The 42-year-old store is currently seeking a buyer.
Wil Bremer’s wife Julie Luther answered the phone one day many years ago at Spruce Tree Music on East Johnson Street. “It’s for you,” she called out from the tiny office behind the ancient, glass counter filled with boxes of harmonicas, capos, and other accessories. “It’s a Mr. Paul.”
“It was Les Paul,” Bremer tells me during a recent visit at the shop. A museum asked Paul to make a replica of his prototype electric guitar known as “the log,” which was modeled after an old Epiphone model. Bremer happened to have it in the store. Paul bought it. During the conversations that accompanied the sale the customer and seller amused themselves with the fact that music had led them to switch geographic places in the world: Bremer from New Jersey to Wisconsin, and Paul from Wisconsin to New Jersey.
Paul was one of Bremer’s famous customers. Mandolinist David Grisman has become a valued friend and customer as well. And after 50 years of buying, selling and repairing stringed instruments—most of those years at Spruce Tree—Bremer not only has a large customer base, but he’s morphed into a version of one of the many vintage guitars he has hanging in his shop: worn and warm, resonant, sturdy, and in the area of telling a story, somewhat priceless.
Take the story of his draft induction in 1969. First stop at Fort Dix was practically in his backyard. But then in 1971 he was shipped to Pleiku, right in the center of Vietnam. The war had wound down and the Vietnamese were basically just waiting for all the Americans to go home. “There was one job for every 20 soldiers,” he says. So Bremer went to work with the USO, repairing amplifiers and instruments. He eventually toured doing small USO shows with another musical G.I. Their most requested song? “‘Leaving on a Jet Plane,’” Bremer laughs. “Because that’s what everyone wanted to do.”
A descendent of cabinet makers, Bremer is the son of a repairman who eventually specialized in clocks and watches. He grew up surrounded by musical instruments and hand tools so it was almost inevitable he’d eventually put the two together. After getting home from Vietnam, Bremer took work repairing motorcycles in Akron, Ohio. After the season ended for bikers he opened his first shop, the Spicertown Folklore Center. A couple years later he took off to busk around the country for a year before settling in Madison, Indiana and instrument repair work there. He soon learned there were a very finite number of Hoosiers in that part of the state who needed their instruments fixed. Bremer packed up and opened a shop in Bloomington, Indiana. That’s the 1970s in a nutshell.
By 1970 he was ready for another move. He’d heard good things about Madison, Wisconsin. He opened his first store on the 800 block of East Johnson, just a block or so from the current location, in 1980. Now, 42 years later, he’s looking for a buyer for the shop. He laughs, “I’m too old to work this much!” So far, he’s heard from one interested party.
For someone who couldn’t find a way to settle down for so long, Bremer’s longevity at Spruce Tree has provided two generations of Madison musicians of every background, from beginners to pros, with quality repairs, instruments, and—always—free advice. On the latter, he’s known to be so honest as to be absolutely blunt, especially when he doesn’t see a need for repair.
Case in point, during our interview a young couple came in with a battered nylon guitar case filled with a recent online purchase. Bremer looked suspicious as hell when he pulled the guitar from the case. “You bought this from someone?” he said in disbelief. The couple shuffled in place and said yes, online. “A private sale?” Bremer pressed, like Matlock in court or something. That’s right, the couple answered. “Well you should send it back,” he surmised. “It’ll take a few hundred bucks to get it working.”
Of course Bremer could have taken that work without questions asked. As it turned out, the customers agreed to the estimate. But Bremer reminded them that sending it back would make just as much sense.
My favorite story of Bremer’s frankness, and area musicians have many about their experiences at Spruce Tree, happened to me. One time I took an old, cheapo Epiphone acoustic in for him to look at and get going again. He turned it over and over in his hands and grunted. “Andy?” he said. “This guitar is like a Bic pen. And it’s about out of ink.” Like the couple in the previous story, I still asked him to see what he could do. A full reset later, including frets filed, and it played like butter. My oldest son still plays it.
Luther died in 2019. Bremer calls her “a partner in every sense of the word.” Bremer says Luther was the shop’s heart and soul, providing the personality part that he admits isn’t his forte. These days, you could say Bremer is still surrounded by family. Doug Meihsner has worked the back bench for Bremer since 1994. Jen Clare Paulson has been there 12 years, specializing in violin repair. Among other endeavors, bass player Meihsner is an alum of the late rock legend Marques Bovre’s band. Paulson is a violist with the Madison Symphony Orchestra, and has also played in settings ranging from bluegrass-rooted bands like Milkhouse Radio and Graminy to collaborations with avant-garde jazz artists including Ken Vandermark and Kyle Bruckmann. I asked them what they liked best about working at Spruce Tree.
“The smells in this place,” Paulson says. “I’ve had people say it reminds them of a greenhouse, the density of it.” Meihsner says he enjoys “providing people with things that work…putting instruments back into the hands of folks who want to play them.”
As for Bremer, well, he draws a deep breath and looks around at the array of banjos, guitars, ukuleles, fiddles, basses, mandolins, all facing back at him like willing subjects. “What I like is the history of this space,” Bremer says. “There’s no logic to this but there’s a lot of history to this. When someone is trying to make a decision about an instrument, it’s interesting for me to give them some of the history of it, some of the background.”
Soon, Wil Bremer himself will be part of the history of the space.