Fine-Tuned

by Bill Simmon

A vintage instrument dealer/acupuncturist and a graduate of a French cooking school make entrepreneurial music together

John Creech and Steve GentileJohn Creech (left) and Steve Gentile bought their two Burlington musical instrument shops from their former boss, Bob Yellin. Burlington Guitar & Amp and Vermont Folk Instruments are right around the corner from one another and both offer stringed instruments, but their clientele and cultures are worlds apart.

In the last decade or two, downtown Burlington has seen some dramatic changes. Local businesses have given way to a variety of chain stores. Gone are the locally owned booksellers and camera shops. There isn’t even a hardware store downtown anymore. While the retail landscape of the city changes, two holdouts, anchored near the intersection of Church and Main streets, keep the flame of locally owned retail shops burning.

Burlington Guitar & Amp on Main Street and Vermont Folk Instruments on Church Street are owned and operated by a pair of music aficionados cum businessmen. Steve Gentile and John Creech own the musical instrument shops, having purchased them from their former boss, Bob Yellin.

They took ownership of Burlington Guitar & Amp in 2004 and bought Vermont Folk Instruments in 2006. Before becoming business owners, Gentile and Creech had managed the Main Street operation (then called Calliope Music) since 1996, when the two men were hired just a few months apart.

The two stores are just around the corner from each other, and both offer stringed instruments (primarily guitars), but their clientele and cultures are worlds apart. “The stores are night and day,” says Gentile, who adds that regular customers of one store might never set foot in the other.

Creech adds that the sales reflect the distinct niches the stores serve. “When this store would zig, that store would zag,” he says. “This store could be having a terrible day and that one would be smoking, or vice versa.”

As the name suggests, Vermont Folk Instruments focuses on acoustic instruments. Manager Doug Pomeroy says the Church Street store attracts a lot of impulse buyers because of the pedestrian mall traffic, much of which is made up of tourists. “On weekdays I ask everyone who comes in, ‘Where are you from?’” says Pomeroy, who estimates that 50 percent of the store’s summer traffic comprises spontaneous walk-ins. “I know all of the locals are at work or in school,” he says.

“Definitely, the heyday of that store follows the nice weather in Vermont — late June to late October,” says Creech. “Or a lot of times in winter, when there might be a bad day on the slopes.”

By contrast, Burlington Guitar & Amp offers electric and acoustic guitars and basses, as well as amplifiers and a variety of related accessories. Repairs and servicing are also handled in the Main Street shop, courtesy of Randy Crosby, who works independently but closely with Gentile and Creech. “We’re connected at the hip,” says Gentile, who adds that Crosby has been associated with the shop since the Calliope days.

Doug PomeroyDoug Pomeroy manages Vermont Folk Instruments on Church Street. The shop focuses on acoustic instruments of all kinds.

In addition to Gentile, Creech, Pomeroy and Crosby, the stores share a staff of five part-time employees. In lieu of large salaries, Gentile and Creech say they offer their staff — who are all working musicians, several of whom have degrees in music or performance — discounts on gear and use of the store after-hours for teaching gigs. They also offer the younger staff the benefit of their many years of musical experience.

Neither Gentile nor Creech had a history of entrepreneurship before taking over the music shops. A native of Massachusetts, Gentile had been dealing in vintage instruments in the Boston area before graduating from an acupuncture college and moving north to more rural Vermont. Soon after arriving, he began brokering vintage guitar sales for Yellin at Calliope and was eventually recruited to join the staff there full time.

Aside from his passion for music, Creech’s background was in food. He attended a French cooking school in Maryland and spent time in the restaurant business before coming north in the early 1990s to visit a friend in the Adirondacks. He and his friend came to Burlington — Creech’s first time here.

“I was separated from my wife,” he says, “but wasn’t thinking about relocating. We looked in a newspaper, casually, at the want ads, and saw this ad that said Origanum was looking for a food manager. My friend said, ‘Wow! This is just for you.’”

