Plucky Music Man

Savvy and persistence with a sprinkle of enthusiasm

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

guitar_sam_0816Kevin Crossett’s Montpelier music store, GuitarSam, has been a downtown destination for music lovers since 1981, when it opened as Play It Again Sam.

On March 3, 1981, when a 25-year-old Kevin Crossett opened his musical instrument shop, Play It Again Sam, in 360 square feet on Montpelier’s Main Street, he wasn’t sure anybody would come. “I got all these kind of concerned looks, a lot of pats on the shoulders, people saying, ‘Well I hope it works out,” he says.

He was fortunate, he adds, to be able to land some very well-known major lines such as Guild, a U.S. maker of acoustic and electric guitars and amplifiers, and Polytone amplifiers. “On that first day of business, I opened the door, turned the lights on, and lo and behold, people came in and bought things. On that first day, I did $100.32. I thought, ‘Wow! This is going to work!’”

Today, thirty-five years, a few bumps, a name change to GuitarSam, and four moves later — though still on Main Street — Crossett continues to relish every minute.

He fell into retail “by default,” he says, “by having done it over a number of years, in different products and categories.” A born and bred Vermonter, he grew up in Barre, where his dad was an auto mechanic who ran his own business, and his mom was a bookkeeper.

Crossett had an early interest in music, starting in fourth grade playing trumpet in the school lesson system. He picked up the guitar around age 12, fascinated, he says, “as everybody was in the mid-’60s.” He taught himself to play and by age 15, was playing in “kid bands” at high schools and parties.

After graduating from Spaulding High in 1973 at age 17, he gave some thought to college, but confesses he didn’t have his life figured out very well at the time. “I kept ending up in retail jobs, some of them music related and some not.”

In later years, thinking he wanted the credibility of a degree, he would take some online courses, an Assessment of Prior Learning course, and a number of College Level Examination Program exams, netting 130 credits. He eventually decided he didn’t need to finish.

Crossett chose Montpelier for his store because Burlington at the time had six or seven such shops, and he had observed that Montpelier had a large population of people who worked there but lived elsewhere.

That first location was “a tiny, tiny spot, but it was perfect,” says Crossett. He named the business Play It Again Sam because, at the time, “Montpelier was filled with all of these tiny, funky, boutiquey kinds of business that had names that didn’t say anything. You had to go look in their windows to see what they sold.”

He operated from that tiny space six days a week for four years. A couple of people would occasionally fill in if he needed a day off, which happened four or five days a year. Crossett was feeling growing pains, wanting to do more but without the space to accommodate it. When a 760-square-foot space opened up across the street at the beginning of 1986, he jumped at the chance. He found a couple of part-time employees and was able to take the occasional day off. “Life was good,” he says.

His new location was half of a 1,500-square-foot space divided by a wall down the middle. After two years, when the tenant on the other side left, the wall came down and he took over the entire area. “I got into larger equipment, drum sets, PA systems, more and more guitars,” he says. “It allowed us to have more diverse inventory and more floor space.”

Things flowed along until 1992, when tragedy in the form of a massive flood struck the city. “You know?” he says. “What I didn’t realize until then was that the commerce section of downtown Montpelier is like the cereal bowl of Montpelier.

“Back where the Grand Union was, you could stand on dry ground on the sidewalk, but when you walked into town, at the intersection of Main and State streets you were hip high in water.”

Crossett had come into town after learning that morning that there was a “water issue.” “Understatement.” he deadpans.

He and a friend — another shopkeeper — walked toward the intersection, passing Crossett’s store where drums and guitars were floating. Ignoring shouts of ‘Go back!’ from state police who were herding people out of the area, they continued to State Street, hoping to check on his friend’s store. “But at the corner it was like a current aimed at the center of town, and it had debris in it — large items like car tires, chairs, anything that was outside that could be lifted in water and sent along in the current.”

Only two businesses had flood insurance, required by their SBA loans, says Crossett. “You buy insurance and think, ‘Well, I’m covered if anything happens.’ It was quite a lesson in catastrophic reaction.”

