Gracewinds Music: From B&O to Full-Line
of Corvallis, Oregon is one of those overnight success stories that actually took more than two decades to evolve into a bustling full-line store. Ken Oefelein, a graduate of Western Iowa Tech, launched the business repairing band instruments out of a garage. On a beautiful fall day we talked extensively with Sharon Oefelein, Kens wife, and their son Travis about the transformation of Gracewinds.
MMR: Could you describe the origins of the store and the various moves that were made in the last 21 years?
Sharon Oefelein: We started out in a garage. Ken would repair instruments brought to him, and would also drive up and down the coast all the way to Seattle, going to music stores and pawn shops and picking up damaged horns the stores didnt want or couldnt repair. Hed fix the instruments and then sell or rent them.
We started basically with nothing. We cashed in an IRA because the more instruments we repaired, the more tools Ken needed. Our first real store was a small space on 2nd Street downtown. In 1992 we moved to a 1,000 square foot space but outgrew it pretty quickly, and in 1996 we moved to a space three times as large. After about four years we outgrew that space, and weve been here four years now.
Its a large space, about 12,000 square feet, with 5,000 feet on the main floor and the same in the basement, and 2,000 feet in the mezzanine. Theres a third floor that has an additional 5,000 feet, which were not using at this time.
MMR: Whats the layout of each floor?
SO: The mezzanine is a drum space. We recently added Pearl Drums, and we already had Ludwig and Yamaha. Theres also one teaching studio there for drum lessons.
The main floor is the showroom where we display most of the instruments. The basement has four additional teaching studios. We teach violin and country fiddle, guitar, voice, sax, flute, and drums. The number of teachers ranges from 10 to 15. We rent the space to the teachers for a very low rate, and they set their own prices, and do their own scheduling and collections.
Travis Oefelein: Weve toyed with the idea of making the third floor into a giant music school. The difficulty is that wed have to have an elevator to create wheelchair access.
MMR: What brands and instruments do you carry today?
SO: We have Guild, Fender, and Seagull Guitars, Yamaha and Kawai keyboards and Kawai and Samick acoustic pianos. We also carry lots of accessories as well as band music and other print music. Early on, we positioned ourselves as a source of ethnic instruments, like various world percussion instruments. We still do that, but many other stores do it now as well.
MMR: Has the influx of Chinese instruments and big boxes had much effect on your business?
SO: WalMart is in the nearby town of Lebanon, and there is also Costco and Fred Meyer (a grocery chain owned by Kroger). All of them carry the imports. I see the imports, eBay, and catalog sales as all being competitive with us, but we havent been hurt too badly. Where the school programs have a stable band director, one who has been there a while, he or she can influence the parents not to buy something that will make it difficult for a child to play. In some of the smaller towns there is more turnover in band directors because of budget cuts. Those are the parents who will tend to buy the imports.
TO: Corvallis is kind of a techie town. We do get people who bring in quotes off the Internet or from eBay.
MMR: What about school music budgets in your area?
SO: There are three main towns we service: Corvallis, Lebanon, and Albany. In these cities the parents have fought to keep music programs in the school and the school boards have been generally supportive of arts programs. In the smaller towns its a more difficult struggle. The parents arent mobilized as much, and the school boards are less responsive to the arts.
There used to be local control of the schools, and our particular area was known for passing almost any school bonds. Now that the state has taken over the funding in its attempts to equalize funding throughout Oregon, money is harder to come by for music programs. We service about 15 schools here, and were in close contact with the band directors.
MMR: Are there any adult band programs?
SO: Yes, we have two New Horizons Bands, with members ranging from 40 years old to into their 80s. We have two conductors, one for each band. Its something of a sacrifice on our part, because they rehearse in the drum space in the mezzanine. That means we have to move the drum sets around before and after each weekly evening rehearsal. But its a good thing. In fact, I play in one of the bands myself.
MMR: The store started out primarily as a band repair facility, but then it became a band and orchestra -centered store when you first moved. When I look around now, you seem to have transformed the business into a full-line store. Could you describe that process?
TO: When we moved to this location four years ago we made a conscious attempt to go after the guitar market. Even though there are three guitar shops within a few blocks of us, its been the most successful addition to our business. We do about an equal amount of acoustic and electric business.
SO: We also are going after print music harder. The one sheet music outlet in Eugene closed last summer, and so did one of the two band-oriented stores, and were getting request for music from teachers in Eugene. Well ship music down there, and Ive tried to access some of the music teachers there.
One thing that has disappointed me is that piano sales are flat. We thought they would do better in the new space. Band sales, mainly Yamaha and Selmer, are fairly flat right now as well because of budget cuts in the schools.
MMR: How do you assess the importance of sheet music and accessories?
SO: Sheet music is very important because it bring people in. Many customers like to browse. We have videos too, and they sell, but not nearly as well as printed music does. We do well with accessories, and discount strings at 50%. Were always looking for unusual picks or pedals.
MMR: Could you talk about advertising and promotion?
SO: We advertise on radio and in the local paper, and have occasionally done television. I think our most effective tool besides word of mouth is the specials we offer via direct mail. We also do clinics and would like to do more, but our location is a little off the beaten track for clinicians hitting the major cities like Seattle, Portland and San Francisco. We give band directors folders, and note pads, and weve periodically done T-shirts and mugs. Weve given them to the teachers and sold them in the store.
TO: For our 21st birthday we had a number of special promotions. Probably the most successful one was a guitar tasting night. It was invitation-only and reps brought in special guitars that normally wouldnt be in the stores, and we put the cheaper guitars in storage for the event. To go with the tasting motif we had wine and cheese. It was a very successful promotion — just about all the active guitar players in town came out.
SO: We also have a Web site, which is information only, which is www.gracewindsmusic.com. We intend to make it more elaborate. Right now there are not plans to sell off the site.
MMR: Tell us about the people who work here.
SO: There are 12, half of them full-time and half part-time. Ken and Travis and I all work here, so there are nine others. We have another full-time band repair person, and a guitar and electronics repair person as well. Ken still works in repair. Good employees are absolutely essential to running the store.
TO: We have very little turnover in the repair people. Sales people tend to stay more like five or six years before they move on. A couple of the sales people here also teach here.
MMR: How do you find employees?
TO: We advertise on the Web, or often people are recommended to us by other employees or band directors. Almost all the people who work here are musicians, and many of them play gigs.
MMR: What about the new store was a surprise to you?
SO: We didnt realize how much work this was going to be! As I mentioned, the growth of our guitar sales was a pleasant surprise, even though we obviously set out to pursue this area.
MMR: Do your customers go to Portland or Eugene?
SO: Some do, but it isnt a big problem. We also have people coming here, especially from Eugene. A number of people have begged us to open a store there, because of the closing of the two stores that I mentioned earlier.
MMR: Do you go to NAMM?
SO: We go to Anaheim. The summer show doesnt work for us because our staff takes vacations in the summer, and at the time of the summer show were gearing up for the school band season. This year we went to the sheet music convention in Portland and we also attended NASMD.
MMR: Any thoughts about whats been beneficial or what could make things better for the store?
SO: MAP has been great for us. It gives us a platform to operate in terms of gaining consumer confidence. We really like what some of the manufacturers have done with videos about their products, like the Fender video and the Electro-Harmonix pedal guide. Id like to see more of those selling aids.