From left: Steve Miller with a vintage Gibson Les Paul; Miller's manager, Scott Boorey; and Chicago Music Exchange owner David Kalt with dog Teddy
Tobias Music sits in a hotbed of chain retail.
Within six miles of the independent Downers Grove, Ill., guitar shop lies Guitar Center, Sam Ash Music and Best Buy -- national music retail players with the advantages of deep advertising pockets and mile-wide inventories. They carry many of the same brands as Tobias Music, including such names as Taylor Guitars and C.F. Martin, at discounted prices. Still, company co-owner Paul Tobias isn't sweating.
In fact, he often beats those companies at their own game, price, via a low-overhead business model -- he and his father, Ken, run the tiny 400-square-foot shop by themselves. And when customers purchase a guitar, he throws in a few free value-added services, including a restringing and setup. Sometimes, he'll even sweeten the deal with a free tuner or handful of picks.
"We have been here for 33 years," Tobias said. "Offering a quality atmosphere seems to keep the customers coming back. In fact, when you have been around this long and people keep returning to your store, you don't just deal with customers. You deal with friends."
It sounds good on paper, but mom-and-pop retail can be a boulevard of broken dreams for many who've sung the same tune. Yet in the Chicago area, Tobias Music isn't alone. Several other independent music stores are not only holding their own against the national players but still growing. The common denominator? All sell themselves on offering a great customer experience, then over-delivering on that claim.
The Music Room in Palatine, Ill., promotes itself partly on a high-profile music lesson program. Along with private lessons, the program features a School of Rock and "Glee" workshop, which is based on the hit television show. In terms of product sales, co-owner John Giovannoni added that he services even low-end guitars to sound like professional models, similar to Tobias Music.
"Our $120 Squier Bullets are set up like a million bucks," Giovannoni said. "We spend the time and energy to make sure that every guitar and amp is in prime condition and ready to play right now. Buy it, and go directly to a gig."
Chicago Music Exchange, located in the Lakeview neighborhood, has gained a national reputation for a used and vintage guitar selection that rivals even the big-boxes. According to owner David Kalt, his company has struck the ultimate balance of selection and service. Unlike Tobias Music, Chicago Music Exchange operates out of a museum-like 9,000-square-foot showroom, which regularly plays host to iconic rock stars. Steve Miller recently stopped by and left, $20,000 later, with a 1976 Gibson Les Paul.
"What the store does really well is allow you to compare 30 different [Fender] Strats from 30 different eras in 30 different finishes and plug them into about 30 different amps," Kalt said. "So we offer a deep selection combined with deep knowledge and deep service, creating a unique customer service experience."
How does he manage such high overhead? "The good thing about guitars and a lot of musical instruments is they actually hold their value. And some of them actually appreciate. And you have to look at some of your [more expensive] inventory as basically furniture and fixtures."
What's telling is these businesses aren't sitting still. Chicago Music Exchange is preparing to open a drum shop and add more warehouse space. Tobias Music has plans to unveil a high-end guitar showroom this fall. Paul Tobias only has one concern.
"We have to be cautious about ruining our tiny store vibe," he said. "We just want to have a little more space. We will never be a superstore, but one more cozy room should work well for us."
Zach Phillips is a journalist, business writer, novelist and singer-songwriter. He's also the editor of Music Inc. magazine, which reports on the musical instrument industry.