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NORMAL – Jim Bland still has the guitar he took with him to Vietnam in 1967.

He still has calloused fingertips, fond memories of students he taught and stories of his own experiences as a musician.

But soon Central Illinois will not have Bland's Guitar World, a fixture in downtown/uptown Normal for 47 years. He is closing his store at 129 E. Beaufort St. on Thursday after nearly half a century in the guitar and music lesson business.

Waning interest in guitar lessons and competition from internet sales led him to shut the doors, but the 72-year-old isn't putting down his pick.

Bland plans to continue playing with his band, Velvet Groove. He will still have his GW Sound company and do installations for live music at schools and festivals.

“I've been blessed,” he said. “I started doing this for a living in high school.”

The first band he played with was paid $15 a night to play for four hours. All five members are still alive and three are still playing, said Bland.

He is still in contact with former bandmates and people he took lessons with when he was a teen.

“Those friendships have lasted,” Bland said. “That's what playing is.”

He came to Bloomington-Normal in 1970, joining a company started by a friend that put music stores in college towns and called them Ax-in-Hand. That was in the basement of a building on Broadway. He bought it in 1978, renaming it Guitar World. After 30 years at 105 N. Broadway, he moved to his present location on Beaufort in 2008.

But, as Bob Dylan would say, the times they are a-changing.

The younger generation is more focused on their smart phones than sitting around playing music together, said Bland.

The music itself has changed, too, said Kirk Ellis of Bloomington, who has known Bland about 30 years, teaches people to play guitar and performs with the band Brushville.

“It's a whole different ballgame now,” said Ellis, noting there is less focus on guitar players than in the classic rock days of Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton.

At one time, more than a hundred people took lessons through the store.

“It's under 35 now,” said Bland.

When Guitar World closes, there will still be three music stores in the Twin Cities that offer guitar lessons.

But the primary focus of Kidder Music in Bloomington and The Music Shoppe in Normal are school band and orchestra students. The primary focus of Carl's Pro Band in Bloomington is instrument repair.

Guitar World, as its name implies, has revolved around guitars and guitar music.

“It's kind of sad to see it go,” said Ellis, who first met Brand in 1988 when Ellis came to Illinois State University to study music.

Bland's passion for playing started at a young age.

“In my generation, we would go to the Saturday matinee kids show,” Bland said of growing up in Rockford.

He saw cowboys Roy Rogers and Gene Autry riding their horses and playing guitar and decided he wanted to do that.

But Bland soon learned “playing an electric guitar on the prairie didn't work. The extension cord wasn't long enough.”

He stayed in contact with his first guitar teacher, Kay Kostner, until she died.

When her family went through her belongings, they found a letter from Bland that Kostner had saved, a letter he sent while in the Army in Pleiku, Vietnam. He has a photo of him playing guitar with her in 1957.

What he likes most about his career is “helping to show people that music can be a lifelong experience,” he said. “That's what she taught me.”

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Follow Lenore Sobota on Twitter @Pg_Sobota


Education Reporter

Education Reporter for The Pantagraph.

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