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Late last week, Frank Murphy made his annual trek from Liverpool, England, to Spartanburg. He wasn't in town to visit friends or family, though he saw lots of old acquaintances while he was here.
It was a business trip. Murphy is a guitar dealer, one of more than 150 at the Spartanburg Expo Center over the weekend for the South Carolina Guitar Show.
He wasn't selling anything. Only buying – either from other dealers or from visitors who had brought instruments to sell or trade. He had a stack of about 36 guitars to have shipped back to Liverpool, where he will put them up for sale at his shop, Frailers Guitars.
Vintage American guitars – acoustic and electric six-strings with names like Martin, Gibson, Fender, Guild, and more – are popular with folk and rock musicians in Britain (as they are most everywhere else).
"Business has been good," Murphy said.
He's a big player in Britain's guitar market. He loaned 1960s-era guitars to the producers of "Backbeat," a film about the early career of the Beatles, a band Murphy saw play at Liverpool's legendary Cavern Club. He liked their early, Buddy Holly-influenced rock and roll, but "after they started doing the psychedelic stuff, I lost interest," he said. "I started listening to Appalachian folk music."
In Spartanburg, Murphy was able to find a number of electric guitars favored by first-generation rockers as well as acoustic instruments ideal for making pure bluegrass music.
All kinds of other guitars were on display at the Expo Center guitar show, described by dealers as one of the largest and best-run in the country. Gary and Bonnie Burnette, of Asheville-based Bee 3 Vintage guitar shows, put on the event, and they attract sellers specializing in a wide variety of styles and prices.
One booth featured a pink "Hello Kitty" Fender Squier Stratocaster for $225. (Squier is Fender's low-end, entry-level line of electric guitars.) Nearby, a dealer had a 1950 D-28 Martin acoustic on sale for $12,375.
Hal Hammer drove up from Florida to sell off pieces of his collection, which includes a 40-year-old guitar custom-built by famed gospel performer and Mosrite Guitars co-founder Semie Moseley.
The asking price for this one-of-a-kind guitar: $95,000 or a suitable motor home.
Hammer said he got to know Moseley and his daughter years ago. After Moseley's death, he offered to give the guitar back to the family.
"She said, 'No, you should keep it as long as it makes you happy,'" Hammer said. "I've enjoyed having the guitar for a long time. But, as someone once said, 'A happy wife is a happy life.' And my wife wants a motor home."
Other dealers came from as far away as Arizona and New England.
Several from Spartanburg were on hand. Trevor Isetts closed his Boiling Springs-area store, BLVD Music, several months ago. He calculated that he could work from home – no rent or employees – and make a better living selling vintage guitars online and at shows.
Randy Cooksey, meanwhile, considers himself a hobbyist. A guitarist who has played in numerous well-regarded local bands, he said, "I tend to deal in stuff I like." That way, he can enjoy playing the merchandise for a while before selling it.
Bonnie Burnette said she and her husband have been putting on the show in Spartanburg for about 25 years at various locations. This is an ideal location, she said, because of the convergence of interstates and the proximity to Charlotte, Atlanta and Asheville.