Casey Green and Taylor Harnois talk about the joy of operating a music shop focused on delivering excellent used gear to musicians. They discuss the importance of focusing your shop’s product mix and looking for ways to differentiate your business.
Used equipment can be a challenge, but if you know what you’re trying to sell and how to communicate with your customers, you’ll find success.
- Plan your business seriously.
- Try to differentiate your business.
- Focus on what sells.
- Know your customers.
- Communicate accurate descriptions to your customers.
- I had to really think hard about proving to myself and to the, you know, the SBA.
- One my focus being primarily in the used market while they’re all the shops in town have a selection of used stuff. I try to be the shop in town that has the biggest selection of used stuff but not just like your, you know, regular. Pawn shop variety.
- It’s certainly been the instruments, you know, it’s definitely a guitar store that just happens to have this other cool stuff. That’s more of a surprise when you walk in versus something that people, you know, are considering part of the destination.
- Especially knowing the beginner guitar market, there’s some guitars that, you know, even off the shelf, brand new don’t come in their best playing condition. Yeah. And being able to get instruments in that playable condition for young players especially because there’s nothing more that will drive you away.
- [00:11:47] Casey: I guess, I don’t know what the word I’m looking for is so to drive you away from wanting to play than an instrument that has, you know, action that’s an inch off the fretboard. So. . Yeah,
- I think the most important thing for us as far as the web has gone is pictures of the instruments. I know it seems really kind of, simplistic, but that’s been huge for us.
- If it sells on reverb, it automatically, you know, takes that from the inventory here. To not have to go in and manage that stuff manually has been, you know, a godsend in a lot of ways. Especially, you know, for the hotter items that do have multiple people kind of gun inform at the same time.
Casey Green started Guitarma as a locally owned, guitar-focused retail shop in downtown Lawrence, Kansas. Casey is dedicated to donating a portion of revenues back to the community every year. Because when it comes to music, and giving back, you can never have too much of a good thing.
[00:00:21] Taylor Harnois: All right. Welcome to another episode of the Music Shop podcast. We’re excited to talk to Casey Green from Guitarma and Casey owns a store in Lawrence, Kansas. So I have, you know, we’re gonna talk about quite a few different things, but wanted to kick it off, when I think Kansas and specifically Lawrence, Kansas, two things come to mind: The Get Up Kids in Liberty Hall so those are the two very first things I think about when thinking about music in Lawrence, Kansas. Tell us a little bit Casey, if you would, about kind of the music scene there and who your customers are and, you know, what it’s like there in Lawrence.
[00:00:57] Casey Green: Well you’ll be pleased to know that two of The Get Up Kids are pretty regular customers here. And we’re located just about a block from Liberty Hall, so.
[00:01:05] Taylor: You’re right in the thick of it.
[00:01:07] Casey: Yeah, that’s one of the beauties of this location, in this town in particular is we do get a lot of touring acts through town. And if you ever peruse through my Instagram page at Guitarmalfk, you’ll see pictures of me with Billy Corgan and the guys from Ministry and a bunch of other bands that have been through, Billy Corgan was certainly up on my wall when I was a kid, and all of a sudden they’re waltzing into my music shop was, yeah, it’s about as close to rock stardom as I’ve ever been.
[00:01:34] Taylor: That’s cool. That’s awesome. Yeah. The Get Up Kids were one of my favorite bands growing up and you know, they were all about kind of representing Lawrence and that’s the only, really to be honest with you, the only reason why I’m familiar with it, so that’s cool. So, really thriving kind of music scene there, which is awesome. I would assume probably getting a lot of beginner players, advanced players probably a pretty wide range of customers coming in.
[00:01:58] Casey: We run the gamut for sure, you know, being a college town with the University of Kansas here, there’s a new crop of players and a new crop of bands it seems like every year that come through. And you know, I’ve been here just over three years now, so it’s been interesting to see, you know, customers that came in week one, you know, of opening and now I’m seeing them getting ready to graduate. It’s kind of funny, like, almost being a teacher, it’s like, “oh, you’re doing your thing.” You know?
[00:02:23] Taylor: Yeah, that’s awesome. That’s awesome. Tell us a little bit about the store itself. The name, you’ve got a unique name, Guitarma. Tell us a little bit about that.
