexible time off and first dibs on any musical equipment that arrived in their shop. Brislawn said he spent a year stockpiling gear into his tiny apartment — and then he followed his new dream, which was opening his own musical pawnshop in Vancouver.
This was the mid-1990s, a time when city leaders were readying big redevelopment plans for “ghost town” — including pushing pawnshops out — and Brislawn managed to snag the last downtown pawnshop license, he said.
“Downtown was on the verge,” he said. “We still didn’t know if anything was really going to happen.”
Today, pedestrian and car traffic is busy in front of the shop on Washington Street, which is just steps away from “the best tacos and the best pizza in town,” Brislawn said.
“For two decades nobody walked down here, and definitely not southbound,” he said as downtown workers strolled by his store, carrying takeout food toward the waterfront. “This was as south as you could go in downtown.”
This month, Brislawn celebrated 25 years of Briz Loan & Guitar by retiring the mortgage on his building.
“The secret sauce is bringing something that Vancouver didn’t have before,” he said. “We have the expensive stuff too, but cheap stuff is our focus.”
His staff motto is “Be cool,” he added. No hard sells, no pressuring anybody to buy what they don’t really need.
For about half his 25 years here, Brislawn has enjoyed a mutually supportive friendship with his tenant, Mr. G’s School of Guitar.
Mr. G. is Michael Giammatteo, who said his friend called him with the idea just when Giammatteo was weary of both classroom teaching and traveling to students’ homes to give private lessons.
“He says, do you want to start a little music school? I asked for a week to think about it but Mrs. G said, ‘That’s what you’re supposed to do. Call him right back,’ ” Giammatteo said with a laugh. (Yes, “Mrs. G” is his pet name for his wife.) Brislawn and Giammatteo refer business back and forth between their adjacent shops, they said.
“We’re totally independent and totally connected,” Giammatteo said.
Giammatteo was up to 35 lessons a week when the coronavirus knocked that down to practically nothing, he said. When The Columbian stopped by a couple of weeks ago, he was just getting ready to reopen his door — literally, to keep fresh air moving and risk of exposure low — and had welcomed back one student for a test run.
“I’m always shopping for a guitar,” said 15-year-old Christian Engleman while waiting for his dad to pick him up after the lesson. To pass the time, he perched on a planter box outside Brislawn’s store and tested out a solid-body electric.
That’s how pandemic guitar shopping works at Briz Loan & Guitar. Brislawn keeps the upper half of his sectioned front door closed, passing equipment and money through the lower section. Since customers can’t go inside, everything for sale is posted on the store’s website. If you want to try a guitar, that planter box is waiting.
On a recent Friday afternoon, one overbusy certified nursing assistant was seeking an estimate on a used bass guitar she doesn’t have time to play these days. Another was hunting for an analog-to-digital interface to allow home-computer recording. Those have been hot sellers during the pandemic too, Brislawn said.
“It’ll be interesting to see all the bedroom recordings that come out of this,” he said.