Walking into Candelas Guitar Shop in Boyle Heights, customers smell the strong aroma of wood, a testament to the instrument building that takes place there. Guitars, violins, ukuleles and other instruments hang on the walls throughout the store. Spanning three generations over 90 years in five different locations, the shop represents a family’s long journey and its passion for guitar building.
Tomás Delgado, the shop’s current owner, built many of the guitars sold at the store. An instructor offers guitar lessons in a room in the back, and on occasion, musicians perform in the lot behind the shop.
Delgado never planned to go into the family business.
As a teenager, he learned the art of guitar making from his grandfather. “He was willing to take the time and allow me to apprentice with him, and he showed me everything that he knew,” says Delgado. “I fell in love with the art of building, the clientele, the environment that I was in.”
Delgado, along with another guitar maker, builds the instruments in the back of the shop.
They make acoustic guitars, violins, ukuleles, and lutes, as well as other string instruments used by mariachis and conjunto musicians, such as guitarrones, vihuelas and bajo sextos.
Even though his guitars are custom made, Candelas keeps prices affordable by buying wood in bulk and streamlining models. The store also restores and refurbishes guitars. Delgado says customers ship guitars for restoration from throughout the country.
“We do minor repair to complete restorations, anywhere from your guitar that you picked up when you were a kid to high-end violins,” says Delgado. “I work on Martins, Fenders, Gibsons and a lot more, too.”
Five different locations
Delgado’s grandfather and uncle started the first shop in Torreón, Mexico, in 1928. After moving from Torreón to Juárez, then from Juarez to El Paso and again from El Paso to Tijuana, the shop found its current home in Boyle Heights. Delgado has worked in the business for almost 30 years, with the last 20 as owner.
“There is no other shop like this with its history, the generations of builders that are linked though family, passed on through tradition,” says Kenneth Del Río, the shop’s guitar instructor. He has been teaching there for the last seven years.
“When you come here,” says Del Río, “you’re learning to play the instrument where it’s born. There’s a sense of energy and a presence here that you can’t put your finger on, but you can definitely feel.”
An experience, not just a shop
Kevin Olivárez takes classes there. After almost a year, he says he’s learned more than just how to play guitar.
“It’s not just a place where you come to take lessons. It’s become a second home for me,” says the 23-year-old. “It’s more than just a shop; it’s an experience.”
Del Río agrees, and says the shop provided some of his best memories. “It’s beyond a business. It’s the perfect synthesis of community and heart.”
Delgado never thought he’d end up as the store owner. Originally, he was going to run the shop for a week while his family went on a wedding trip to Arizona.
“I ended up staying here, and I fell in love with it,” he says. “It’s fun to be a part of the community and a part of something that’s been around for almost 100 years.”