[00:02:31] Casey: Yeah. So, we built the business model on wanting to be able to give back to the community that we’re in. I’m a local, a local proper. I was born and raised here in Lawrence, so I’ve got a lot of love for the town. So, again, part of our business model is donating a portion of every sale back to programs in the town here and those range from children and family programs to the Humane Society. And then most recently, what we did this last year was in honor of a great customer of ours who passed away during the height of the pandemic, he was a phenomenal classical guitar player and was always very generous with his talents and would, you know, give random, just little lessons to people while he hung out in the shop here and, you know, show different tips and tricks. And in his honor, we started a free lesson program that we partnered with our public library here in town to host. So that was our big philanthropy push for this year.
[00:03:26] Taylor: Oh, that’s awesome. And that’s not something that’s new to you guys. I know you know, as you guys got started I think your first slogan or catchphrase or what have you, “turn on, tune up, give back,” and that’s been really since day one.
[00:03:40] Casey: Yep, exactly. Aside from just my own desire to be able to give back, I did want to have something else additional that separated us from the Amazons and eBays and even to an extent the Sweetwaters of the world, although I do have a lot of respect for Sweetwater. But yeah, one more thing that would inspire people to hopefully come downtown and come to the little mom and pop shops versus you know, just grabbing something online.
[00:04:04] Taylor: Yeah, that’s actually something I’ll ask you about a little bit later, and you kind of alluded to it you know, as far as how you and other stores can really separate yourself from, you know, what’s happened with the industry over the last number of years. So, yeah, we’ll chat about that. Tell us a little bit about your background in, you know, the industry. How’d you get started? How’d you decide you wanted to be a shop owner? Tell us a little bit about that.
[00:04:27] Casey: Yeah, for sure. So, my professional background is actually in advertising. I have a journalism degree from KU [University of Kansas] with a focus in strategic communications, is what they call it. So I started my professional career in creative departments as a copywriter in advertising. Having been in bands before, that was always the original dream was to, you know, be a touring musician or to, you know, write for Guitar Player [Magazine] or something like that.
[00:04:55] Casey: And yeah. That was the next best thing to kind of, start closing in on some of those goals, surrounding myself with one, creative people and two, I think being able to focus on writing and kind of branding as something that could maybe potentially lead to that and while it did not end up leading to that, mostly it led to getting a little bit disgruntled with corporate life. After about 15 years in that line of work got to the point where I was like, you know what, if I’m gonna do this, now’s the time. Dumber people have done it before and been very successful. Why not me? So I took the plunge in the summer of 2019 and left my cushy advertising gig to jump into this.
[00:05:32] Taylor: Was that any kind of one thing in particular that kind of drove that, or was it just kinda an accumulation of dissatisfaction or was there, yeah, kind of one thing that really kind of drove that?
[00:05:44] Casey: A couple things. I was commuting at the time and not a horrible commute by any means, but I kept feeling more and more disconnected with the community where I lived and it was hard to find, you know, work in my field in the town. So I yeah, you know, wanted to create it myself and having been a music lover, wanted to be able to surround myself with that passion as much as I could.
[00:06:06] Taylor: Yeah. That’s great. So as you were kind of contemplating, you know, starting this thing you know, obviously you went through probably quite a few different types of analyses you know, to get into it, you know, trying to foresee challenges, that sort of thing. Can you talk a little bit, and then I’ll ask you about maybe some things that you didn’t foresee, but what are some of the challenges that you looked at before you got started you know, working in the industry in this, you know, specific role as being a shop owner and that, and kind of how has that impacted the way you went about starting the business?
[00:06:37] Casey: Sure. So, you know, another thing that’s unique about Lawrence is that I’m in very good company, as far as brick and mortar music stores go. We have Mass Street Music right down the street from me, which is a, you know, nationally and internationally known shop. Supersonic music come more of a percussion store in town, Richard’s music, another used music store, and then, you know, countless other random record stores and stuff like that. Yeah, so there’s a lot of this going on. So I had to really think hard about proving to myself and to the you know, the SBA there was room for another music store. Yeah. In Lawrence and what I kept coming back to is you know, one my focus being primarily in the used market. While they’re all the shops in town have a selection of used stuff, I try to be the shop in town that has the biggest selection of used stuff but not just like your, you know, regular pawn shop variety, trying to keep it in. Yeah. Boutique instruments um, some of the more rare and unexpected stuff and then the vintage as well,
[00:07:42] Taylor: Yeah, so maybe a little kinda niche that you found that maybe wasn’t being serviced as much as some of the other stores and saw an opportunity there.
