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San Diego
Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Oceanside Steel Guitar Shop a Rarity in Nation

RETAIL: Niche Instrument Business Attracts International Customers

OCEANSIDE – If you’re in the market for a steel guitar, don’t bother looking for one in a specialty shop in Nashville, Los Angeles, New York or other major cities that cater to musicians.

The only shop of its kind west of the Mississippi appears to be in an Oceanside strip mall, where Jim Palenscar has operated Steel Guitars of North County since 2002.
As a one-man show, Palenscar can’t keep the shop open during regular hours because he’s often on the road to make repairs or doing other duties, so customers must make appointments.

“I don’t want to get nasty grams from someone’s who’s driven five hours,” he said.
The only other steel guitar shop in the nation appears to be Billy Cooper’s Steel Guitars in Orange, Virginia.

How did one of the nation’s only steel guitar shops end up in Oceanside? Palenscar said that since his customers seek him out from around the world, his shop could be anywhere. He picked the mall at 3375 Mission Ave. because the route from his house is flat, so he occasionally can bicycle to work.

He also admits that the lack of competition probably is the result of other shops shuttering.

“Doing exclusively steel guitar stuff is probably one of the worst businesses if you need to make money,” he said. “I’m doing it and I’m having fun, but I certainly couldn’t raise a family on it. I do it because I love being here and I listen to music all day and work on guitars all day, and it gives me a sense of purpose.”

For anyone not familiar with steel guitar, it’s an instrument with six, eight, 10, 12 or even 14 strings that are strung across a horizontal neck. A musician plucks strings with one hand and slides a bar called a steel over the fretless neck with the other. The two versions include a lap steel and the more-complicated pedal steel with foot pedals that manipulate the strings’ tension.

It’s a staple in country music, but you’ve also heard the instrument on “Teach Your Children Well” by CSN&Y, “Breathe” and “One of These Days” by Pink Floyd and “Tiny Dancer” by Elton John, among many other popular songs.

Palenscar said he’s able to keep the shop going because of his savings from working as a veterinarian for 27 years. He gave up the career on the advice of his doctor after developing asthma, and he opened the shop at the suggestion of his wife who said it would be a way of clearing out some of the many steel guitars he had acquired over the years.

Instruments in his shop range from about $300 for a lap steel and up to $9,000 for a pedal steel, Palenscar said.

Repair Services for Touring Players

About 80% of his business is in repairs, and some customers are professional touring musicians. Clients including Dwight Yoakum’s band members, Nils Lofgren from the E Street Band, Slash from Guns N’ Roses, musicians Greg Leisz and Jay Dee Maness, session guitarist and producer Dean Parks and songwriter and musician Doug Pettibone.

Palenscar said there were naysayers when he decided to open his shop.

“There’s a place called Steel Guitar Forum online, and I posted that I was thinking of starting this store,” he said. “One of the obvious responses was, ‘Pardon my ignorance, do you really think there’s enough business in Oceanside, California, to support a steel guitar store?’ I said, ‘Oh yes, I must know all four players within 100 miles.’”

Since opening, Palenscar now counts about 1,100 customers, with about 400 living within 100 miles. Others come from throughout the United States and Germany, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and other countries.

“Most of them will never see a studio or a stage or play in a band, but they just love the way it sounds, so they play at home,” Palenscar said.

Many companies that made steel guitars have gone out of business, and Palenscar can make replacement parts for his customers who can’t get them anywhere else.

The instruments are made by about a half dozen companies, including ones in the U.S., Japan, Germany and Switzerland. Palenscar said one of the larger companies has a three-year wait for new instruments.

Palenscar plays his steel guitar live about once a month with his band The Steamers, which next will perform starting at 1 p.m. June 29 at the Coyote Bar and Grill in Carlsbad.

Steel Guitars of North County
OWNER: Jim Palenscar
BUSINESS: Music store exclusively selling and repairing steel guitars
REVENUE: $250,000 annually
NOTABLE: The store is one of only two of its kind in the nation


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