It is perhaps not surprising, given his undergraduate work in animal behavior studies and graduate work in both that and zoology, that George Gruhn, Owner of Gruhn Guitars in Nashville TN, analogizes his widely respected vintage, used and new guitar business to a biological organism. “The organ systems all have to be present and doing their jobs for the organism to survive,” he explained. “And they have to be running not only efficiently, but also in the correct proportion to each other so they can work in harmony.” He added of his business, “We have the various functions that are required to sustain life.” And true to the Darwinian paradigm, the story of Gruhn Guitars, which is celebrating 45 years this month, is one of adaptation to changing environments, both economic and musical.

From its earliest days in January 1970 when it began life as GTR, Inc., and through three different buildings, Gruhn Guitars had always been situated in the lower Broadway downtown area of Nashville. “Broadway had been a prime location for a business like mine for many years,” Gruhn remarked. “If you wanted to be someplace that would service not only all of Nashville but also every visitor who came to the city, lower Broadway was the place.” As is the case over time with any environment, though, the climate eventually changed. An increasing number of honky tonks gained a foothold, almost all of them boasting a signature open-air style with windows that roll up like a garage door.

“One of the last straws for us,” Gruhn began, “was a new honky tonk called Honky Tonk Central, which opened right across the street. They have three open floors, and each floor has its own band. Each band has electric guitar, electric bass, drums and vocals amplified louder than Janis Joplin ever was. Each band is playing a different tune, in a different key, at a different tempo.” He added, “From across the street, you got all three at once…plus Margaritaville and a half-dozen others within one block.”

The noise itself caused substantial stress; exacerbating the situation were the crowds of up to 500 or even 1,000 tourists popping into Gruhn’s 13,000-square-foot, four-floor storefront at 400 Broadway, roughly 95 percent of whom had no interest in his inventory of medium-grade and high-end guitars. “It’s physically impossible for the sales staff to provide good service if they’re spending the vast majority of their time on crowd control and damage prevention,” Gruhn stated, noting that, eventually, the store was going through as many as 10 rolls of toilet paper a day from the tourist traffic. “It was to the point where employees were suffering from traumatic stress disorder by midday,” he added. Moving was no longer a choice but, rather, a necessity.

It might be surprising to some that George Gruhn, who is 69 years old, chose two years ago to undertake so ambitious a plan at an age when, for many, retirement is foremost on their minds. “How many people at age 67 decide to move, sell their building, buy a different building, renovate it, expand and go on to another level?” he asked rhetorically, noting that property values in downtown Nashville are such that he could have chosen to rent out the building and never work another day in his life. That’s not, however, in the nature of a man who describes his internationally known business as a “hobby that got out of hand,” nor of a businessman who takes obvious pride in the fact that Gruhn Guitars has overcome multifarious challenges over the last four and a half decades. To Gruhn, the transformation in character of lower Broadway was but another hurdle to clear.

Being in business since the Nixon administration, Gruhn has seen pretty much everything the economy and the music products industry can throw at someone. During a lengthy reminiscence on the last 45 years, he shared with this writer stories about the near-collapse of the business in the mid-’70s due to a severe recession; his extensive involvement in exporting in the early days, such that, by 1979, as much as 40 percent of Gruhn Guitars’ business was through exports; his near-bankruptcy during the early Reagan years when the prime rate was increased dramatically and interest rates and the value of the U.S. dollar were extraordinarily high; and the period in the mid-’80s when American manufacturers were having a difficult time and the number of guitars being produced dropped precipitously but when, simultaneously, he began getting phone calls from 40-somethings who were going through their midlife crises and wanted items like vintage guitars to try to recapture their lost youth.

One of Gruhn’s most fascinating anecdotes centered on the value bubble that grew from mid-2002 through mid-late 2006, during which time the value of some items literally went up tenfold and then crashed in typical bubble fashion. One example he provided was a 1956 gold top Gibson Les Paul model with P-90 pickups, stop tailpiece and tune-o-matic bridge. In early 2002, it started at a value of about $7,500 and, by late 2006, it had risen to as much as $85,000. (Although, it should be noted, after about $35,000, the only buyers were speculators hoping to cash in when the item went even higher.)

Instrument prices stabilized when prices crashed and settled back to what people who actually intended to keep one were willing to pay. Such are the tumultuous waters that businesspeople have had to navigate over the last four or five decades.

Upon coming to the realization that lower Broadway had become toxic to businesses like his, Gruhn set himself to finding just the right new home, eventually settling on the up-and-coming 8th Ave. S. corridor. The building, located at 2120 8th Ave. S., offers 18,000 square feet across three floors and its own parking lot with 47 spaces. Gruhn invested close to $1.5 million in renovations to ensure the facility had a floor plan conducive to success. “Through all four buildings I’ve ever had, one thing that’s always been true is that the showroom has never been the majority of our floor space,” he emphasized. “I’ve always had a repair shop as big as, or bigger than, the showroom.”

Indeed, at present, Gruhn has more employees assigned to the repair shop than to the sales floor.

That prioritization is of a piece with Gruhn Guitars’ focus on, and Gruhn’s own unquestioned expertise in, used and vintage fretted instruments. “What sets Gruhn Guitars apart from the vast majority of our competition is that we’re not primarily a new instrument dealer,” he commented. “Although we have a very extensive selection of new Martin, Taylor and Collings instruments, we could not survive under our current business model on new instruments alone, but we could survive on nothing but used and vintage instruments.” Every used or vintage piece he buys is inspected by the repair department. “Whatever work it needs,” he began, “whether it’s simple setup work or even major restoration, is what we do. That adds value.” It’s one reason why Gruhn Guitars is a destination store: one that draws customers from around the corner…and around the world.

And what can those customers expect when they walk through the doors? The first thing they might notice is how expansive the sales floor is relative to the previous Broadway digs. “In my old shop, there was only about 2,500 square feet of actual display space that the public would see,” Gruhn remarked. On 8th Ave. S., though, the first floor alone is a spacious 6,000 square feet. “And now,” he continued, “we have tryout rooms so people can sit down, try an instrument and hear its sound much better.” They’ll also encounter a skilled sales staff that’s not only eager to help, but also—and of particular importance when selling highly valued used and vintage guitars—knowledgeable about those instruments.

“Accuracy of representation is a major problem in this industry, although it’s not unique to it,” Gruhn stated, citing the artwork market and how, for every genuine piece, there are hundreds if not thousands of forgeries. “The integrity of the dealer matters enormously,” he stressed. On that count, too, Gruhn Guitars distinguishes itself. “I’ve always had a reputation for having good-quality inventory and very fine quality repair service, but also for providing accurate service and accurate representation of instruments,” he said. That integrity, along with Gruhn Guitars’ well-adapted design, helps to explain the business’ longevity and its enviable reputation.

Happy in his new home and ready to approach Gruhn Guitars’ 50th year in business at the turn of the decade, George Gruhn celebrates the shop’s history while preparing for the challenges of the future, be they disruptive economic events or issues centered on CITES, the Lacey Act, and other conservation- and sustainability-focused regulations. Speaking of the latter, he said with understandable frustration, “I can’t retroactively change the materials used in vintage guitars!” Such challenges underscore the point that, to remain a successful dealer of music products, there’s no time for resting on one’s laurels.

But it’s not in the DNA of Gruhn and his management team, which includes General Manager Eric Newell and Operations Manager Sarah Jones, to grow complacent. Theirs is a store fueled by passion: for instruments, for music and for serving the customers who rely on them. And that fact, perhaps more so even than Gruhn Guitars’ other design elements and adaptations, is why this “hobby that got out of hand” continues to thrive.

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