I owned a retail music store in the South Carolina Lowcountry for 17 years beginning in August of 1979. This endeavor started out in North Charleston where we stayed for a year and a half. We moved to Savannah Highway in Charleston. I was the proud proprietor of what the music industry refers to as a “combo” store. This type of establishment sells mostly to musicians—professional, amateur, aspiring, or otherwise. I sold guitars, amplifiers, an occasional PA system or drum set, strings, instruction books, capos/musical spoons/picks/harmonicas/drum accessories…etc.
C. F. Martin Guitars and Fender Musical Instrument Company gave me franchises and I sold a ton of their stuff way too cheap. It didn’t take me long to figure out that, given my limited finances, used instruments and equipment were far more profitable than the new stuff.
I made the shift to used gear after about six years in business and even started a used LP record niche in the store. The record collection expanded to around 40,000 titles and, in my final six years or so in retail, this cheap, easy-to-acquire inventory became my primary source of income.
Those of you who frequent used LP record stores usually notice right off the bat that the decor in most of them is a bit unusual…you know immediately that you are not in TARGET…no gleaming, polished aisles here. Usually, the walls are adorned with strange posters, displays, and wall hangings. There may be a hint of incense in the air.
Record store employees tend to be really smart and witty (with a sarcastic edge). The dress code is usually pretty slack and allows for personal expression. The person who helps you find what you are looking for could be wearing jeans and a t-shirt. The clerk at the register may be some black dude in Rasta garb, a fat girl guy wearing a mu-mu or a fat guy wearing a mu-mu. These folks work in one of the few businesses where eccentricity is viewed as a sales asset. (“What really matters is the music, dude, so get off my case!”)
I wish Wal-Mart would relax their dress code to let old guys wearing mu-mus become greeters. You could almost forget that Wal-Mart pays its lower-level employees in a monetary medium referred to as “chump change.” A large percentage of them qualify for public assistance (and are encouraged to seek such help by the management). If I could wear a mu-mu I would jump at the chance to greet incoming customers at Wal-Mart. It would be even better if they let me play the banjo as well. I wouldn’t ask for a raise if they would let me put out a tip jar.
You know where I’m going with this. By the time I was run off by my Worthless, Lying Lebanese Landlord, some feisty and quite stupid neighbors,*1 a Charleston County assistant prosecutor (who was pursuing a personal vendetta), my store walls were choking under the weight of weird black light posters, funny album covers, fake signed photos, and, of course, my prized Mr. Potato Head collection. I even had a five-foot-tall plastic robot that played eight-track tapes.
I always had a part-time guy around to help watch the store in case I had to walk out to some geezer’s car to look at a record collection stuffed into the trunk or piled into the back seat. Most of the time I would take a quick look and tell him to donate his records to the Salvation Army. Occasionally, however, somebody would have a really nice collection of hard-to-find stuff and I would drag the heavy boxes into the store for a closer inspection.
As weird as my store was, many customers were even weirder. Oh, I’m not talking about the occasional shoplifter or the homeless guy coming in to get warm in the winter or to cool down in the summer. Never had any problems with street people. They just moseyed around nodding their heads and minding their own business.
I can recall a number of events which marked the start of a slow descent to the final realization that all was futile, finished, kaput; I was not cut out to be the proprietor of a retail establishment.
One of these seminal events went down like this: A middle-aged lady came in with her 18-ish year-old-son looking for an electric guitar and an amplifier. He was what some would describe as a boy-toy, handsome to a tee, an underwear model for TARGET, possibly? Anyway, I could tell right off the bat that there was going to be a problem by the way he kept swishing his long hair around while running his fingers through it, pausing dramatically to adjust his sunglasses. His mother sat while he perused my inventory. He strutted around as if he were walking down the ramp at a fashion show (…flash of light bulbs…oohs and aahs…) all the while openly admiring his visage in whatever reflective surface available to satiate his all encompassing need.
I could tell right off the bat that I would have to call upon whatever remnant of the “hard sell” approach which had not yet metastasized in my tired, worn-out salesman’s psyche. They were mostly just looking but I had to ask a couple of obligatory questions before I could leave them to their own devices. I asked him if he had a particular style or brand of electric guitar he was interested in. He didn’t speak. He only smiled at his mom and she smiled back. “We’ll know it when we see it,” she interjected, never taking her eyes off the satyr which had mysteriously popped from her womb.
I asked him if he would like to plug in one of the guitars and try it out. He blurted out: “I don’t play” adding, “I’ll figure out how to play when I find one that looks right.” He then asked me if I had a strap he could borrow. I produced one and he immediately started taking guitars off the wall and hanging them around his neck. He would turn to his mom, strike a pose, and she would say something like: “That one doesn’t match your hair,” or “Let’s find something that will make you look really good on stage.”
After trying out a half dozen or so guitars for fit, color, and texture, he turned away from his mother’s glassy-eyed gaze long enough to ask me if I had a full-length mirror. He swished his hair around for effect and peeped at me from beneath his designer sun glasses.
That was the straw…(the last one? the short one? the one that broke the camel’s back?)
I guess they got a bit huffy when I said, “In most of the places I play, you can’t just stand there with a guitar around your neck…pouting and fluffing your hair.”
To this, I added, “Some drunk might hit you in the forehead with a flying beer bottle…or some coked-out biker dude might break a pool cue over your kneecaps and use the sharp end to poke at your private parts.”
I then did a mime version of Muhammad Ali hovering over a prone Sonny Liston in the first round of their rematch…waving his gloved fist and hollering at the pathetic old junkie to get the hell up and fight.
Sensing my tone and demeanor, they made a hasty retreat to the exit but not before he stopped to fluff his hair in righteous, narcissistic indignation as he left in the eternal tow of his mother.
Never saw him again. Yet another sale lost.* (1) …Newly arrived shopping center next door neighbors who opened what they called a “Hip Hop Haircutting Shop.” They seriously believed that they had the right to put a huge, loud stereo right next to my paper thin walls and blast excruciatingly loud rap “music” all day long every day. My walls were rattling and shaking from dawn to dusk. I objected and they started stalking and harassing both myself and my customers. Ignorant assholes…