So Steve-o and I had a couple of hours to kill in the Pacific Northwest during a business trip this week. In all of retail America, there is no place better for a couple of guys like us (and millions more) to blow an hour or so than the Guitar Center. For those of you who don't know the story, the Guitar Center is a major consumer phenomenon.
Here's the short story: In 1959 Wayne Mitchell purchased a small appliance and home organ store in Hollywood, California. By 1961, he'd changed the name of the company to The Organ Center. In 1964, Joe Banaran, President of the Thomas Organ Company, approached Wayne in search of an outlet to sell a new line of guitars and amplifiers, called Vox. The timing was right, and Wayne saw the chance to seize a new retail opportunity. He was in the midst of relocating his original Hollywood Organ Center location to a new site, and he agreed that rather than closing down the old store, he would stock it with Vox guitars and amplifiers. Wayne named the store The Vox Center. By the late sixties, it had become evident that the future of musical instrument retailing lay in guitars and amps, not organs, and The Vox Center was re-christened The Guitar Center.
These days, the company has a market capitalization of $1.3 billion and its stock (left) is a favorite on NASDAQ. It did $1.275 billion in sales in 2003, and now operates 135 retail stores plus the online megasite MusiciansFriend.com. In the last quarter, the company posted a profit of 45 cents per share on revenue of $354.9 million, beating analysts' estimates across the board.
But it's oh-so much more complex and fascinating than that. Because the real story of the Guitar Center is story is about demographics and this:
You see, this is the guitar that a friendly young fella named Mike handed me at the big store down by Westlake in Seattle. And man, the sustain on this baby - for the record, a Gibson Les Paul SG Custom - was just thrilling. Mike grabbed a chord, and we ran the sucker through a Hughes & Kettner zenTera Modeling Amp, and lit it up. I ripped into some Muddy Waters riffs and the entire store came to a stop, tipping their ears with an eagerness born of being native to the land of Hendrix, soaking in the blues I was laying down. (Steve claims not, but it's my dream, not his. He was off in the keyboard room. Enough said.) I let the last note ring, an open A, put the SG down, completed my business meetings, boarded a flight to Chicago, changed planes for LaGuardia, got a car home after midnight, slept a few hours, went to work, did some meetings, got home, and I just checked with my buddy Mike - that A is still ringing. To quote Muddy, I live the life I love and I love the life I live (much of the time anyway).
By now, you've sensed that a trip to the Guitar Center - and there's one about 2 miles from my house and another down on 14th Street, a simple express train on my lunch hour - is like a trip to the amusement park. And the management knows exactly what do do - put hundreds of instruments in large retail spaces (often former supermarkets) and let people come in an play them, for hours on end if they wish. Because someday, they will buy. And these days, guys like me and Steve and a millions of other Boomers can afford some of the stuff they lusted after when they were 17.
And Guitar Center always does it well. There are hundreds of electric guitars and basses, all the major brands, dozens of acoustics, a keyboard room, a drum room, digital recording gear and accessories galore. Yeah, it's a supermarket for gear - but you can taste everything, any time, and in any quantity. These guys know me - I get their email and the "guitar porn" catalogues on a weekly basis. I've got a Musician's Friend credit card. And I buy - not to extremes - but I browse, and I play, and I experiment, and I buy.
So now I've got my eye on that SG. It's pricey and I really don't need it, not this weekend musician. But you know, the stress and work level these days is high. And on the next trip I'll find another Guitar Center and some other friendly and knowledgeable sales clerk will hook me up with the SG again. And you never know...