The first shop I visited was my hometown guitar shop, Woodstown Music, owned by Larry Kulp. Larry was gracious enough to speak with me about his shop and it’s patrons. I first visited his shop when I was in high-school and bought my first guitar amp from him over five years ago. Here’s what we talked about.
Tell me about your relationship with music that lead you to opening your shop. Why did you?
Larry: I like guitar, I just like instruments. Always been interested in music, always been interested in sounds and stuff like that. I worked for another music store in the area quite some time ago (1976). And then I sort of wandered away from music for a long time, I mean, 20 years maybe. From the mid 80’s to like the early 2000’s. And I worked, I had family and stuff like that. I still tinkered around a little bit with guitars, but not much. Some of my guitars sat around in cases for 10 years. I decided at some point that people live longer nowadays, and no matter how much money I put away for retirement it probably wasn’t gonna be enough. So I decided that I should stay more fluid. And what am I gonna do? I thought about the county (Salem) down here, and you grew up with a music store in the county, and I lived here for the first 20 years and there was none.
Where are you from?
Larry: Over in Gloucester County. Franklinville, not that far. But out here there was nothing. You had to leave the county to buy a string, you couldn’t buy a pick. So well I thought, maybe that’ll be the thing. I’ll try getting back into music. I was playing a little bit more at that time. And so I started accumulating stuff to open this place up as a retirement job. Then this storefront became available way earlier than I expected to start. And so I started. I got my son to work here and I’d come in to work after I got done with my day job. And I did that till I retired about two and a half years ago, and now I’m here as much as I wanna be. So that’s it, it’s a retirement deal. Stay busy and make a little cash.
Do you feel that what you do is still relevant?
Larry: It’s like what’s happening to all “brick and mortar stores”, people go for what’s easy. And I can’t understand why people can buy guitars without touching them. People do everyday. They buy them online and stuff like that. They buy them from the big discount houses and mail order type places. I don’t understand because a guitar is a really personal thing. So you know, when I grew up a guitar store is a place where people came and hung out, play different guitars, and maybe there was a really good guitar player that stopped in and the other guy would be staling licks off him. That was the way it was. It wasn’t some big department store like, I don’t wanna mention any names, but a big box store handling musical instruments. It was a gathering place for people to talk about their guitars, swap parts, guys would talk to each other and maybe start a band every once in awhile. I liked that. I’m an older guy, that’s the way I grew up. Is it a way to make my fortune? No. Is it a way to stay a little more fluid, to make a little more money for my retirement? Yeah. And it serves a purpose. It serves a real need I think. Because people that buy those guitars from a box store’s mail order, bring them to me to make them play right. I have a niche there. It’s not really lucrative niche.
What are you doing to try and stay relevant?
Larry: This is the niche I picked out. So the bigger places, the big box stores are all concentrating on brand new stuff. The world is full of great used guitars. You know that because I know that you come in here with guitars you’ve picked up that you’re building. The world is full of that kind of stuff. There’s a lot of life left in those guitars. And there’s millions of them, just literally millions of guitars out there. So to me that has this aspect I really enjoy. People walk in here and say “Hey can you fix this up?” and I see a guitar that I might not have seen for 30 or 35 years, that style or that type of guitar. Fixing them has value. I don’t think an online presence does. There’s plenty of that. I’m the one that’s becoming the rarity.
Teaching people guitar is like training your own customers. Kids come in, they get started with a guitar, and they work their way up to, “Ya know I’m getting pretty good.”, and “Can I have a better guitar?”, and stuff like that. We’re constantly repairing stuff for people and keeping them in the guitar playing thing. When I first opened the store it was like everybody in the county owned a car but nobody knew where the mechanic lived. People came in here with guitars and told me stories like, “I broke something on this guitar like 15 years ago and it’s been sitting in the closet. Think you can fix it?”. And in all that time they didn’t know where to take it. That was of value. I put a lot of old stuff back together.
What is the best part of your job?
Larry: I like the people. I mean, like I said, I’m not gonna make my fortune with this. I’m buying and selling guitars in the small town, main street sort of situation. I meet a lot of people. Interesting people. I have a couple of guys that come in here, old gospel guitar players, blues guitar players. In their 90’s. I enjoy the heck out of making sure they keep playing. Working on their guitars for them, restringing, helping them when they have a problem. Meeting those guys and the interaction with the different kinds of people. Players come in here, people come in here and some of them just astonish me. Some people are not good. Some people are amazingly good. And you wonder where they’ve all been hiding.
Tell me a cool story from your shop?
Larry: I’ve had people come in and leave me guitars. Because things have happened in their life, and were pretty sure they weren’t gonna have much longer to play guitar, and they leave guitars to the store. “Find somebody to play these” They say. I’m always astounded by that. If one of them went into “Guitar Center”(oops I said it) and said “Make sure the right person get this.”, it’s not gonna happen. This doesn’t happen often, but it has happened. I enjoy the people that come in. I enjoy the friends I’ve made. It’s pretty crazy, and sometime aggravating. Bill (Larry’s son) never wants to wear a tie, and you know I’ve asked him. But it’s good! But stories, I don’t think I know any stories. There’s a lot of crazy things that happen here. You know, we have a regular assortment of intoxicated customers. They come in and we have to, ya know, shepherd them through the guitars. But it’s an assortment of humanity that comes in here. Not necessarily the kind of people you’d see walking into on of the bigger stores, ya know? Very local guys.
Thank you very much to Larry and his son Billy for allowing me to interview, record, and take photos in their store!