Chicago GuitarSpace had 12 guitars and basses stolen in late August. Credit: Chicago GuitarSpace/Facebook

CHICAGO — A music shop owner who lost all his instruments to a burglary has had them returned by a stranger almost a year later — and they could help save his business.

Twelve custom guitars and basses were stolen out of Richard Phillis’ shop, Chicago GuitarSpace, in late August. At the time, he thought the theft could spell the end of his young business, as the instruments were worth tens of thousands of dollars and his insurance gave only a small payout.

Reporters wrote about the brazen burglary, which happened just minutes after Phillis had left the store at 600 W. Cermak Road for the day. He asked for help getting the instruments back.

Then, the tips started coming in.

“Citizen sleuths” called Phillis, telling him where he might find his instruments, he said. He got so many calls that led nowhere, he started to ignore them and lost hope.

But months after the guitars and basses were stolen, this spring, a woman began calling. She told Phillis she knew who’d stolen the instruments, and they felt bad and wanted to return them.

Phillis thought the frequent calls were another dead end or a scam and didn’t take the woman’s tips seriously. He told her not to call him, but she kept reaching out.

“They were really persistent and she kept calling me, kept calling me: ‘I know who took it and they feel really bad and they saw you on the news,'” Phillis said.

The woman was so insistent she could return the instruments to Phillis he eventually agreed to meet her.

Phillis and his wife told the woman they’d meet at a public intersection so they could all be safe. As the two drove up, they saw a woman with an oversized garbage can, Phillis said. They pulled the cover off the garbage can — and inside were his instruments.

Phillis, confused and shocked, put the instruments in his car and took off, he said. His wife burst into tears.

“It was eight months, y’know? … We’d given up hope we’d ever see the stuff again,” he said. “We just couldn’t believe [it]. Why would somebody go out of their way to do this?”

Phillis felt nervous even as he saw the instruments, he said.

“It’s just difficult for me to believe that someone went out of their way like that to help us that didn’t want money or something,” he said. “I was still half-expecting something bad to happen.”

The instruments have cosmetic damage, presumably from when the burglar threw them into a truck during the heist, Phillis said.

But the damage — dents, nicks here and there — is repairable, and Phillis is selling the items at a discount. They are being marketed as part of a “Plunder Sale” on his website. “These instruments have been on a mystery tour,” the site says. “Now they are home and a little bruised.”

Being able to sell the guitars and basses online, even at a lower price due to the damage, will be a boon for the store and Phillis’ family, he said.

GuitarSpace was struggling to come back from the burglary, as Phillis spent months trying to rebuild his inventory after everything he had was taken. Then the shop was completely shut down when Chicago was in Phase 1 of the pandemic and non-essential businesses closed.

“It would definitely help if people were buying from us right now,” Phillis said. “We weren’t allowed to open, we weren’t allowed to have customers in the shop, but we obviously had to keep paying rent. It’s been rough.

“I imagine it’s been rough for every small business … and then just the extra hit of having all our products stolen. Yeah, we’ve had a really hard time.”

Phillis has no idea who the woman who rescued his instruments was and hasn’t spoken to her since.

It’s possible the woman stole the instruments herself, Phillis said, but he doesn’t know for certain. He said he doesn’t think he’d want to press charges against her even if she were, and he said he’s still shocked a stranger helped him retrieve the instruments.

“I know that might sound strange,” Phillis said. “I’m really wrestling with this crazy thing that happened where somebody really put themselves at risk and went to such a great effort to get the stuff back to me.

“Honestly, enough time has passed, and they really didn’t ask for anything. It’s just — it’s just very strange.”

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