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Branching Out: After a Lifetime in Acoustics, The Music Emporium Moves into the Electric Guitar World

by Victoria Wasylak • in
  • June 2018
  • Retail
• Created: June 11, 2018

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To all the folks at Guitar Center locations around the country, the Music Emporium in Lexington, Massachusetts has a message for you: many, many thanks.

In a world where retail stores seem to peddle roughly the same goods, the Music Emporium aims to offer the exact opposite of a big-box, “soul crushing” shopping experience.

“They didn’t put us out of business – they helped our business,” says co-owner Joe Caruso about Guitar Center. “Too often, every store is the same, they’re all carrying the same stuff. There’s too much homogeneity in the retail world.”

Tucked in historic Lexington, the store has earned a reputation for carrying the finest models of acoustic guitars from non-mainstream dealers over the past forty years. First started in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania by Stu Cohen, the store quickly moved to Cambridge during the height of the ‘60s folk music scene in the Boston area.

But after decades of honing in on their specialty, Caruso and co. found that it it didn’t feel like there ways any room to expand. At the same time, Collings Guitars made an important decision: they started to include electric guitars in their product line.

It was special kind of sign for the Massachusetts store, which began to incorporate far more electric models just a few years ago, following suit with Collings.

Ever since Caruso’s involvement with the Music Emporium began in the 1990s, Collings has been an integral part of the shop, and remains the most popular brand of guitars in the store.

“Embracing that company to the fullest extent – taking as many guitars as we could possibly get from them, which at that time wasn’t a lot, but continued to push how much people are willing to spend on a new acoustic guitar as opposed to a used acoustic guitar, continuing to push that to what we thought was a breaking point, but it never broke,” Caruso says. “It always continued to generate more sales and more interest. We definitely put a good number of our eggs in the Collings basket, sort of bet on that horse, and it turned out to be our best investment.”

While the store had previously carried a handful of electric guitars, their entire reputation had been built around acoustic instruments. Including a wider variety of electrics in the store signaled a new era for the business altogether.

“It’s not like we didn’t have any electrics, but we never really embraced it because we felt like…Collings did electric, so we kind of went along with that, but that was still only a small percentage of what we did – that was several years of slowly growing that,” Caruso notes. “I think when we made the decision that we needed to have more than Collings, we needed to grow – I wanted to grow, and we had all the best acoustic lines, there were no more acoustic lines that we really wanted, and while we still could have carried more from each of those vendors, I guess I was bored and I wanted a challenge. I wanted to something to inject new blood into the store.”

Caruso and Cohen made the decision together with sales manager Adam Dardeck and asked around for which brands would be best to carry, keeping one-man guitar shops and the like in mind. Caruso, for the record, was offered part ownership around 2001. Since his initial involvement, the company has launched from a $900,00 business to a $5 million business – all with only eight employees. The Music Emporium officially brought in a bigger selection of electric guitars around 2014.

“We didn’t want to do Fender, we don’t want to do Gibson, we don’t want to do PRS, because everybody had those. Why try to be like everybody else?” he says. “All these small builders we could represent that don’t have a home, we could be sort of that place. We could be the place to go to find so many cool, obscure lines that players may have heard about, but no one carries them.”

Especially with the recent boom in attention for independent artists – guitarmakers included – the trend has fared well for everyone. Caruso says that roughly 35 percent of guitar sales are now electric. “We carry them because they really do represent the best in the industry,” Caruso says. “Certainly we attract more electric players, but we haven’t lost the acoustic players. And that’s what it’s become. People walk in and are like, ‘These are amazing, I’ve never heard of these guitars’. They trust that we’re not carrying them because we have to or because we’re gonna make a boatload of money – the margins are pretty thin on a lot of these smaller builders.”

Much like Caruso’s gut feeling to try something new, he says that he sees the same whim in many of his customers who have also traditionally played only or mainly acoustic guitars.

“The cool thing is, all these people we’ve been selling acoustic guitars to, they almost acted on the same impulse I acted on,” he says. “Playing electric kind of makes you feel young again. If you want to tap into your youth and want to be cool – that’s kind of what was in my mind when I thought, ‘Let’s carry electrics.’”

Caruso also notes that this feeling goes hand in hand with older folks looking to try something new, and looking for a quality piece to musically experiment with.

“I cater to an older demographic. Younger people are too busy paying off college loans to afford the guitars I sell,” he notes. “They want to feel that youthful energy again. They’re elegant, they’re mature, they’re stately, this is not Eddie Van Halen’s guitar. These are beautiful, artful, respectful creations. They’re not gimmicky, they have substance to them.”

