Fair warning: this article is bound to come across more as love-letter than as your standard, everyday trade publication feature.
When I was a kid growing up in and around Boston, there was a good handful of music stores that consistently offered customers a reasonable chance of walking in the front door and encountering something… unusual: “Wow, I’ve never seen one of those in person… I’ve never even heard of that brand of bass… what is that guitar made of, in the first place?” I realize I’m (more than) risking putting myself in the cranky-old-dude category by launching into a “Things were better back in my day” type of diatribe, but the fact is – with respect to mom-and-pop music stores stocking unique, quirky items, anyway – it was better “back then.”
Any regular reader of MMR no doubt understands the factors which challenge smaller MI operations in the modern retail climate – Internet sales and big-box competition topping the list for most – and those same issues make it all the less likely to discover a guitar shop that still offers such a “Whoa!” factor to new visitors. As such, I was all the more excited when I walked through the doors of Providence, Rhode Island’s Empire Music on a recent Thursday afternoon…
Vision & Purpose
“This store represents my idealized version of what I sort of remember seeing when I was a young person really first getting into music,” says Empire Guitars’ founder and owner Jeff Keithline. Staring at the rows of gorgeous guitars, basses, and amps stuffed into the still relatively modest space, it appears to be a vision realized.
“I grew up playing,” he continues. “I went on the road after high school in ’72 and then, when I was about 30, I moved to Boston and had grown tired of traveling. I had a pretty skimpy resumé in terms of actual jobs, but I had some experience working at a music shop, so I sent my little resume out to everybody in the Boston yellow pages who had anything to do with musical instruments or stereo equipment. I got exactly one reply…”
It turns out that response wasn’t from a full-on “music store,” but from the music instrument department of what was then the largest pawn broker in Boston, Suffolk Pawn Brokers & Jewelers. After working as “the guitar guy” for a while and then moving on to other jobs, starting a family, et cetera, Keithline got a call from two of his former Suffolk co-workers in the mid-‘80s: they were starting their own business, Empire Loan. Did he want to come on board?
The stability and potential for growth was appealing and Keithline joined Empire – but he retained a passion for guitars and other instruments. “I was always into the [music] gear, but I didn’t always have the space,” Jeff says. “When I bought this building, I thought, ‘I’ll have space now.’”
Initially opening in 2006 on the first floor of the current Empire Loan location in Providence, Rhode Island, Empire Guitars had a clear mission from day-one. “We sort of consider ourselves ‘boutique-y vintage,’ but with an emphasis on players, naturally,” he explains. The original 500 square-foot footprint soon wasn’t sufficient for the new operation’s traffic: “Oh, yeah. We quickly outgrew the spot.”
‘Really Amazing Stuff’
The current digs on the second floor of the building – opened in September of 2010 – are about 1,700 sq. feet and, in addition to a main showroom with amps and electric guitars, features a separate bass (and bass amps) room and acoustic room. Along with Keithline are three other full-timers: Rich Sherman, Chris McTernan, and manager Mike Samos. Yamaha acoustics are the only new guitar line carried, although the store also stocks New Vintage amps and an (extensive) offering of new pedals and accessories. Currently Empire provides guitar repair, but not amplifier repair, in-house.
Samos, who’s been with Empire Guitars “pretty much since the beginning” recalls that, “When we first started we had to put a lot of effort into tracking instruments and gear down. We’ve managed to cultivate a good reputation for treating people fairly and word gets out quickly and now people bring us some really amazing gear to sell – stuff you didn’t even realize was in the area. At this point most of it comes to us.”
Not surprisingly, the same word of mouth method also brings in buyers. A lot of buyers. “Locally, every guitarist, every band knows us. Samos says. “We get a lot of business from all over New England, Actually, quite a lot from New York, as well. And, through the Internet, our overseas business is pretty good. [Customers] see something on the website and buy it. A lot of countries have forwarding services on the coasts now, so shipping costs are less for buyers.”
Though Empire Guitars’ site is “something of a placeholder… we’ll be revamping it in the near future,” according to Keithline, the company’s social networking presence is a big factor in driving business. “Facebook has been great for us,” he says. “We’ll post about any upcoming events or any new guitar that’s come in and usually someone will be in asking about it within a day or so.”
And being part of a larger, separate business provides Keithline’s operation the stability to “stick to the plan” and weather any minor hiccups along the way. “That’s where Empire Loan comes in,” he says. “If we have a tough month, it’s not the end of the world, because we’re part of a larger operation and we don’t need to panic.”
As forewarned at the top of this article, it’s hard not to veer into gushy sentimentality when writing about Empire. The store is well laid-out, stocks amazing guitars, basses, and amps, and the staff are friendly, approachable, and – as hokey as it may sound – seem to truly be in the business for all the reasons one would hope (but hardly dare to expect).
“What we’re happiest about is when people come in and they have a reaction like you did and they go, ‘Oh, wow…. Yeah!,’ Jeff tells me. “It’s very gratifying. Also… we’re not super fussy – it’s not like we’re asking for references before we let people buy certain things. But we’re also not blowing stuff out, you know? We want this stuff to go to the right people. We’ve taken less for things because we know the person who’s buying it because we know the person who’s buying it really, really liked it and wanted it.”
Mike continues: “That’s really the goal. That’s the fun part. Being able to say to somebody, ‘You’ve been in here every week for three months playing that thing. That’s clearly ‘your guitar.’ So let’s make it happen.”