Fork’s Drum Closet
Fork’s Drum Closet is nestled in funky downtown neighborhood of Music City U.S.A. (that’s Nashville to you). On the one hand, it is made up of what has made the MI industry great: Mom and dad, bro and sis, working in (mostly) harmony. On the other hand, an early embrace of the Internet, including selling on it, coupled with an aggressive marketing and promotion and a willingness to try new things sets it apart from the cliché.
There’s also a willingness to go against the tide: Economy down? Time to cut back on inventory? Not Fork’s. Seeing that others would do that, they increased their offerings to stand out among competitors even more than before. If there are fewer buyers out there, fine, but they will want to come to Forks, where there is more to offer. And it’s worked. Proudly, they take a “if you can hit, we have it” approach.
At a modest 5,600 square feet, the store is such that … well, as Forkum will tell you, nothing else can be crammed into it.
Forkum, born in Nashville, was like so many of his generation, inspired by the Beatles. “I had to be like Ringo,” he smiles. He got a snare drum when he was in the fourth grade, was playing in the school band in fifth, and was in a rock band two years later. Forkum grew up to become a working professional. He played in Top 40 bands, country, “whatever I needed to do to make a living.”
To supplement his income, he worked for the Corner Music Store, a respected full-line operation serving Nashville since 1976. Fork became frustrated that he couldn’t get the budget for gear he wanted out of the guitar-centric store, and approached owner Larry Garris, to whom he pitched the idea of buying the drum department. Garris was amendable, so Fork borrowed money from his father and grandfather, and thus that little “closet” of the Corner Music Store became his.
Fork still enjoys a good relationship with Corner; in fact when he grew to the point he could move out of the store, he took a spot across the street, and then a bigger building right next to Corner, where they reside today. “It’s great because the whole band can still come to one location – drummers coming here, all the others going to Corner.” He bought the building in 1997.
Owning a drum shop was never easy, and there was the steep learning curve in the early days. “The good part is, I love doing it,” he says. “I love drums, I love being around them, I love the challenge of deciding what to buy, how to display it, how to market it. The downside is that in the beginning I had no funding, and was scraping by.”
He credits luring his wife, Melissa, an accountant, into the operation as an important breakthrough in the history of the Fork’s Drum Closet. “My talent is knowing product and knowing what the customer wants – I wasn’t so good at the bookkeeping part.” With her experience, she started eyeing ever bill, every invoice, pointing out when terms weren’t good, and weighing in on how big an order could be placed.
“She’s invaluable because she helps me reach my goal of depth of material. That crucial.” But she’s not just working the calculator and examining spreadsheets, though. She’s embraced the drum lifestyle, understands it, and makes ordering decisions. “Customers ask for her – Harry McCarthy, drum tech for Max Weinberg, won’t deal with anybody but her,” Forkum says proudly.
Speaking of proud, their children Matt, 26, and Jaime, 24, also work for the store. Matt is usually found working the floor while Jaime handles the website duties, runs their eBay shop, and helps with special events. Paul Synder has been manager for 24 years, and Forkum says he’s always been a crucial part of the operation. “Paul is great and knows product. He handles the electronic business, the repair department, and runs the work shops.” There are eight other employees.
Two years ago Fork’s expanded and opened another store two and half hours east, in Knoxville. “We felt people were traveling from the east, and that there was a need.” The first year they beat their projected sales goal by 12 percent, and today the 2,500 square foot store features two teaching rooms. “It’s funny because it’s similar to what we started with at Corner Music. It’s a store within a store, inside Rick’s Music, which is a guitar and amp place.”
Forkum is still a professional drummer himself, playing a few times a month at parties, college events, and festivals in the popular The Midnight Riders, an Allman Brothers tribute band. (Forkum is more than just a long-time fan of the band; he’s done business with their drummers for years.)
A Family Affair
MMR: Fork’s Drum Closet is truly a family operation.
GF: It is.