Origanum was a popular natural foods store that was looking to expand, and Creech was hired. “First thing you know, boom, boom, boom, I’m on a train coming for an interview; and the next thing, driving in my car with my belongings, moving to Vermont.” He managed the Origanum deli from 1993 to 1996. It was there, “over the steam table,” that he met Emily Laird, an artist. “She asked me for tea, and next thing you knew, we were like an old couple standing brushing our teeth,” Creech says. “We’re now married 14 years, with kids.” Laird is a teacher at the Waldorf High School in Charlotte.

DrumsBurlington Guitar and Amp offers electric and acoustic guitars and basses, as well as amplifiers and a variety of related accessories and other instruments, such as these drums.

In 1996, Creech was hired by Yellin at Calliope Music. That’s when he met Gentile, who had joined the staff a few months before. The two bonded quickly over their mutual love of the guitar. “There was this real love for the guitar as an instrument,” he says, “and also the whole body of work around the guitar, from blues to rock-n-roll to jazz.”

The pair’s love of the instrument is contagious. Dennis Willmott, an architectural designer-turned-guitar player in the band Left Eye Jump,  says that meeting Gentile and Creech was “the most valuable thing that has happened to me as a musician.” Gentile, in particular, has influenced him greatly, he says, and credits Creech’s outstanding musicianship with helping expand his musical repertoire. “Over the years I’ve purchased instruments, amps, tubes, strings, cords, straps, mics — everything from them,” he says.

“The guitar was the instrument of outlaws and rebels,” says Creech, trying to articulate the lure of the popular instrument. Gentile adds that for people of a certain age, the guitar holds a special mystique.

“If you were a guy that grew up in the ‘50s and ‘60s, you gravitated to either motorcycles, muscle cars, or guitars,” he says.

Gentile and Creech say that today’s younger crop of guitar players lives in a world different from the one they grew up in. Despite the popularity of the video game called “Guitar Hero,” they say, today’s youths don’t have any real-life guitar heroes to look up to. The music industry has changed in such a way that guitar players aren’t revered as they once were. As a result, young, would-be rock stars are left emulating the ghosts of guitar past. “When young kids come in and I hear them in lessons,” says Gentile, “they’re learning music that was done 30, 40 years ago.”

Creech nods in agreement. “You hear a lot of kids coming in and they want to learn Hendrix and Clapton,” he says.

The biggest change in the guitar retail business, however, has been the Internet. Gentile and Creech are frank about the challenges that online shopping has thrown at them. “We’re a brick-and-mortar type of store,” says Gentile, who understands the lure of tax-free, right-to-your-door shopping. But purchasing musical instruments online can have its pitfalls. “I can’t tell you how many times we’ve had somebody come in with a guitar or a banjo that is just a complete wreck,” says Creech. “They come in and say, ‘I got this on the Internet; can you help me with it?’”

Gentile hopes the small, locally owned music stores don’t suffer the same fate as some other Burlington retail businesses. “Burlington doesn’t have any hi-fi shops anymore,” he says. “I can remember as many as five in this local area and they’re all gone.”

Gentile describes the growth of the Internet as both a blessing and a curse. “We have to use it ourselves in order to survive,” he says, but points out that the playing ground is no longer level.

“Brick-and-mortar music shops were built on territorial exclusivity,” he explains. One business in an area would offer a set of brands and another business in the same area would offer different brands because the shops would cut exclusive deals with the instrument manufacturers. Gentile says that with Internet sales, territorial deals have become meaningless.

Gentile acknowledges that stores like theirs aren’t proliferating much anymore. “Sometimes it feels like we’re the Alamo,” he says.

Both hope that the service and knowledge they bring to guitar sales will help them survive in the community. In the meantime, they stress that they’re not in the business to get rich. “We’re not coming at this from a traditional business model angle,” says Creech. “This is something that we love to do,” he says. “That’s the five-year plan.” •