Gear Hound

It's messy outside. Despite the slick roads and freezing temperatures, foot traffic is relatively heavy in John Gasperik's living room.

Two shaggy hipsters return from a trip to the ATM and quickly exchange freshly dispensed cash for a snare drum and a guitar. As the hipsters head out, a father and daughter, on their way home from a rained-out camping trip, step in out of the frigid drizzle. Dad plucks at a 12-string and wonders aloud if an old effects pedal he sold to Gasperik at a garage sale some years ago is among those arranged in a crowded display case. As soon as dad and daughter leave, a couple of teenage metal heads pop in to price frighteningly pointy guitars equipped with that extra element of onstage danger: accidental impalement.

It was about five years ago that Gasperik began slowly converting his Lower Greenville residence into the Shake Rag music shop, specializing in "vintage" gear and "refurbished" guitars. Last year, the house on Bell Avenue enjoyed some unsolicited attention, predominantly featured in the Dallas Morning News cover story about the fire at the Arcadia Theater, and more specifically, Gasperik's place being within spitting distance of the blaze.

Gasperik admitted the fire was terrible and unfortunate, but he also had to admit that half the block being leveled for redevelopment quite literally increased his commercial visibility. If you're cruising down Greenville Avenue and the weather's nice you'll quite likely see Gasperik's larger-than-life-sized Elvis statue greeting visitors from the Shake Rag's front porch.

"I remember when I was a kid in Sherman, Texas, running around the neighborhood with a 45 of 'Hound Dog' in my hand," Gasperik recalls, "puttin' it on anybody's record player who would listen to it."

Gasperik is, to put it mildly, an Elvis Presley fan of dangerously obsessive proportions. About 10 or 12 years ago, KDFW-Channel 4's Jeff Crilley featured Gasperik and his extensive collection of Elvis memorabilia in one of those awesomely corny local news "human interest" segments. With this in mind, it's obvious why Gasperik would name his shop after the Mississippi neighborhood where Elvis was introduced to R&B music.

"He and his buddy would go 'cross the railroad tracks to the so-called bad part of town or whatever," Gasperik explains, "That's where he first heard the blues, ya know, where they had all the honky-tonks and people sittin' out on their porch playin' blues. That area was called 'Shake Rag.'"

While Elvis instilled an urgent love of rock and roll in Gasperik's young heart, his interest in record collecting was whetted upon hearing the sounds of a particular Liverpudlian quartet with some moderate acclaim of their own.

"After the Beatles came out I started lookin' for their records at garage sales and stuff," says Gasperik. "They were less than half the price of what they cost at the store. That's what got me into collecting and shopping around at an early age."

With high school behind him and his hair much, much longer, Gasperik hitchhiked to Dallas in 1972. He started off panhandling in 7-Eleven parking lots and sleeping in abandoned buildings before he started selling Tyler roses on street corners and couch crashing with friends and acquaintances. This lasted only so long before he ended up back in Sherman, if only momentarily, his hair even longer than before.

For about six months Gasperik took junior college photography courses and worked at a local blood bank in Sherman, saving money to buy a car, a camera and a little cushion of cash for when he would eventually return to Dallas. He did so in 1975, with slightly longer hair and a bit more direction, if still in similar living situations.

"I'd meet girls and they'd put me up for a while," says Gasperik. "I'd set my dark room up in their bathroom."

For a steady paycheck Gasperik got a job washing dishes at Lemmon Avenue Bar and Grill and took full advantage of its close affiliation as a sister establishment to legendary venues such as Gertie's and the infamous Mother Blues. "It was pretty much the same circle of people that would go to parties and work together and everything."

When in town, folks such as David Bowie, Rod Stewart, Thin Lizzy and Alice Cooper would drop by Mother Blues, which stayed open until 4 a.m. and provided an ideal environment for after-party action and recreational shenanigans.

Gasperik proudly produces a few photos from one such evening at Mother Blues. One shot is a close-up of John Bonham, a lit cigarette dangling from his extensively mustachioed mouth, sitting in on drums with the house band. Another photo shows a considerably younger, fitter, tanner Gasperik standing elbow-to-elbow with Robert Plant, apparently engaged in some sort of contest to decide which one of them could display the most amount of bare chest while still technically wearing an unbuttoned shirt.

The Led Zeppelin pictures led to a paying photography gig with Buddy magazine. Gasperik started bringing his camera along with him to shows, taking pictures onstage, offstage and backstage. Somewhere "about '91 or '92," Gasperik (his hair still significantly long, but not that much longer than before) was hired to photograph a local guitar show. Before long he realized he could make good money as a photographer, then he realized he could make even better money harvesting guitars, amps and other stuff from the garage sales, estate sales and pawn shops he was already visiting on his record-collecting runs and resell them at guitar shows, and eventually from his own home, for a considerable profit.

"Buy it for $50, sell it for $250." Now that's economics anyone can agree on, with the possible exception being the person paying $250 for a $50 guitar.

Gasperik, his hair now much shorter but still longish like a Beatles- or Ramones- or Pete Rose-style haircut, is a good guy to know if you're a collector or musician with an affinity for restored equipment or if you're looking to trade for something unique and interesting. He looks out for his customers. He'll keep an eye open for particular makes and models for his more valued clients. One such high-volume buyer from Houston is in the market for old Japanese knock-offs, so Gasperik searches and scours accordingly.

"I taught myself and learned, ya know, trial and error along the way, what the valuable guitars are, how to look for bootleggers, ya know, wrong parts on guitars," though, he admits, "I'm still learning. There's so much to learn about this stuff."

Most of the work Gasperik does on the instruments is cosmetic. Shake Rag's inventory features more than a few Frankenstein pieces, assembled from parts of other guitars. If anything needs rewiring or extensive electrical work, he sends it out. "I'll make it worse," he confides, "before I make it better."

As with any such purchase, whether it's buying a "pre-owned" car or a loaf of day-old bread, the buyer should beware. You can come across some real sweet finds at Shake Rag, but there's also the occasional surprise.

"He sold us an amp with a car stereo speaker in it," warns the drummer of a certain local band, under condition of anonymity, "but at a pretty good price."