MMR: But it’s not always smooth sailing working with family…
GF: About 95 percent of the time it’s great. They all really care about the place. Occasionally we bump heads. But I hope we continue like this for a long time. My son [Matt] is definitely locked in. My daughter [Jaime] enjoys what she does here, but she’s also designing purses. She makes them out of coffee bean bags and sells them at a coffee shop. [Laughs] That’s the hippie side to her. But I hope she wants to stay.
She’s learning more about the Internet and how to sell on it, which is crucial because that’s where growth is going to be with our business … or with any business.
MMR: What are your main lines?
GF: We carry most everything out there. Pearl and dw are our biggest suppliers. Gretsch is big. Yamaha, Tama, and Mapex do real good for us, as does Kaman.
MMR: Hand percussion?
GF: Obviously Latin Percussion, but Meinl has become real strong for us in the last few years. They are located right here in town, which makes it easier.
MMR: Has hand percussion been growing for you?
GF: We’ve experimented with it and have increased our business in that area. The interesting thing is that when we added Meinl, we didn’t take away from the other brands. We just found new business.
MMR: Is it mostly the lower end that’s doing well?
GF: The Gon Bops have done really well for us. They make some of the best high-end congas, and we’ve had good success with those.
MMR: And electronic kits?
GF: Most of it is Roland and Yamaha. Also a little Alexis.
MMR: You have a large offering of sticks.
GF: Vic Firth is number one. After that, we do well with Pro Mark and Vater.
Because we’re in the country music capital, plus with the schools and universities, we sell a ton of brushes and utility sticks. The hot rods and multi-rods – we’ve refocused on all of that and have a full wall of it.
We also sell a ton of metronomes, like Tama Rhythm Watches. All the studio musicians here need them.
MMR: You have a great cymbal room. What is working for you there?
GF: Zildjian is number one. Then Sabian, Paiste, and Meinl.
Knowing it was going to be a rough year, we wanted to focus on the big four because of the support they provide us in terms of artist and advertising. There are some other great cymbal combines out there. Too many really, and that makes it’s hard to pick which ones to carry. I may take on the products of smaller cymbal company soon, but you can spread yourself too thin sometimes. I know we can do a good job with the big four.
MMR: Do you consider Fork’s a pro shop?
GF: I do. But we also focus on entry-level kits. We have a strong teaching program that has seven to eight great teachers, bringing in a couple of hundred students a month.
MMR: Pros can be fickle.
GF: We have done a good job serving them. A lot of pros have endorsement deals on certain things, of course, but they still need repairs, still need things quickly. We make it a point to know what heads and sticks they like.
When you make a pro a good, loyal customer, they send others to you.
That’s really why I started the store. I wanted to keep local professionals from going to mail order. The local stores at the time weren’t discounting heavily, and were losing customers because of it. One of my goals was keeping that business in Nashville. I think we’ve done a good job at that.
MMR: Your store is busting at the seams with drums. Snare drums are stacked far on the ceiling, and one weaves through the many rooms discovering loads of gear…
GF: We try to use every inch of space. Even the small hallway to the bathroom is covered with mallets. We literally use every inch imaginable. It’s just because we have so much inventory and so many lines … I want a drummer to see we have everything he could want. I would rather have someone come to a store like this than a huge building with no vibe and character carrying the same amount of gear but looking empty.
We would love to have a bigger store – don’t get me wrong! But we’re in a hip part of town, and that’s equally important. We also rent a 6,000 square foot warehouse space where we ship from and handle our eBay sales. I almost look at that as another store because it generates income.
MMR: Do you do a good rental business?
GF: We have about nine or ten backline kits we rent, all higher end drums for the artist who come to town. One might have an endorsement deal with Gretsch or dw, and we supply that. We do all right with that. We do a couple of recording sessions here and there, and this past weekend we did the Franklin Jazz Festival.
MMR: You have a lot of school percussion products as well.
GF: Over 25 percent of our business is school percussion products. We have a dedicated sales rep for that market. We want to grow that part. When we get through this recession, I want to hire a second sales rep for it.
MMR: Tell us more about your school sales.
