LEWISTON – In a sixth-floor corner of the cavernous Continental Mill, John Stass’ workshop seems almost forgotten. Outside, his only sign is about the size of a pizza box and hangs above a rear loading dock.

Profiles rarely get lower.

Yet, rock and country music stars know his name and his business, Katahdin Studio Furniture.

Steve Miller, Vince Gill and Melissa Etheridge have all been customers. They are joined by Ivy League music teachers, CEOs and plastic surgeons.

All are affluent people who cherish music.

Stass makes fine furniture for music rooms: guitar stands and racks, sheet music cabinets and wall hangers for violins and mandolins with prices ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars.

He makes about 100 pieces a year, all by himself. He has no employees. Most of his business is done via phone and e-mail, so he rarely meets his customers. Visits to his workshop and showroom are so scarce – getting there takes a hike up six flights of stairs or a ride in a freight elevator – that the soft-spoken woodworker gets a little giddy when folks stop by.

That may be changing.

After 10 years in business, Stass is plotting a company growth spurt. By the start of 2008, he plans to hire one or two employees. He plans to expand his workshop and showroom and step up his sales, perhaps getting his products into a few high-end music stores in big cities. And within two years, he plans to open his first retail shop, a boutique-style store in one of Maine’s tourist-heavy coastal towns.

“I’ve been doing well without doing any marketing at all,” he said. But the market is changing. “My clients have been getting more sophisticated, asking for larger pieces.”

And he’s tired of his hermit-like workplace.

“I want to get out more and talk with architects and interior designers,” he said. He looks forward to marketing and even working retail.

It hearkens back to his prior career, consulting for big catalog companies such as L.L. Bean, Sears and Montgomery Ward.

He did that for years. Then, at 43, the Lisbon Falls native grew tired of the travel.

Creating musical furniture grew out of his hobby of playing guitar. When he tried to hang his guitars on the wall of his family room, he discovered that the only hangers available were the metal, industrial-style hangers used in music shops.

They were cold. He wanted wood.

“They just didn’t exist,” Stass said. “I did find one company in Vermont. I called them and found out they went out of business.”

So he made his own. And when friends kept commenting on it, he researched. He came up with several unique designs and began taking orders part-time in his home workshop. Within a year, he’d taken over his wife’s potting shed. A year after that, his family room had morphed into a showroom. He moved into the Continental Mill in 2000.

Soon after the move, he began getting calls from famous folks, or their friends.

Frank “Poncho” Sampedro, a member of Neil Young’s band, Crazy Horse, called to place an order for his buddy, Tonight Show band leader Kevin Eubanks. Eubanks liked the pieces so much he ordered lots more, including matching music desks, one for each home.

“I get Christmas cards from Eubanks, and sometimes I get a box of nuts,” Stass said. Through Sampedro, the woodworker met rock legend Young and the band after a gig in Manchester, N.H., a couple of years back.

About the same time, Melissa Etheridge became a regular customer.

“She was going through chemotherapy at the time and was teaching her son to play guitar,” Stass said. “I was honored that she wanted my work around her.”

Etheridge is his best customer, buying a wider variety of pieces than anyone, famous or not. Stass never talked with her, though, only her people. He believes he’s probably sold works to other famous folks who bought stuff through friends rather than letting their names get out.

The direct brushes with fame are more fun.

After the Martin Guitar Co. put out a series of signature acoustics for Andy Griffith, Andy himself called. They spent five minutes talking about guitar stands and 20 minutes chatting about living in small towns.

“You’re like in Mayberry sitting across the desk in the sheriff’s office,” Stass said of the call. “He was just the way you hope him to be.”

On the ‘Net: http://www.katahdin-online.com/shakspecfrom.html


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