Corner Music’s New Corner Moving a music store in Nashville – or anywhere else – is a major undertaking

by Dan Daley • in
  • Features
  • January 2019
• Created: January 23, 2019

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Everyone hates moving, so when Nashville’s Corner Music decided it was time to move its thousands of SKUs from the literal corner location it’s occupied for the last 34 years, it was not a decision taken lightly. The city is in the midst of a real-estate gold rush, with values of commercial properties skyrocketing, as speculators, investors and developers toss cartloads of cash at slivers of land that will soon become condos, high-end retail, or office towers. When Corner Music owner Larry Garris moved his eight-year-old MI retail business to the 12 South neighborhood from a site slightly closer to downtown Nashville in 1984, the area was already in decline, like other U.S. cities during the “Miami Vice” crack cocaine era. He bought what had been a small grocery and later a pharmacy building dating back to the early 1920s, expanding over the next three decades, buying nearby businesses and eventually reaching 7,000 square feet covering guitars, amps, keyboards and pro audio, with a separate 3,000-square-foot building housing Fork’s Drum Closet, established by Garris’ former employee Gary Forkum on a piece of the nearly one-acre corner lot that Garris acquired and sold to Forkum five years later.

However, Garris looked below the surface in assessing the neighborhood. “I came and I stood outside the building for a week before I bought it,” he recalls. “The kids were wearing brand names like Jordache, the parents had good jobs and owned their homes. There was some crime, but the area was solid.”

Since then, the 12 South neighborhood has undergone a Disney-esque makeover. Hipster craft-beer bars, ethnic restaurants with third-world fare at first-world prices, and a bevy of new four- and five-story apartment buildings above them have transformed the mile-long street into the poster child of the new urban cityscape. The transformation ginned Garris’ $400,000-plus investment in 1984 into one worth the $7.2 million he accepted from developers earlier this year. It may seem like a windfall, but it’s one that came only after Garris and Forkum stuck out the area’s once-uncertain future and its long gentrification process. And since Garris and his two sons, Ben and Kirk, intended to keep the business going, they faced a location situation in which even upper-seven figures no longer seems like the princely sum it once was.

When it comes to retail space specifically, the numbers are also good – Nashville’s retail vacancy rate is one of the lowest in the country, according to a report by Marcus & Millichap – but that growth shows some signs of slowing: Nashville saw nearly 70 million square feet of retail close last year when just three big-box retailers, including Toys R Us, shuttered. But for MI retail, Nashville remains a fertile market, with its huge and constantly replenishing base of professional, semi-pro and serious-hobbyist musicians. Perhaps more importantly, many of those musicians much prefer local stores to chain outlets. “I’d definitely drive some miles out of my way to go to Corner or World Music,” said one well-respected guitarist at the recent Summer NAMM Show in Nashville, naming another well-established MI retail store on Nashville’s far west side.

Location, Location, Location

Garris was counting on that kind of loyalty as he surveyed Nashville’s denser center, which grows more expensive by the week, and its further reaches, like Madison and Antioch, once condescended to by residents who now look at those outlying neighborhoods as ways to outrun Nashville’s galloping residential rents and home prices. Obvious retail choices, such as the Gulch, once a warren of low-slung warehouses and manufacturing shops near downtown’s rail yards and now a Rodeo Drive of sorts with boutique shops, hotels and restaurants, purchased a location in one of the city’s fast-rising neighborhoods, the Wedgewood-Houston arts district, a former factory area taken over by galleries that themselves are watching nervously as boxlike apartments and condos sprout prodigiously around them.

Garris says he might have preferred that spot for his store, but points out that Forks had started looking earlier than he was able to. “I had to wait until the entire deal was absolutely done first,” he says.

Moving Day

The logistics of moving a music store start with taking what’s already in boxes, such as inventory products and parts, and moving them piecemeal from one location to the other, in the process gauging traffic patterns at different times of the day. “Traffic is a real consideration now here, something it wasn’t just a few years ago,” Garris concedes. The moves took place virtually every day in August and September, aiming at late-September/early-October opening. Arriving inventory was staged in a storage area behind the new store’s north wall, where 416 linear feet of racks will be the permanent storage. Garris says a kind of Murphy’ Law dogged  the process. “As soon we moved an instrument to Dickerson Road, someone came into 12 South and asked to buy it,” he says. “So we had to run back up and drive it back.” An AIMsi Tri-Tech integrated POS and retail management system helped keep track of SKUs and customer records.

After the concrete floor was cleaned and sealed, over 1,000 linear feet of 10-foot-high slat walls were installed to define product areas, including one for drums for the first time in almost 30 years for the store. Garris says manufacturers, including Fender, Yamaha, and Korg, have been extremely helpful in the moving process, offering advice and materials. He understands that some of that stems from self-interest, but also equal parts collegiality and simple southern helpfulness (all have offices in Nashville). “The tricky part is to not make it look like any other store,” he says, and given the wide-open space and concrete floors especially not a certain other store. “We want to keep the sense that we’re an organic part of the community,” he says.

Corner Music’s deep roots in the local music community also helped: Garris said any number of customers offered to assist with the move. (A thank-you concert in the new parking lot is planned for shortly after opening.)

The move gave Garris a chance to re-strategize his retail layout. Most MI retail stores that have been around as long as Corner Music has tend to have expanded incrementally and outwardly from their original core designs. New departments are add-ons, as was the case when Corner Music added a pro-audio division in 1995, allocating square footage within an existing fixed space. In the new location, Garris could envision it as he looked out over a vast empty floor. He intended to give his department heads free rein to lay out their individual fiefdoms, but Garris said the store would have an overarching flow, with visitors greeted in a “decompression” area, away from the main street’s bustle but before entering any sales areas and with couches and greeting counter. The flow then leans naturally to the right, with guitars the first stop, followed by basses, although those who know what they want can wend their way through the middle of a slat-wall maze to the desired department.

A set of offices in the back, next to a new on-site repair shop run by local luthier Jeff Marple, overlook the entire store. It all feels organic rather than calculated. “A music store,” says Garris, “is a cross between a warehouse and bar.”

The Coda

In less than six months, Corner Music uprooted itself from a four-decades’ long perch and relocated to an entirely new location, with most of the heavy lifting done in the weeks leading up to the October 1 re-opening day. The story of that move is intertwined with the narratives of how MI retail has evolved over the last 40 years, and how the city Corner Music lives in has changed.

Looking back, Garris said the entire process was grueling and at times rushed, as he sought to minimize the operating gap between the new location and the old one. His advice to those who might one day have to do this themselves is, simply, mark the boxes better. Small inventory items were packed into cartons for the move but the handwritten Sharpie notes on the box tops didn’t always accurately convey what was inside. “Guitar stuff” might seem to cover it when packing but when it gets unpacked, its vagueness is magnified by the push to get the walls stocked and the doors open. One thing he says they got right was writing the make, model and serial number of the guitars they moved on a piece of masking take on the outside of the cases the guitars were being moved in. Exact ones needed were able to be pulled out from scores stacked in the storeroom.

“We sold three high-end guitars in the first week, so that really helped,” he says. “Moving was really like everything else in life – it’s the small stuff that drives you crazy.”

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