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Elderly Instruments thrives as Michigan’s ‘magical land’ for musicians

Elderly CEO Lillian Werbin holding a
Elderly CEO Lillian Werbin tunes her favorite instrument, a banjo, in the main showroom of Lansing’s Elderly Instruments. Werbin is CEO and co-owner of the store with its founder and her father, Stan Werbin. (Bridge photo by Dale G. Young)
  • Lansing’s Elderly Instruments was named top small business in the U.S. in late 2023
  • Elderly already has a national reputation, thanks to the legions of musicians who shop there for guitars and other fretted instruments
  • The store thrives from community-building, including national events that encourage new audiences for American roots music

LANSING  — Spontaneous riffs from stringed instruments fill every room of  Elderly Instruments, creating a custom soundtrack for the renowned music store. 

Banjos, autoharps, ukuleles and acoustic and electric guitars built the foundation of the 52-year-old Lansing mainstay, and still feed the passion of its clientele.

“It's not just about selling,” second-generation owner Lillian Werbin told Bridge Michigan about the nationally known instrument shop in Lansing’s Old Town district. “It's about the actual relationship we have here.”


Musicians have celebrated the store since its founding in 1972, turning their visits into pilgrimages. Grammy winners, legends of American roots music and beginners all mingle at Elderly, contributing to its national reputation. 

The independent music store in mid-Michigan gained yet another nod at the end of 2023, when the U.S. Chamber of Commerce named it the top small business in the nation. 


The award came after Werbin’s store topped the 15,000 other business owners who submitted nominations, earning Elderly a $25,000 prize.

“Elderly Instruments won for its ability to embrace change, adapt to challenges, and constantly innovate,” the U.S. chamber said.

That’s not to say that it’s easy to operate an independent instrument store that is built on niche instruments and competes in a world of business consolidation and corporate profits.

Elderly remains a mom-and-pop shop “that still cares about the old way of doing things,” Werbin said, while “balancing the new era, like ecommerce best practices.”

Many, especially larger businesses, “underestimate how hard it is for small business,” Werbin told Bridge Michigan on a recent visit to the store. 

In her nomination, Werbin articulated attributes that she and her father, store founder and co-owner Stan Werbin, insist upon for the store:  enthusiasm, resilience, community focus and a commitment to keeping musicians happy.

Lillian Werbin calls Elderly “the quiet string” in Lansing, where the store has been a stable force for five decades.

“We're very much ourselves, and we've been here the whole time.”

guitars being displayed
A display case in the lobby of its Lansing headquarters marks the history of Elderly Music. (Bridge photo by Dale G. Young)

National reputation

Jay Lapp, a guitarist and mandolin player with The Steel Wheels folk band, traveled from his home state of Indiana to Lansing as an 18-year-old to buy what he calls his first “really good” electric guitar for $1,500, a Gibson Les Paul double-cutaway.

Lapp remembers the store’s distinctively broad selection. And he recalls how he was encouraged to try out the instruments to help him make a choice, something Elderly still encourages.

Climbing the steps and walking through the front door of the 36,000 square-foot store gave him entry to a “musical, magical land,” he remembered.

Lapp’s assessment is shared by musicians across the country, who revere the three-story store that is based in a former Odd Fellows lodge. Selling both new and used instruments, Elderly’s prices can run from a few hundred dollars to several thousand, all the way up to $198,000 for a rare Gibson Explorer kept in what employees call “the vault.”

man playing guitar
Jeffrey Renton plays a rare Gibson Explorer worth almost $200,000 in the amplifier room at Elderly Instruments. (Bridge photo by Dale G. Young)

But there’s more to the Elderly culture, since the store’s staff of 40 includes long-time experts in instrument niches, including repair. 

Everything sold supports the music created by the instruments.

Werbin keeps the store’s emphasis on creating a culture where mu/sicians feel at home, whether to try out new instruments, talk about playing or find a place to jam. 

“Our specialty is buying, selling and trading new, used and vintage (instruments), but what we're really good at is meeting the artists where they want to be met,” Werbin said. 

Lapp agrees, saying Elderly cultivates a community that endures.

“A lot of musicians I know, if they're in Michigan, and they're anywhere close, they'll say, ‘We’re making a trip to Elderly,” he said.

Challenges and what’s next

Winning the national small business award delivered a sales boost in the weeks leading up to the holidays, Werbin said, prompting a strong start to Elderly’s fiscal year for a store that aims for consistent, single-digit growth.

More so, though, Werbin valued meeting the other award finalists and talking through how they try to survive and excel.

Werbin grew up in the store, she says, then headed from Lansing to Western Michigan University’s campus to study public relations.

She returned to the Elderly 10 years ago this July as she and Stan, her father, recognized he had no succession plan. She worked in various departments, then took over as co-owner and president. 

Stan Werbin set the expectation for the store’s caliber of service and grew its reputation, something that his daughter continues with a few modern twists: She brings an eye for back-end management systems, like inventory, and also is maximizing online sales in part through one-day shipping turnaround. 

Challenges that crop up at the store also give rise to opportunities, she said. An example is online sales, which grew during the pandemic and continues to pull in business, even as Werbin adds technology but also seeks to maintain personal touches.


A series of empty basement rooms once used for in-person lessons now invite a store innovation this year, as Elderly tries to use all of its space.

But the rest of the store is still full and vibrant, from climate-controlled storage rooms upstairs to the densely packed workbenches of the craftsmen restoring frets, bodies and string sounds.

Werbin’s days at the store make her happy, she said, so much so that she even comes in on some Sundays, when Elderly is closed, to cherish the peace among the instruments that line room after room.

Her favorite is the banjo, but that’s not to say customers will see her playing often.

“I grew up singing,” she said. Today, Werbin added, “I’m a much better audience member than musician.”

But she also cultivates the next generation of musicians, while doing her part to widen the pool of diversity. 

Jeffrey Renton repairing a banjo
Kyle Szarek works on a banjo in the repair shop at Elderly, surrounded by instrument sent to the from around the country for the store’s luthiers to fix. (Bridge photo by Dale G. Young)

She’s chair of Bluegrass Pride, advocating for LGBTQ musicians and fans, and runs The Banjo Gathering, a national event to celebrate the instrument. More events may follow soon.

Attention to off-site events in addition to regular bluegrass jams raises hopes that new audiences will keep American roots music of all types, including fading formats like the blues, alive. 

While Werbin grew up at Elderly, she never envisioned running the venerable store.

Today, she said, “I can't imagine my life being anywhere else.”

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