Fresh Faces: NOVA Music Center
Even in today’s social media-saturated society, where conversations take place via Facebook “likes” and consensus is built through Twitter re-tweets, there’s no replacement for a group of like-minded people coming together in one place and sharing their passions face-to-face. For Erich Russek Robbins, owner of Nova Music Center in Norman Rockwell-idyllic Clifton, Virginia (population: 187), his new store, which opened in December 2010, aims to be a community focus point, a place where musicians at every talent level are welcome to come in and “chat over the pickle barrel” while comfortably browsing the store.
RussekRobbins has a musical background that touches on everything from Cajun, swing, bluegrass, Mariachi and Turkish music (not to mention a soft spot for the ukulele), and his wide-ranging taste, knowledge and desire to share as much music as possible with as many people as possible are reflected in NOVA’s instrument selection, sheet music offerings and community outreach efforts.
We recently caught Erich by phone and talked about the joys, challenges and pleasant surprises that come with launching a music store.
Erich RussekRobbins: As a performer, I was always searching for that peak moment on stage or in a recording. I know I’m in that moment when the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. But as a music storeowner that moment comes much more freely. It comes with anyone who wants to discuss an instrument. It comes from the excitement of someone who has found and instrument they can connect with. I like matching people to their instrument.
For a good time in the mid eighties, I worked at a Music and Arts Center, in both the repair and the retail store. I also spent sometime working for Guitar Center on Sunset in Los Angeles. I gained a lot of knowledge at both places about retail, inventory management and music instrument sales.
MMR: What would you say is your mission statement or philosophy?
ERR: My store is a “pickle barrel” type of store. The purpose of our store is to advocate music and help the customer feel at home in our store. I encourage people to stop by and chat. Our sales technique is relaxed and very simple. I ask my sales staff to try and get an instrument in the hands of every customer. The instrument should sell itself from there.
Someone mentioned to me recently how uncomfortable they feel when they enter most music stores, especially the big chains. Immediately, I knew what he was talking about because I have felt it many times before, and I have a strong enough music background where I should feel comfortable when I step into a music store. If I have an uneasy feeling, I can only imagine what it feels like to the complete beginner. These people are my customers, and I enjoy providing a service to them.
ERR: A small store like mine cannot compete with the large chain stores that can buy in bulk and achieve a suitable return so I try to focus my stock outside what they can carry and create a niche for myself. We have a broad and deep selection of print music. We have a great selection of ukuleles. We are adding lines of classical, Spanish and bluegrass guitars. We have a couple of special lines of electric guitars coming. Our brass and woodwind department is expanding and so are our strings.
MMR: Checking out your website, I saw print music books for everything from Amy Grant to Type O Negative. Are you finding that all types of musicians are making their way to you?
ERR: We are definitely attracting a wide variety of musicians. We have had opera and Broadway singers looking for sheet music, as well as people looking for Celtic, Hawaiian and bagpipe music. I had a large sale of Jazz folios to a band director from Canada. The ukulele is an important instrument for the store and that community is starting to discover us.
I purchased Cramer’s Music, a print music store in Manassas, VA, that was going out of business. Owning that store’s stock allows me to have an immediate niche of a broad and deep selection of print music. At least once a week I have a delighted customer who discovers that I have an item that he or she can’t find anywhere else. This has happened with mouthpieces, rare sheet music and just last weekend someone asked if I had bagpipe reeds… and I do. I’ve had people tell me they drove four hours to get to my store.
MMR: Can you tell us a little bit about the workshops and community outreach efforts that the store is conducting?
ERR: Our first workshop, in late March, is a ukulele workshop with [Grammy award-winning artist] Marcy Marxer. Most of our workshops are from professional working musicians who can provide a different insight into an instrument than you will find with a regular teacher. I’m also working with several local luthiers on crafting custom-made instruments to be carried exclusively at NOVA, and the store has a great front porch area where we plan to host some small concerts. The store occupies the front of a house with a coffee shop in the back. The two complement each other well; we’re teaming up to host some “open jams” to give the opportunity for musical newbies and more experienced players to make music together!
MMR: As a ukulele fan, are you excited about Eddie Vedder’s all-uke solo album?
ERR: Extremely. Tiny Tim had a negative impact for the ukulele for a whole generation. The new generation doesn’t know about Tiny Tim and the ukulele is coming back as a real instrument – and it really is a great instrument. I think it is one of the best starter instruments.
MMR: Any final thoughts?
ERR: I just know that I was meant to own a music store. I love my life! I work all day and I’m not tired. I like talking to people about instruments and music; it makes me feel good. I have a wonderful wife and child and I love where I live. Clifton, VA is very special. It is a historic town of 187 people surrounded by protected land. Drive five miles from my store and you are in a county of a million people [Fairfax County - ed.]. The trick for this store’s success will be not only the support of the town but for me to find creative ways to get the word five miles out that I exist.