Ed Byrne (left) and employee Ryan Burke.

Ed Byrne (left) and employee Ryan Burke.

The Music Workshop
379 S. Broadway
Salem NH 03079
Phone: (603) 893-1544
Mon – Thurs: 10am – 9pm
Fri: 10am – 6pm
Sat: 10am – 5pm
Sun: 11am – 4pm
Sheila Byrne, Vice President and Treasurer

In 1977, Sheila Byrne and her future husband, Ed, both having trouble finding jobs they loved in the midst of a recession, decided to open a music teaching studio in Salem NH. Fast-forward 38 years and not only is The Music Workshop a successful full-service music store, but it’s also the last music store in town.

“I am not sure that I can pat myself on the back for being the last music store standing, but I believe that our business philosophy has had an influence on our longevity,” said Byrne. “Customer service has always been important. We are not salespeople; we see ourselves as problem solvers and as partners to our customers.”

Byrne and her husband have been playing the role of problem solvers since day one. “Although we expected guitar, keyboard and drum sales to rule, our very first customer of the day was a woman looking to have her violin bow re-haired,” recalled Byrne, who had to find someone to handle the request. “So began our journey, going with the flow and making it up as we went along.”

At the beginning, Byrne and her husband were The Music Workshop’s only employees. Both held bachelor’s degrees in English, and Ed was a guitar teacher who played in local bands on the side. Although their original goal was only to offer lessons, “one of the best decisions we made was consulting with a wise accountant who counseled us not only to focus on the retail aspect, but also to lease a space twice the size of what we had initially considered,” Byrne recalled. “He was correct. Within the year, the retail income and profit far exceeded what the lesson portion of the business was producing.”

One of the reasons The Music Workshop’s retail component was so successful, despite competing, at the time, with four music stores in a town with a population of 25,000, was its location. “Since the store was next to Massachusetts, but in a New Hampshire town where there was no sales tax, the road we were on was a major shopping mecca for people coming over the border to avoid paying sales tax on big-ticket items,” Byrne said.

The store moved locations three times over the years, taking on more space to accommodate its needs, as the size and scope of the business continued to exceed Byrne’s initial expectations. Today, Byrne works at the store alongside four part-time staff members and eight teachers. The store offers both private lessons and Rock Shops, the latter putting students together in a band for an eight-week session. At the end of the program, the students put on a show at a local venue, performing five or six songs for family and friends. Byrne also posts videos of the shows on the store’s YouTube channel (msr.io/21MKdVf), and, she noted, “The exposure has helped to grow the lesson program.”

The Music Workshop might be the only game in town these days, but that doesn’t mean Byrne can rest on her laurels. For all her hard work to build awareness of the store and to perfect the customer experience, she still has to contend with a variety of challenges; they include dealing with customers who buy their products on the Internet, but who still occasionally require the knowledge and assistance of a real person.

“A gentleman walked in with a bass drum pedal that he did not understand how to adjust, and it had not been purchased at my store,” Byrne explained. “I adjusted it and offered an explanation.” She continued, “Perhaps it will pay off down the road. But, although he walked into my store to ask the question, I do not recall him walking in to inquire about buying.”

She added, “It has been challenging to walk that fine line between being a showroom with no sale at the end of the day and just selling the guy the right cable for the product he bought on the Internet, but isn’t sure how to hook up.”

Another change Byrne has seen is the availability and the acceptance of used merchandise. “Most people seem to prefer purchasing used items, even as gifts, and it has never been easier to track and find a used item—not just locally, but also nationally and internationally,” she said. “We truly live in a global economy.”

Looking ahead to the future, Byrne said her goal is to maintain profitability in the face of higher freight costs and large buy-ins from some manufacturers. “While I have no problem with supporting a manufacturer’s line by investing a reasonable amount of inventory dollars, I feel that I usually have an idea what is going to sell well in my area,” she noted.

To help her store weather such challenges, Byrne has become a member of the Independent Music Store Owners (iMSO) group, a decision she calls one of the smartest things she’s done in her career. “It has been helpful to communicate with fellow dealers through the iMSO forums, trading ideas and information with both the ‘old timers’ and the ‘newbies,’” she said. “We are all facing challenges, and to have a place where we can discuss the issues we are struggling with—and to offer suggestions, advice and insights—helps make us feel a little less alone out there.”

Although Byrne doesn’t see a tremendous amount of growth in the future, and she concedes that she is ready to begin looking at a succession plan, she nevertheless feels that “there are still opportunities out there for the small music retailer.” Byrne added, “That’s especially true if you can stay focused on your strengths and on your customer service.”

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