Born on the 4th of July in Salinas, Oscar Rivera, Jr. may have a master’s degree in education. He may have been a professor at Cleveland State University. And he may be a seller of all things related to Indian Motorcycles. But what he really loves doing is playing and repairing seasoned guitars.
Even more than that, he treasures the opportunity to share his love for stringed instruments with people who have never played before.
A few weeks ago, Rivera, 46, held a soft opening of his new store, San Benito Music, at 470 Tres Pinos Road. The location is a modest 99 square feet. He assumes it is the smallest music store in the country, if not the world. The first day, it was just Rivera and a potted plant named Nesta, which he keeps around as another life-form for company. He said the first day a guy walked in because he was lost, so Rivera gave him a juice drink. Since then, Rivera has been busy promoting the business on social media. Even with irregular hours, business has been picking up.
Rivera was raised in Hollister and graduated from San Benito High School in 1990. He worked as a butcher at Nob Hill for a number of years, then moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where he’s lived for 20 years. He returned to Hollister because he has family here, but left his wife and six kids in Cleveland because he wants one of his daughters to finish school there with her friends. After that, the entire family will move to California.
He works in sales at Hollister Powersports during the day and at San Benito Music from 6 to 9 p.m., except on Wednesdays when he’s open for business all day.
Rivera said he wanted to come back to California to be near family and to say good riddance to seven months of snow.
“I’ve always thought about coming back to Hollister the whole time I was gone,” Rivera said. “And right here [in the building] where I’m working I worked as a kid as a meat cutter for Bob Stone. I remember scrubbing these floors as a young man and now Bob has given me an opportunity to do my own thing.”
Rivera said he knew how hard it was to find a set of guitar strings, or a reed for a clarinet or saxophone in Hollister. He said people had to drive to Salinas, Santa Cruz or Gilroy, or look online to find them.
“I have a good friend in Ohio who has been helping me with my supplies and I think I’m competitive with everybody,” he said. “Rather than drive a minimum of 25 to 30 miles, you can order anything you want here.”
While anyone can go online to find an instrument, Rivera said that by going through him they can gain from his more than 20 years’ experience as a luthier, a person who builds and repairs stringed instruments. He learned his new trade at the Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery in Phoenix, Arizona. He’s traveled around the country playing guitars for 25 years, and even though he doesn’t read music, he says he can keep up with anybody.
“I’d like to quote Muddy Waters, ‘I don’t read enough music to ruin it,’” he said.
Rivera describes San Benito Music as 99 square feet of pure music, where new life springs from old guitars.
“I love to bring guitars back,” he said. “I can’t compete with the big companies out there, but the one thing I can bring to the table for our community is I can teach people how to play an instrument without having to read music. It’s not that hard. I didn’t start playing until I was 28 years old. It’s about discipline. It is a little work, but with the work comes extreme pleasure.”
He said he wants others to discover what he found in music.
“If you’re struggling with loneliness, anxiety, depression, PTSD, or addictions, learning an instrument helps train your mind and takes you in another direction,” Rivera said. “You learn to play a guitar, you never feel alone and the music helps relieve the stress in your life.”
Music is therapy for Rivera. He said the first time he saw someone playing a guitar it was magic to him. He recounted how a 13-year-old boy came to his store one night with his mother.
“I taught him the beginning of Tom Petty’s ‘Free Falling,’” Rivera said. “He saw he could do it one time and I saw a look of determination in his eyes that he was going to do it. He looked at his mom and she was happy and he was extremely happy. Then I told him, ‘You will get frustrated. You don’t suck. This thing is your friend, learn when to put it down or pick it up, and learn to control your emotions because you’re not going to sound like Tom Petty until you learn how to do it right.’”
Rivera said he will begin selling new guitars, banjos, ukuleles, bass guitars, acoustic, electric, and steel guitars by the end of the June. An entry-level guitar will sell for around $120. Guitar lessons are around $27 each for 40 minutes, but with four lessons for $100 there’s a free one thrown in for good measure.
“During the first lesson, I want to introduce the person to the instrument so they know what they have in their hands,” Rivera said. “You need to understand posture, finger positions and certain terminologies. If a person does not read music all they need to succeed is the desire.”
San Benito Music is located at 470 Tres Pinos Road. For more information, call 831-235-5642, email email@example.com, or visit the website at sanbenitomusic.com.