[00:07:50] Taylor: What about challenges that you’ve kind of uncovered since you started the business? I’m sure every business owner, as they get into it, they probably uncover a lot of surprises, and there’s a lot of things maybe that they weren’t quite prepared for. What are some of those things that you’ve run into and how have you, you know, handled some of those challenges?
[00:08:07] Casey: Sure. I think one thing that’s been particularly interesting is that when I first opened my offering here is still a little bit more beyond just instruments. I carry used vinyl. We sell jukeboxes here, which is again, another thing that’s just Something I’m interested in. So I wanted to have around here and then, you know, rock and roll memorabilia, so we’ve got these old posters and buttons and patches and, you know, sign stuff when I can find it. I really, expected upon open that was gonna be way more of a flashpoint, something that people were interested in and, yeah, you know, while I do still have that, it’s certainly been the instruments, you know, it’s definitely a guitar store that just happens to have this other cool stuff that’s more of a surprise when you walk in versus something that people, you know, are considering part of the destination.
[00:08:55] Taylor: Yeah.
[00:08:56] Casey: But yeah I anticipated that wider offering being more of a differentiator and it hasn’t ended up being that, which is, you know, certainly Okay.
[00:09:04] Taylor: Yeah, it’s just kind of come back to the bread and butter of being, you know, selling those music instruments and having that I would imagine that you know, you talked about having some of the boutique guitars and some of the more vintage pieces and that I would assume that’s been probably a big difference maker for you.
[00:09:21] Casey: Absolutely. Yeah. I think you know, so many of those instruments you just, you aren’t used to running into in the wild. Unless it’s a one of the bigger dealers that do happen to have a wide selection of that stuff working directly with those companies. But being able to source some of that and having it used for people to, to get their hands on even just having it available to try out I think has been really cool for people.
[00:09:45] Taylor: As I was, you know, getting ready to chat with you today, one of the things I noticed that a lot of your customers saying was that when they receive products from you, you know, shipped and obviously in store, that the products were in much, not only better condition but that seemed to have more TLC, they’ve been taken care of very well, packaged very well, maybe some upgrades that they hadn’t anticipated, that sort of thing. And it’s always kind of nice to see that historic, you know, going above and beyond what the customer had expected to see. And that was kind of a recurring theme as I kind of went through and was taking a look at what your customers have been saying so, tell me a little bit about that, you know, what your customers can expect from you as they order from you.
[00:10:27] Casey: Yeah. So, one thing that I wanted to be able to offer when we opened was that no matter the instrument that someone purchased, whether it was a, you know, a hundred dollars Squire Affinity Strat, or one of these, you know, boutique Suhr Super Strats knowing that when they get it, it’s gonna be in its, you know, best possible playing condition. So, in order for me to ensure that I’ve been very fortunate to be able to apprentice with a local guitar builder here in the area, Corwin Guitar Company and he’s been helping to get me more able to do just standard block and tackle setups on stuff so that when they do get it, you know, it’s clean and playing as buzz free as can be expected. And yeah, that was something that you know, especially knowing the beginner guitar market, there’s some guitars that, you know, even off the shelf, brand new don’t come in their best playing condition and being able to get instruments in that playable condition for young players especially cuz there’s nothing more, I guess, I don’t know what the word I’m looking for is, so, to drive you away from wanting to play than an instrument that has, you know, action that’s an inch off the fretboard.
[00:11:33] Taylor: Yeah, you’re exactly right, you know, I think that’s one of the challenges a lot of beginners face is that they become discouraged very easily because it doesn’t sound as good as they’d like it to sound and little do they know, a lot of that goes back to just the original setup and so, you know, to have you guys kind of go that extra mile, I think that is something that’s really missing, you know, a lot of stores are missing that boat. But you know, I can tell you even from personal experience, it goes a long way.
[00:12:00] Taylor: You know, when you go home with an instrument and it plays right outta the box, just how you would expect it to play. You know, I feel like a lot of retailers are really just happy to move the product and call it a day. But you guys have really kind of gone above and beyond that.