GF: We don’t have a lot of school percussion on display because of the size of the store – a marimba takes up the space of three kits. We keep those things in the warehouse.
In the early 1990s we dedicated a sales person to it to go to the drum contest market, and development relationships with band directors. We’ve become known for carrying products for them and that’s good. A big part of that business is selling to corps.
MMR: It’s been notated that you were quick to embrace the Internet, both in terms of your website and selling.
GF: I don’t think we got it right away, but we saw enough soon enough to realize it was going that way. I knew it was at least going to be an important source of information, a place where people could find out about the shop.
MMR: You sell online.
GF: People are comfortable shopping on line, and yes, we ship things every day. eBay is the great equalizer against big companies with big space.
We use eBay to get rid of a lot of used, obsolete, and discontinued products. With the new products it’s trickier. If it’s legal to do so, we put something up with a MAP price.
And we’ve gained a lot of customers from it, too. We offer something at the right price, handle it well, ship it quickly, and we gain business. Customers return.
MMR: Let’s talk marketing and promotions.
GF: I probably do four clinics a year, and we try to have fairly big named artist come in. We’ll have a sale to go along with it. Maybe we break even … honestly, we do it because it’s a way for us to give back to the drum community. We thank them for their business by bringing in their favorite artist.
For years we advertised in the drum magazines, and while we’re not there right now, we plan on getting back in there. The website is an important part of our advertising strategy.
MMR: Do you have luck with special sales?
GF: We’ll do a couple of tent sales in the parking lot, like in the spring and fall. We also do a sale on “Black Friday,” the day after Thanksgiving. If we don’t, we notice it. If we do and advertise it, it’s a good day.
MMR: Your competition?
GF: We have a Guitar Center five minutes away, a Sam Ash 30 minutes away.
In 1997, both a Thoroughbred Music and a MARS came to town. And even in that year we still didn’t go backwards. It stopped our growth, sure; but next year growth returned. Then the Guitar Center came … I wouldn’t say they don’t affect us, but we’ve never gone backwards.
MMR: So you’re getting by during our “Great Recession?”
GF: I think we were prepared for it. We saw the downturn coming last year. We’re down a bit, probably single digits, which is pretty good as friends are down 20 or 30 percent. We’ve been as aggressive as possible. We brought a lot of inventory in.
MMR: Really? Most MI stores have cut back ….
GF: I felt that most of our competition would cut inventory, and I thought that most people still had jobs and were buying, so we’d gain an advantage there. That’s why we’ve remained successful. We’ve seen some drop in the high end, but we still sell a lot of dw kits, Brady snares, and high-end Gretsch. There’s still a market for that.
MMR: You were one of the founding members of the Five Star Drum Store organization.
GF: I was the third or fourth guy who was approached. It’s definitely a good thing, but it’s a challenge because you have 36 independent drum shop owners. What keeps us from being more successful is not thinking as a unit. We’re not buying together as much as we could.
But within any group, AIMM or anybody else, there’s a participation problem. Usually a third of the group participates. There’s a bunch of good people, but we all have different sized stores … we’re striving for everyone to participate in whatever manner they can.
MMR: Are you satisfied with the relationship you have with your manufacturers?
GF: I do have really good relationship with most of the suppliers. All of them want the independents to survive. We want to keep the playing field even … and if I was a supplier? Would I be selling to Guitar Center, etc.? Absolutely.
But we as independents can take advantage of how the big stores advertise. I want everything they have and a bunch of stuff they don’t. I don’t shy away from a line because they have it. I don’t because they will promote what they buy, and then I am also carrying it and I can compete. These guys that refuse to carry a line because the big stores are carrying have the wrong attitude.
MMR: So what’s your crystal ball say about the future?
GF: I’m always the eternal optimist. I think things are on the upswing. I think we got spoiled when things were good. Going forward, we’ll appreciate what we had. I think we were living too high on the hog, and this [recession] gives us perspective.
I’m looking forward to going, “Oh – 2009? 2010? Yeah, we survived it.”