When Gary Kramer opened The Guitar Exchange in 1998, he already had years of experience under his belt. Not only was he a veteran of the south Florida MI scene, but he had also been buying, selling and trading guitars since he was 16 years old living in New York City. Armed with that experience, he decided to go out on his own, and as the store’s sole employee, save for two guitar teachers, Kramer has put his personal stamp on every aspect of the business. Whether it’s buying, selling and trading instruments, doing repairs, or even cleaning the bathrooms, it’s Kramer who is in charge. And from what he can tell, “My crazy way seems to be working.”
That so-called crazy way of doing things includes keeping the shop purposely small. The Guitar Exchange measures only 1,423 square feet, which includes three teaching rooms, the showroom, a waiting area, the repair area and a warehouse that is located down the stairs behind the lesson room. “I had the opportunity more than once to expand into the store on either side of us,” explained Kramer, “but I didn’t because keeping it small has its positives. As long as I stay in business, I will have a small shop.”
Customers walking into The Guitar Exchange are greeted with a display of cool autographed guitars featuring signatures from the likes Joe Satriani, Leslie West, Steve Morse and Yngwie Malmsteen, as well as a rubber chicken hanging right above the guitar straps. “I had an extra and just decided to hang it up,” said Kramer. “You can see it when you walk in. Lots of people like that.”
They are also greeted by a staggering display of gear, both new and used. “They don’t expect a small store to have the things we have,” said Kramer, who makes a point of carrying brands you don’t often see in the big shops, such as Zematis, Laney and Crafter. Besides, Kramer said, he’s been burned one too many times before by some of the bigger names in the business.
“I had carried some bigger brands over the years, but I got rid of them when I found they had unfair requirements and expected unreasonable buy-ins. The big companies sometimes just don’t work well with the small guys,” Kramer said, adding that Yamaha and Marshall are exceptions.
Customers will also not see any gear from brands that sell direct to consumers because, as Kramer notes, “I don’t need to be competing with them, too. I try to stick with companies that work for me,” he continued, “and by doing that, this store can run as long as I want.”
Kramer looks at every guitar in his shop as if it is his own. He prides himself on carrying high-quality merchandise that is clean and not shopworn. “I carry inexpensive things, but not cheap things. I figure it takes as long to sell an $80 guitar as it does a $3,000 one, so I want to sell all good-quality products,” he said. “And every guitar on my wall has a sign that says, ‘Please ask before handling.’ I need to protect my instruments.”
Being so invested in the gear and the shop is rewarding for Kramer, but he has found that customer service in a small store can sometimes be challenging, especially when you’re the only one on the floor.
“If a customer doesn’t like me, I have no one to pass them on to. And it’s the same in reverse,” he said. “If there’s a customer I’m just not connecting with, there’s no one else here and I have to deal with that.”
Kramer is happy to help guide his customers through the inventory, showing them how to use the settings on their amp of choice or how to string their guitar. He will set up any instrument before it leaves the shop and offers free neck adjustments for life. And he’ll try to show his customers why they should invest in a guitar from his shop instead of buying online to save a few bucks.
“People buy disposable instruments, and it costs so much to fix them that I try to educate them that they should just spend the money on a quality item,” said Kramer. “I can do what Amazon cannot, which is customer service. We match any price, so it costs the same to get more here. But some people just don’t want to leave the house.”
Kramer laments that cellphones and the internet have changed the music retail business, leading many to walk in on their phones unwilling to engage. For those who do look up from their screens, Kramer is proud to offer a unique shopping experience that has kept them coming back for the past 20 years.
“You can’t please everyone, so I do what works for me and my core customer base. It’s a wonderful thing when people like my store and buy from here and recommend it to their friends,” he said, “or when I sell a kid their first guitar and, years later, I see them and they give me a hug and thank me, or they bring in their own son or daughter.”
Kramer also got the opportunity to connect with customers both old and new this past summer in the wake of Hurricane Irma, which caused a small leak between two guitars in the store and led to almost two weeks of cancelled lessons, but otherwise left the store unscathed.
“Our electricity went out on Saturday night and didn’t come back until Tuesday. Sam Ash and Guitar Center were both without electricity for even longer, so we had some new customers finding our store location,” Kramer recalled. “They enjoyed the different type of sales experience we offer and are now Guitar Exchange regulars. Always a silver lining.”
Coming up on The Guitar Exchange’s 20th anniversary, Kramer is proud of the job he and his staff have done serving the local community. “A lot of stores have closed in this area, which is kind of sad, but we are still here.” He concluded, “If the store were to close, it would not be going out of business but rather due to my retirement, which is a great position to be in. Every day is fun but challenging. Overall, I wouldn’t change it.”