[00:12:14] Taylor: That in conjunction with you know, the work that you do with the organizations there, you know, with your mantra of giving back and that sort of thing. Those are a couple of things I think probably do distinguish you quite a bit, but that’s what I wanted to ask you next. Is a shop like you, kind of an independent store, how in the world is it that you guys can compete, you know, in an industry that’s really kind of saturated with Guitar Center and you’ve got the Sweetwaters, I mean, you’ve got some really big fish that really take up a big chunk of the market share. How does a store like yours get by, and not only get by, but excel? What are some of the tips that you could share to help stores kind of differentiate there?
[00:12:54] Casey: So I think with us a goal from the very beginning was to try and be the most welcoming atmosphere that we could provide for any type of musician. There’s certainly some perceptions of music stores that new guys in the market kind of need to combat the, you know, the not particularly nice owner, inventory covered in dust, and overpriced compared to what you can find online. All of those things were things that we took into consideration when we opened. Yeah, it’s like, you know, everybody has the internet so everybody can look up what an instrument costs. So we need to make sure that our pricing is fair and in line with what somebody can get it on a Reverb for because why else would they get it here if they can find it cheaper elsewhere? And then that welcoming factor. Again, I think there’s a little bit of a built in fear that comes with walking into a music store, especially as a beginner, sort of like walking in to buy a, you know, a used car there you feel like you’re gonna get had a little bit and yeah, we wanted to make sure that was never something that people left here thinking that had happened.
[00:15:11] Taylor: Yeah, that’s interesting. And that’s, you know, as we’ve done these podcasts with a good number of stores, that’s one of the things that really kind of keeps coming back and is really kind of a running theme is that, you know, in that type of landscape where you do have these big players kind of dominating or taking a big chunk of it, really, it’s about that personalized experience. You know, being able to make your customers feel welcome and providing a different level of customer service, that’s somebody can’t get as they walk into a Guitar Center or order from Sweetwater. I think you really kind of nailed it there. And I think that’s what shops have to know is they go into it, that you’ve gotta be willing to, you know, go the extra mile, provide an extra level of customer service that, you know, is really gonna provide you with an opportunity to get in good with customers and not only, you know, get them at the beginning when they’re starting to learn how to play, but being there for them and developing relationships with them as they, you know, kind of grow in their skill sets and start to look at different you know, quality of instruments and buying nicer models and things of that nature. So, that’s awesome.
[00:16:11] Taylor: You know, we’ve gone obviously through a world changing experience with Covid 19. You know, you guys got started in August, I think, is when you guys opened up, of 2019. So right before, I mean, really this big kind of, you know, world impacting health challenge that we’ve all seen. How did you survive during Covid?
[00:16:29] Casey: I was very fortunate to have had my online infrastructure in place before we ever opened. I knew from the beginning that online sales were probably gonna be at least 50%, if not more, of what was gonna keep the lights on here. So I wanted to make sure that was a big piece of it from the beginning just cuz, to survive. That was where, you know, a good chunk of the revenue was gonna come from. So when things did bad and there was, you know, shutdowns and, you know, we were closed for, I don’t know, four to five weeks or something like that, maybe even a little bit longer, my business, in fact at that time did not see a drop that I expected and we were still doing business through our website. And then Reverb as well. I think that you know, I obviously didn’t have any years prior to compare to. But I did know that things were, you know, the, like I said the lights were still on, so even if nobody wasn’t here.
[00:17:24] Taylor: So, and you mentioned this a little bit but you know, doing online sales, you guys have done a really fantastic job of keeping your website fresh. You’ve got great content on there. You know, it’s an inviting website. What are some things that you guys have done to really try to draw in those internet customers or online customers? How are you finding those customers and how do you get ’em to keep coming back on your website?
[00:17:47] Casey: I think the most important thing for us as far as the web has gone is pictures of the instruments. I know it seems really kind of, simplistic, but that’s been huge for us. Having mentioned my background I did know how to take a picture and edit it well coming into the business.
