|A Talk with Mr. Gruhn!|
I took leave during the Summer of 2000 and returned to the United States from Germany. My wife and I had originally decided against returning to our homeland until we'd seen "everything" there was to see in Europe. Unfortunately, some illness in both of our families convinced us it was time for a visit.
On Thursday, August 3, 2000, my friend Ken and I visited Gruhn Guitars in Nashville. Ken is a successful music store owner/pawnbroker, and has known George Gruhn for many years. As fate would have it, Mr. Gruhn was in the outer reception area (the one facing Planet Hollywood) when Ken and I walked in. Ken was talking with Keith, the "Main Man" in the foyer of the store. I remember Keith working at Rock Block Guitars in Nashville before he got the Gruhn gig, and he was always super-nice and extremely knowledgeable. I have to say that Keith is one of the more pleasant guitar fellows in Nashville to deal with.
Mr. Gruhn was on the phone as we arrived, and had just hung up when Ken walked up and said hello to him. Mr. Gruhn asked Ken if he had gotten anything interesting in pawn lately, and Ken replied that he hadn't in a while. Mr. Gruhn stated that "Most people who pawn have already lost everything that they had in the family." Gruhn's theory was that, due to social conditions (he alluded to the "Welfare State", in my opinion), most people who habitually pawn things have already sold or lost to pawn everything of value that was left to them. An interesting theory, I thought, until he continued. He explained that he still got things in the shop, and there were plenty of old guitars under beds out there. However, pawnshops were not the place to shop anymore because of the "professional eBay guys" that canvass the shops and sell the small amount of stuff of value they find on line. He said that he could pay two or three people to do nothing but drive around to pawnshops in Nashville, but he really had no interest in that. He also stated that eBay would not hurt the pawn business because "the kind of folks that habitually pawn do not sell things online." Point well taken.
Mr. Gruhn then got on the soapbox about the Internet. He stated that he was not interested in "participating in a reverse auction" -- a situation in which retailers underbid each other for the privilege of selling a product while making little or no profit. He stated that he was not interested in selling his new instruments on-line because everybody can sell things cheap. On a related note, I spoke with my luthier (repairman?) friend Jim Grainger. He was telling me about a guitar dealer selling guitars below cost on the Internet. I couldn't believe it until he told me that guys are getting in trouble with inventory and "floor plans" and they have to blow instruments out to make the payment. A sad state . However, Mr. Gruhn had some great guitars in his shop. Below is the "SG Line". The old-looking Les Paul/SGs are actually Historic Reissues, and they are just wonderful. The finish is spot-on, and they played great. OK Mr. J and Gibson another success!
Anyway, Mr. Gruhn gave us some great food for thought. He is an interesting fellow, and has virtually defined the vintage guitar market. As for Ken, Mr. Gruhn really confirmed what he instinctively knew, and provided credence to what we had discussed via email for the last few months. Ken is concerned about selling new instruments when Sam Ash in Nashville can sell new Strats nearly as cheap as he can buy them.
After a nice Tex-Mex lunch at Rio Bravo (my favorite, and hard to get in Germany), Ken and I walked through Sam Ash at Rivergate. We walked in to the store and were immediately confronted with hundreds -- perhaps a thousand -- guitars. We walked through the store and were just amazed at the inventory. I liked the Sam Ash on 48th Street in Manhattan much better -- my last visit to NYC was really good. I was checking out one of the new Zoom amp modelers and one of the guys in the back cranked up a PA. After about five minutes of that, while trying to hear the Zoom, I decided that I'd had enough. We checked a couple of Parkers, but overall the customer service didn't seem that great. However, I took my wife and son back in a few days later, and the lady in the sheet music department was extremely helpful and nice. "Y'know it is just hard to find good help these days." You find a lot of big attitude in Nashville, though. Everyone in a music store is a "musician" that knows Reba or jammed with Marty Stuart, or whatever. Because of the attitude, and if you don't kind of look like a big time musician, most of the time the "help" won't help you. "I'm in the studio if this works out, I'll be out of here ." Right. Ken and I tried to do some low-level analysis on how long it would take to wipe down every guitar and ensure it was in tune before the start of the business day. We soon found that it would probably take time on NASA's CRAY to calculate it, and that probably explained why so many of the guitars in the store were dirty and totally out of tune.
After our nice visit to Nashville, I decided that my theories on guitar retailing were correct. The bottom line is that we are witnessing a complete transformation of the music business. I had lunch with a musician/ Hofner dealer friend of mine in Cookeville, Tennessee while on leave. We spoke about a number of topics, but the subject of music always crept in. He said, "Remember when you worked at Borden's Jewelry, John?" A reference to my days as the guitar goon/general lackey at the nicest jewelry store in town. "What was the price of your guitars?" That was easy: "List." If you can remember that far back, small-town guitar dealers were jewelry stores and the like, who would sell guitars and amps at list price. My friend talked about buying his first Fender amp in the 60's for list price at a jewelry store. I sold a number of Fender and Martin guitars when I worked at the jewelry store, and I have to say that none of those buyers got a particularly good deal. What happened to that business model? It got gobbled up too, didn't it?
In conclusion, I think that today's superstores selling guitars "Best Buy style" is very interesting in the history of guitar retailing. The Internet also adds an interesting dimension to the guitar trade. However, every musician I spoke with while on leave agreed that there is something magical about buying from a small store in which the salespeople really understand their product, their clientele, and their selling environment. I found myself longing for that old jewelry store or Keith's Music in Cookeville. My prediction is that in five to ten years (if it takes that long), the big guitar manufacturers will drop Musician's Friend- and AMS-style dealers and prefer to sell directly to the public on-line. Let's see if this one comes true.