Survival seems to be the heaviest weight on the shoulders of each guitar store owner featured here. In their own ways, they’ve adapted to survive in today’s world, and with some, in ways one might not expect! Let’s analyze each shop for their individual adaptations.
We began with Woodstown Music, my own hometown guitar shop. The owner, Larry Kulp, perhaps put it best:
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.
Larry found his niche to survival in his repairs and person-to-person interactions. He’s now gone on to expand his shop to its new locations, about 50 feet down the street. While he’s gained some more retail space, it was the lesson rooms that were most important to his survival in Woodstown. There had been no shortage of students, but only a shortage of space and teachers. At his new location, Larry has taken on now more students and teachers than before! And he’s continued to maintain the old-fashioned guitar store feeling, or as Larry would put it, “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 a while.”
Following my visit to Woodstown music I spoke to the owner of the Laboratory, formerly located in Deptford, New Jersey. The owner, Aaron Barbarics, encountered his own struggles, he found that over the years, marketing music lessons for less and less students was not lucrative for his store. They had also found great success in their online store rather than their brick-and-mortar establishment. Aaron’s decision was to close his physical store and pursue a more lucrative business online. When Asked if he would be losing out on profits from repairs and lessons, he had this to say, “Not really in my experience, which I’m sure is different from others. I’ve been selling online since we’ve opened ten years ago, and basically every year our online business has grown and our walk-in business has become a little less.” It appears to be working for them!
Next I sat down with Jay Milley, the owner for SJ Music. He had a very unique way of adapting to the changing times! He’d already moved location several times to follow better floor spaces and rent prices. However, to bring a little more cash in, Jay rented the space next door to his existing store and build a small music venue and Café, called the Volume Café. Jay said, “this is a new challenge for me, this Café thing. I didn’t know anything about it. When the idea for this came up, this was empty, completely bare, just a hole in the wall. So, Brian, my buddy, come up, we were standing outside, it was cold I remember, he was looking in the window and he’s like, “Why don’t you open up your own venue, like a café or something?” Jay’s ability to stay fluid and his willingness to take risks has paid off for him.
Each of these small-town shops have two things in common; They’re still here, and they’ve made enormous changes in recent years. Each have found their own niche and market in their respective towns. It seems in today’s market, if a “Mom and Pop Guitar Shop” is going to survive, it’s going to need to be able to adapt and change with the times.
Speaking as a guitarist and fan of small guitar stores, I sincerely hope other stores realize this so that there can be hometown, niche shops for generations to come.