The last thing we expected to find in the idyllic state of Wisconsin was one of the world's biggest guitar specialists...
I love being surprised by MI dealers. Whether it’s a clever idea for an in-store event, an eye-catching new display or department or simply exceptional customer service, it’s always pleasing to come across dealers that offer something you weren’t expecting.
I’d heard nothing but great things about Dave’s Guitar Shop on my recent trip to the States to visit accessories specialist String Swing and was urged to see it for myself, but my first thought was ‘how could a small town music store in the quiet, picturesque state of Wisconsin compare to the biggest and best retailers we have here in the UK?’
It was only when I was told that this now 30-year-old dealership is believed to be one of the biggest vintage guitar sellers in the world and has served the likes of Eric Clapton and Billy Gibbons that I grabbed my keys and made the drive westward.
Back in July 1982, Dave Rogers opened his own store that at the time was smaller than his current office and stocked just 17 guitars. Now, he offers around 3,000 Fenders, Gibsons, Paul Reed Smiths, Gretschs, Rickenbackers and much more – all housed in a giant 20,000 square-foot building – as well as an online business that caters for guitarists all over the world.
With there being so much competition out there, how did Rogers get to where he is today, especially in such an unusual location? As well as obviously having an excellent understanding of retail, it seems that superior product knowledge and a simple love for guitars go a long way toward explaining his success.
“My older brother played in a band, so I got into guitars at a really young age,” Rogers reveals. “Everything was vintage right off the bat in the first shop and I worked for five or six years without taking a pay cheque. I used to go to all the big vintage shows in Dallas, Chicago and Philadelphia when the market wasn’t as soft as it is now. I went from a 20’ x 20’ spot in a building on the South side of town into what is now the acoustic area and it just went from there.”
As for the shop’s excellent reputation with musicians and collectors all over the world – 85 per cent of Dave’s sales come from outside the local area – surely getting the name out there took a great deal of time and effort?
“To be honest our reputation just came about naturally,” admits Rogers. “We’ve had people fly over from the UK, Japan and Australia and not just professionals and touring bands. One guy flew in from the UK because we had ten Martin Brazilian Eric Clapton guitars and he wanted to try them out.”
But surely the thought of moving into a busier location – perhaps through a second store – has crossed Dave’s mind at some point? Of course it’s understandable why a small business would want to stay true to the town where it all began, but wouldn’t being closer to the nearby big cities of Minneapolis or Chicago, for example, attract even more customers through the door?
“I’ve never really thought about expansion. We own half a block here so there’s plenty of room to expand if we need to and having a second store wouldn’t buy us anything,” says Rogers. “The business we miss out on by not being near a big city we make up for in our costs being much less expensive. We had a satellite store at one time, but all it did was increase our expenses.
“We’re very comfortable where we’re at and I wouldn’t have a store anywhere else – we always have a blast and I couldn’t imagine doing anything else this fun. We always get people coming in saying they didn’t expect to find a place like this in La Crosse and bands are always surprised when they come in.”
It may have his name on the logo, but the success of Dave’s Guitar Shop is just as much to do with the rest of Rogers’ workforce as the man himself, especially as many of his colleagues have been part of the furniture for quite some time.
“We’ve got 13 members of staff and a lot of them have been working here for 15 to 20 years. Each has their own area of expertise – we’ve got a PRS guy and a Suhr specialist, for example.”
The growing number of high-end and vintage guitar specialists going out of business recently – here in the UK at least – is a pretty clear indication that dealing in Rogers’ area of the market is more challenging than it has been for quite some time. So what does he have to say to dealers aspiring to reach his level of success, as well as those looking to get started?
“This industry has not seen growth and I’ve seen a lot of businesses go under. The vintage guys got stuck with a lot of inventory when the market was peaking and now it’s all about keeping your cash flowing. A lot of guys have been driving the prices up – especially non-guitarists who see guitars as simply investments – but now they’ve started getting back into the hands of real guitar players. I’m just glad I’m not setting up a shop in this day and age.”
Hardly words of encouragement then, but it has become essential for most retailers dealing in high-end gear to maintain a balance with higher margin lines at lower price points. You won’t see a cheap Chinese-made rip-off or budget brand guitar at Dave’s though – far from it. So how is this store an exception to the rule? What’s his secret?
“I’m the worst businessman in the world,” he adds modestly. “All I know is that I can buy a guitar for ‘this price’ and then sell it for ‘that price.’”
That may be all there is to it, but Rogers’ journey from a guy with a tiny shop making no money to one of the world’s most acclaimed vintage sellers is fairly solid proof that, despite what he says, his business sense is about as sharp as it gets in MI retail.
Click here to see our full Dave's Guitar Shop picture gallery.
Want to receive up to the minute industry news straight to your inbox? Click here to sign up for the free MI Pro Daily Digest and Newsflash services. You can also follow MI Pro on Twitter @miprofessional and Facebook.