That very substance is what the Music Emporium has strived to cultivate in their shop and selection, especially with their new expansion into the electric world. That push to keep their taste front and center is exactly why big box stores don’t pose a threat to the Lexington store.

“They [large stores and chains] can overwhelm people with what looks like a very vast and deep inventory, but let’s face it – there’s nothing deep or interesting about their inventory. It looked big, but really, it was a lot of the same,” he explains. “Customers walk into my store and it’s a completely different experience. First of all, it’s elegant, it’s like walking into your own very lived-in house or living room. It’s a very warm, cozy, inviting, artful kind of display of product. There’s no slatwall, there’s no glaring florescent lights. It’s a different experience, and people recognize that as soon as they walk in. How many small retail stores today are actually growing, expanding? There’s so much stagnancy out there and so many people closing.”

According to Caruso, so many retail stores – chains, independent, or otherwise – have fallen into the trap of all carrying the same inventory, which ultimately leaves customers to choose where they shop solely based on prices, since the stores pose the same, often bland, shopping experience. From there, stores plunge into sales to lure musicians in, but Caruso isn’t about deep discounting. The Guitar Center in nearby Boston still doesn’t pose a threat, Caruso says.

“I don’t overcharge, but I don’t think the name of the game is racing to the bottom, it’s not selling stuff just to get it off the shelves,” he explains. “I’ve had guitars that I’ve had for years – just waiting for the right person to come. A guitar is made to last a lifetime, why do I need to turn this? There’s a person out there for every guitar. These are electric guitars, they’re made to last for generations. You can’t buy people’s loyalty. I haven’t had a sale in – I don’t know, 20 years?”

Also helping out the store thrive is their small but expertly trained sales team, who Caruso says have helped with the store’s transition to selling electrics significantly.

“The business would not be what is was if it were just me, or me and my partner. We would fail miserably, mostly because we would these guitars’. They trust that we’re not carrying them because we have to or because we’re gonna make a boatload of money – the margins are pretty thin on a lot of these smaller builders.”

Much like Caruso’s gut feeling to try something new, he says that he sees the same whim in many of his customers who have also traditionally played only or mainly acoustic guitars.

“The cool thing is, all these people we’ve been selling acoustic guitars to, they almost acted on the same impulse I acted on,” he says. “Playing electric kind of makes you feel young again. If you want to tap into your youth and want to be cool – that’s kind of what was in my mind when I thought, ‘Let’s carry electrics.’” Caruso also notes that this feeling goes hand in hand with older folks looking to try something new, and looking for a quality piece to musically experiment with.

According to Caruso, so many retail stores – chains, independent, or otherwise – have fallen into the trap of all carrying the same inventory, which ultimately leaves customers to choose where they shop solely based on prices, since the stores pose the same, often bland, shopping experience. From there, stores plunge into sales to lure musicians in, but Caruso isn’t about deep discounting. The Guitar Center in nearby Boston still doesn’t pose a threat, Caruso says. 

“I don’t overcharge, but I don’t think the name of the game is racing to the bottom, it’s not selling stuff just to get it off the shelves,” he explains. “I’ve had guitars that I’ve had for years – just waiting for the right person to come. A guitar is made to last a lifetime, why do I need to turn this? There’s a person out there for every guitar. These are electric guitars, they’re made to last for generations. You can’t buy people’s loyalty. I haven’t had a sale in – I don’t know, 20 years?”

Also helping out the store thrive is their small but expertly trained sales team, who Caruso says have helped with the store’s transition to selling electrics significantly.

“The business would not be what is was if it were just me, or me and my partner. We would fail miserably, mostly because we would burn out, or because I don’t have the same expertise as the guys I hired,” Caruso adds. “I hired a couple of guys in the last two or three years whose specialty was electric guitars, which we never did. We were known as an acoustic shop, and I realized we needed to diversify to stay alive and stay relevant, so we needed to have more than just that, but I knew nothing about electric guitars. I played Strats, that’s all I knew, and my knowledge of electrics is pretty limited.”

Fused with the two co-owners’ expertise on acoustics and their team’s added knowledge on the electric guitar world, the store is not only bringing in new customers, but bringing acoustic players into a new phase of their career.

“The people who have been buying these great acoustic guitars have moved over quite easily to the electric world,” Caruso says. “It’s been really eye-opening and fun. It’s injected new life and blood into the business. They’re not two camps divided by a wall, they cross back and forth all the time.”

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