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Newsletter 34, January 2015 - The Past, Present, and Future of Gruhn Guitars on our 45th Anniversary
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On January 2, 1970, Gruhn Guitars Inc. started life with an inventory of twenty-two instruments. Though what we consider to be vintage instruments now were nowhere near as old then, we were very aware these were classic-era pieces far superior to the new ones of the 1970s. Instruments which were available for only a few hundred dollars when I first opened the shop can now sell for tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars, but I recognized the true merits of the finest fretted instruments fully as much then as I do today and have always surrounded myself with employees, customers, and friends who feel the same way. I enjoy seeing, hearing, and playing the instruments that come through the shop every bit as much today as I did when I first started out. Great instruments are inspiring. These are not simply compliant, inanimate tools. Musical instruments have soul and personality and become a partner to the player often making suggestions a musician might not have thought of on their own.

Now heading into our 45th year, I can very truthfully say we have the best staff in the history of the company and I enjoy coming to work everyday at Gruhn Guitars more now than ever before. At Gruhn Guitars we never know who will be coming through the doors or what goodies they’ll be bringing along or taking home with them. Opening arriving packages is almost like having a birthday each day. We don’t have a daily routine here. It’s always an adventure. In a very real sense, we are running a rescue and adoption agency for guitars, banjos, mandolins, and other fretted instruments. If I had virtually unlimited funds, I would still collect and share fretted instruments with the world in the form of a museum rather than a retail store and would have a staff every bit as big for display, restoration, and educational outreach. That being said, while all of us at Gruhn Guitars make every effort to preserve and restore instruments, it’s always disappointing to see an instrument trapped behind glass never to be played. Instruments are meant to be played, heard, and enjoyed and we find joy in connecting instruments with the right players.

I have often said this business is essentially a hobby that got out of hand. When we first opened the doors in 1970 what I knew about running a business could have fit in a thimble with room to spare. My academic background is in zoology and animal behavior psychology and I have no formal training in either music or business administration. Gruhn Guitars was originally known as GTR, an abbreviation for guitar as well as the first-name initials of George Gruhn, Tut Taylor and Randy Wood. Tut and I were partners for the first nine months, after which he left to pursue business on his own and Randy was our repairman who stayed with me for almost three years. Our first building at 111 4th Ave N has since been demolished and was located in what is now the Ryman Alley. It measured 20 x 60 feet and our office equipment consisted of a telephone and an old-style mechanical adding machine. The roof leaked, the heat and air conditioning were at best temperamental, and we had termites which swarmed each spring. By 1976, we had far more instruments than space and decided to move our storefront to 410 Broadway. Our second location served us well for over 15 years, but we jumped at the chance to move three doors down to the corner of 4th and Broadway in 1993. We became a familiar landmark in our four-story 400 Broadway location and spent 20 years there. Most folks who visited never realized the parking lot behind that shop ran right up to the property line where we started out in 1970. While Gruhn Guitars grew tremendously over the years, the store never physically moved more than 100 feet until June 2013 when we relocated to our current home at 2120 8th Ave S. Our new location is in a larger building which has been totally customized to suit our needs. This space provides a far better setting for our customers and a more pleasant and effective work environment.

While many may be under the impression that Gruhn Guitars has been uniformly successful from day one, it has in fact been a circuitous, bumpy and often traumatic ride through the years. We would not have survived without loyal customers and a dedicated staff. I feel very fortunate to be in a business which has permitted me to pursue my dreams. Many are of the opinion that most new businesses fail within the first few years because they are under capitalized which I have never felt to be true. I view Gruhn Guitars and any other successful business very much like a biological organism. In order to survive, all necessary systems must be represented in good working order and in the proper proportion. Every human and animal has a body much larger than its head. Political cartoons tend to be the opposite with an enormous head on a tiny body and it’s likely that a business constructed like a political cartoon would not make it for very long.

In each of the four locations Gruhn Guitars has occupied over the past 45 years the showroom has never been more than one-third of the total space used by the business. What makes us so special and different from most other music stores is what happens elsewhere in the main body of the business. The repair shop, for example, has always been fully as big or bigger than the showroom. Equally important is the fact that Gruhn Guitars is not and has never been a one-man operation. This business is very dependent on the efforts of our entire team. While I enjoy being involved in many aspects of this business and take pride in being extremely good at what I personally do each day, I don’t claim to be able to perform all the tasks required to keep everything running smoothly and have no delusion that I could run this place without my staff. I believe the road was a bit bumpy in the past because it took me a long time to learn how to best organize the business and to find the right person for each of the roles required. I make every effort to hire and retain people who can do their particular job better than I could and who truly enjoy what they do.

While we have come a long way since 1970, the basic foundation of our business principles remains unchanged. Knowledge, integrity, and service are remarkably low-tech. While we now update our website daily and provide color photos of every item in our inventory, the ability to properly identify, describe, and appraise these instruments does not come out of a computer. Although we have power equipment in our repair shop, the vast bulk of the work is done by hand using techniques which would have been familiar to craftsmen a century ago. Many on our staff have been with the company for 5, 10, and even 20+ years. Though now heading into our 45th year, all of us at Gruhn Guitars continue to gain knowledge and experience with each passing day. 45 years is a major milestone, but it certainly isn’t anywhere close to the end of the road. We look forward to serving you for many years in the future.

George Gruhn