[00:18:04] Casey: But I think that’s just super important to be able to take detailed shots of an instrument to be able to describe it accurately and honestly and put that information out there in a timely matter. That’s probably been the most difficult piece of it is you know, when you have, you know, new used instruments that come in at the same time, the amount of effort that it does take to take them back in our little makeshift photo booth that we have, it’s a closet, and snap pictures of those. And then to really, you know, try to objectively critique an instrument for its condition and then, you know, articulate that on the website. But that’s been something that we do see comments on and positive reviews about is accurate descriptions and nice photos.
[00:18:47] Taylor: Yeah, the whole online presentation being really kind of critical to that.
[00:18:50] Casey: Yeah. Yeah.
[00:18:52] Taylor: Yeah. And I think that’s, honestly, I think that’s one of the, you know, that’s a really big lesson for a lot of shops to learn, you know, going the extra mile there and really, again, presenting the product for what it is the, you know, the piece of art that it is and that, and being able to convey that to potential customers is really the way that you’re gonna be successful selling online. So that’s great that you guys have done that.
[00:19:11] Taylor: Yeah. And I think your background probably helps quite a bit as well, So yeah, probably coming from a pretty strong position there to make sure that you’re creating a good impact on your potential customers.
[00:19:20] Taylor: One of the other things I wanted to ask you about and you’ve talked about this again a little bit, but how do you decide what to buy? Right. So you’ve got vendors you work with, you buy and sell used gear. What drives that? Is it the things that you’re personally interested in or is it, hey, you know, I think this is probably gonna sell well, or, tell me a little bit about how you think about buying products and inventorying products.
[00:19:41] Casey: That’s certainly been probably one of the bigger challenges personally. I always tell folks when they come in, it’s a blessing and a curse to be able to pick out everything yourself, cause I think if you do, you know, if you look up on the walls here, there’s a lot of stuff that I want that I would be happy to take home if it didn’t sell.
[00:19:58] Taylor: Yeah.
[00:19:58] Casey: But yeah, you know, early on I did have to kind of learn that just because, you know, my tastes were, you know, mid eighties hot pink shredders that not everybody was into those. So I had to really, you know, keep in mind how to diversify the wall a little bit and keep things that were interesting to more than just me up there.
[00:20:18] Taylor: Yeah.
[00:20:18] Casey: Yeah, and that’s certainly pushed me to step outta my comfort zone in a number of ways. I think just one, instruments that maybe I don’t know as much about, don’t have a history with stepping in and learning about what those are, and vintage stuff in particular amplifiers, taking some risks there with purchasing used stuff knowing that there was probably gonna be some that was, you know, two days into it, being on the floor was gonna crap out. And making sure that my network was wide enough to be able to find people that either were interested them in that condition or helping me to source parts and fix things.
[00:20:51] Taylor: Yeah. That’s awesome. That’s fantastic. Just a couple last questions here. But I did wanna ask you, so again, you know, getting started with a new music store in 2019, and if, you know, you compare that, what it was then to what it is today, what are some steps that you’ve taken to really grow the brand and you know, help people find you and, become more aware of Guitarma?
[00:21:15] Casey: Most of our advertising has been, you know, purely through social media. We’ve done a few paid Facebook campaigns, but nothing extensive. What has been most successful for me up to this point has really just been the organic advertising opportunities. So, word of mouth for sure has been the most important thing for keeping traffic up in the store and then for, you know, awareness to communities outside of where I’m located really with the images that we’ve been able to, images and descriptions that we’ve already had to create for the website, being able to repurpose that for social media outlets. So Instagram and Facebook have both been really big for us.
[00:21:56] Casey: And just getting some of those images out there and, you know, giving people kind of a sneak peek of the offerings that we do have. I’m always surprised, especially when we do post an image of something, you know, more vintage or rare, how wide those posts can get. And I’ve had, you know, direct sales come from that for, you know, some higher end instruments from, you know, people all over the country having just happened to see something cuz it was, oh, you know, hashtag vintage Gibson and they follow that.
[00:22:26] Taylor: Yeah. So, really utilizing the social media tools that everybody has available to them, but doing it an effective way to reach a wider uh, you know, cast that net a little bit bigger than maybe what other stores are doing, so that’s great. Sure.
[00:22:40] Taylor: How has Music Shop 360, not only Music Shop 360, but technology and that sort of thing, how has that helped you be more efficient with your business?