A bright spot was the tremendous outpouring of volunteer support all over downtown — 30 people that first day. The numbers dwindled a bit, but volunteers continued right to the end.

Crossett credits the advent of the Internet with the shop’s name change to GuitarSam. In 1998, fascinated by what was happening online, he created a website for the store. He was unable to have the URL — it was taken by a used stereo store in Cleveland — “so for five years, we branded ourselves as Play It Again Sam on Main Street and GuitarSam on the Internet.

In 2003, the end of those five years, the building that housed the shop burned, “and changed everything we had going on without our permission,” Crossett says. He found a spot in Montpelier’s City Center building, a bit smaller, but his best opportunity to reopen as quickly as possible, which was a remarkable 90 days after the fire. “We had incredible emotional support that continued to feed the spirit.”

By then, Play It Again Sam had been getting calls from all over the country from people thinking they were connecting to Play It Again Sports — sometimes four or five calls a day. Annoyed, and knowing that the name didn’t really identify the business, Crossett decided to drop it. “We became GuitarSam both on Main Street and on the Internet.”

Six and a half years later, in the throes of the Great Recession, the opportunity to move into his current space arose. “The move was not calculated by common sense,” he admits. “The move was driven by opportunity. A fabulous space like we’re in now only opens once every 10 years or more in downtown Montpelier.”

That was also the year that drum teacher and musician Stuart Paton of Burlington Taiko began selling his hand drums on consignment at GuitarSam. “I’ve been selling in five different music stores over the years, and GuitarSam has sold the largest number of my consignment drums,” Paton says. “He’s been very open to collaborations, and very early on he set me up in his display window during Montpelier Art Walk, so at the top and bottom of the hour I was doing West African and Cuban drumming workshops.”

Crossett has two employees these days, down from a high of five or six. He works five days one week and four the next. The shop opens at 10 six days a week and at 11 on Sundays. He’s usually at work by 8:30 or 9 for chores such as bookkeeping.

Once the store opens, he wears many hats: speaking with sales reps on the phone, dealing with customers in the shop — his favorite thing, he says. Then problem-solving, updating the website, advertising, and communications in general. Everybody on staff does instrument repairs, although some major repairs are subcontracted out.

“Kevin probably buys from me three or four or five different lines,” says Dave Fuchs. An independent manufacturers sales rep, Fuchs started selling instruments to Crossett in 2008 during the City Center days, but they’ve known each other since sometime in the 1980s when Fuchs was a fellow music store owner. “He’s a good guy.”

Crossett plays a lot of music, with friends or at home, where he lives with his wife, Paula, a nurse whom he has known since high school. They were married in 2002, a second marriage for both. He also enjoys bicycling and walking local parks with his dog, Gypsy.

But his bliss is building custom ukuleles, something he took up in 2004 — “a ricochet from the fire,” he says. “After the first holiday season, which had gone very well, things wrapped around into January and February, when busy retailers try to figure out what to do with themselves when you’ve still got this fire going through you but don’t know where to put it. I started playing the ukulele. Because of our website presence, I had noticed for a few years that there was a ukulele resurgence across the country. It hadn’t happened here yet, but we were shipping them across the country.”

One night he took one home, started playing Beatles songs, and became entranced by it. He began to notice online MP3 postings of standard songs and a lot of highly technical ukulele playing. He decided to build an electric ukulele.

It was a solid-body ukulele with a pickup on it you could play through an amplifier. He built a few more, and people started asking to buy them. And when a high-end guitar builder friend challenged him to build “a real acoustic ukulele,” Crossett took the challenge. To date he’s built over 140 of them.

One of his best known customers is Greg Hawkes, the keyboard player in the band The Cars, whom he met one night at the iconic Johnny D’s in Somerville, Mass. Crossett knew Hawkes was scheduled to play and was pondering how he could introduce himself.

“I was leaning against the bar. Somebody came over and said, ‘You’re Kevin, the ukulele builder. I’m Greg Hawkes. I play the ukulele, and I would like to order one.’” •