[00:22:48] Casey: As it relates to the point of sale, two huge things stand out there. One the integration with Reverb. Without them there would certainly be a pretty drastic dip in our online sales. They’re a big driver for that. With music 360 being integrated with that so that, you know, when I post something to my website, it automatically posts the Reverb. If it sells on Reverb, it automatically, you know, takes that from the inventory here. To not have to go in and manage that stuff manually has been, you know, a godsend in a lot of ways. Especially, you know, for the hotter items that do have multiple people kind of gunning for at the same time. I remember back in the eBay days of having Reverb, eBay and the website you know, selling something in two places and there’s nothing worse than, you know, having to tell the customer who was maybe the couple seconds behind that’s like, oh, I’m sorry, somebody else got it before you and then you take into account having to refund them and, you know, likely losing some PayPal money in that transaction. Yeah, it’s certainly helped there.
[00:23:49] Casey: The second thing I think is just the inventory management and having all the tools that I need to make a clean listing right there for me. So it’s really easy to write the description, present it in a way that I want people to see it. And then the image options too, just directly upload all that and while I don’t have a ton of direct site purchases, when I do when there’s an outside of Reverb, it’s super easy for people to do and yeah, has been very nice.
[00:24:17] Taylor: Yeah, that Reverb tool’s been fantastic. That’s one of the, you know, biggest pieces of advice that we share with brand new stores is look, if you’re not selling on reverb, you’re really missing the boat because they do just such a fantastic job of generating organic traffic, you know, and then from there it’s uh, uh, on you as a store owner and the marketer to try to get those folks to then start shopping on your own website. But the organic traffic that’s driven by Reverb is a game changer for a lot of stores. And so yeah, I think you’re spot on there.
[00:24:50] Casey: For us new guys especially. I feel like there’s probably a good amount of years worth of, you know, brand equity and trust that I need to build up before my site becomes the place where people go first. But yeah, hopefully to come, I imagine. So I’ll be ready when it does happen.
[00:25:05] Taylor: Yeah. That’s awesome. I did also want to give a chance to tell everybody that’s watching or listening where they can find you, store hours, where you’re located, your website, and what they can expect when they shop with Guitarma.
[00:25:18] Casey: Yeah. So we are located in downtown Lawrence, Kansas at 726 Massachusetts Street. Anybody who’s ever been to Lawrence is gonna be familiar with Mass Street, and we’re lucky to, like I said, be surrounded by a lot of cool shops besides the music stores. But yeah, anytime somebody comes in from out of town, we always tell people, it’s like, yeah we’re glad you’re here. But make sure you pop by the other shops too, cuz it’s a good place to have a music store vacation if anybody’s ever looking for one. And our website is guitarmalfk.com. We do get a lot of questions about what the LFK stands for. That is Lawrence fricking Kansas. The fricking is not usually fricking, but so that’s a kind of a rally cry for our city, And then Instagram we’re GuitarmaLFK and Facebook as well, and then yeah, Reverb as well.
[00:26:05] Taylor: Okay. Fantastic. What is it that customers can expect with you when they shop with you?
[00:26:10] Casey: Like I said, we are definitely a welcoming environment, so we want people to play when they come in, Stairway [to Heaven] or not. We welcome any song that is played here. People always joke about that and we’re like, Nope, we’re just happy you’re here. So, we will certainly make you comfortable. We’ve got, you know, couches in our acoustic room and always got good music playing on any number of our, you know, three to four juke boxes that we try to keep in at times, and yeah, we are here every day but Monday, is typically our hours. But yeah, we try to be here at least seven hours a day every day, but Monday.
[00:26:42] Taylor: Okay. Awesome. Casey, we really appreciate you hopping in here today. Really appreciate your insights. My favorite thing about the podcast is being able to talk to stores that are, you know, doing well, but also stores that are willing to kind of share best practices and, you know, help other folks who may be thinking about getting into the industry. And so you’ve done a fantastic job with that. We really appreciate your time.
[00:27:03] Casey: Absolutely. Well, yeah, I definitely wanna see more of us. I wanna see more mom and pop, brick and mortar stores cuz there’s nothing quite like being able to jump in and get your hands on something.
[00:27:13] Taylor: That’s absolutely right. Okay. Thanks Casey. Appreciate it very much.
[00:27:17] Casey: Yeah, you bet. Thank you so much.