The story of Houston’s Texas Music Emporium is an unlikely one. An auto mechanic by trade, but a guitar player at heart, the store’s president, Jim Cappiello, opened his very own MI store on a whim, learning the ropes and breaking the rules along the way. With a bit of skill and a whole lot of luck, Cappiello was able to turn that impulse into a multimillion-dollar business that’s still going strong after 35 years. “I had no business opening a store,” said Cappiello, who had been working as an auto mechanic since the age of 19. “Besides running the Chevy Olds dealership service department and learning the value of a dollar from my parents, I had no business experience. But I just didn’t see myself doing mechanic work for the rest of my life, so I quit.”

Cappiello noticed a strip shopping center that was offering one year of free rent and jumped at the opportunity, opening the Texas Music Emporium in 1982 with $10,000 borrowed from his parents and sister. “There was no thought about it. I just did it,” Cappiello said. “I always loved music and loved playing the guitar. Plus, music stores were a cool place to be. I was able to turn my passion into my job.”

The store was stocked with Cappiello’s personal gear — 17 guitars, a PA system and one keyboard. “Thank God they didn’t all sell,” he said. “Some of those pieces were irreplaceable.”

The store worked hard to establish credit at the start, but companies like C. Bruno and Sons and St. Louis Music took an early chance on Cappiello, with Washburn Guitars and others following soon after. “I called what we did at the time Rebel Retail because we were brave to be doing this with nothing,” said Cappiello. “I put on a good poker face.”

After the free rent ran out, and several break-ins had taken place, Cappiello moved his store to a new location on Richey Road that gave him six more free months of rent. It was with this location that the store was able to double in size and do its first million dollars in sales. “The Richey Road store was a crazy vibe. When you walked into the store, you were greeted by a 50-foot wall of Marshall stacks, Gibson Les Pauls, SGs and U.S.A. Fender Strats. It was something to see,” he said. “It was so disorganized it was funny, but we also knew where everything was.”

Cappiello called Texas Music Emporium the internet retailer of its day, back before online retailing even existed, because, “We were stuffed with gear and we were selling cheap, literally selling gear at cost plus beer money. Our competition hated us,” he recalled. “We did that formula for one year out of desperation. Back then, we spent stupid amounts of money on TV and radio ads, but it tripled our business and people dug it. We put out some pretty bizarre stuff, and it put smiles on people’s faces. We did a lot of business but didn’t make much profit.”

Then Guitar Center came to town, renting space on the same side of the street where the Texas Music Emporium had been for 10 years. For its grand opening, Cappiello staged all sorts of stunts to get customers’ attention, ranging from bands and go-go dancers performing in the parking lot to driving around in a truck with a PA system in the bed telling people about its ongoing sale. “We also had our G. C. sucks sale — buy a wireless because guitar cords suck,” Cappiello recalled. “They hated us!”

“After a year of competing with [Guitar Center], our next strategy was to move closer to them,” said Cappiello, who moved the store across the street. “That way everyone would see us either coming off the highway on the way to Guitar Center or on the way back to the highway leaving Guitar Center,” he explained. Despite the rise of Guitar Center, a short-lived Hermes and now Sam Ash nearby, Texas Music Emporium has been able to achieve a modest increase in sales every year. Cappiello is hesitant to give away all of his trade secrets, but when asked to give credit for the store’s long-term success, he said, “Let’s just say it’s the personality of the store employees, guitar luthier, teachers, and the fact that we actually have friendly customer service sets us apart.”

The store is home to best-in-class repair services offered by Dr. Guitar and guitar lessons from “some of the best local players in town,” including Rusty Cooley, Joel Gregoire and Wendall Landers. It also boasts a five-member staff that has stuck with Cappiello for a long time. “We don’t lose many employees at all. Once in a while, one will move on to better things, but our staff has been here a minimum of five years, and most have been here longer,” said Cappiello. “They know how to take care of people. It means something to a customer, if they walk in the door and you know their name.”

Cappiello is now on his third generation of loyal customers, and he continues to capture new ones through great customer service and education, as well as a little patience and savvy. “We’ll see people come in and be on their phones, taking pictures of things, and we recognize that they are looking for a cheaper price. So, we will ask them if they found it cheaper,” he stated. “If they say, ‘Yes, it’s $10 cheaper here,’ we are willing to not only price match but also throw in some strings. But that’s only because we asked the question. You have to be savvy enough to know what they are doing.”

Looking to the years ahead, Cappiello is slowly edging toward retirement. “For 15 years, I worked here seven days a week, not because I had to, but because I like it. I stopped doing that two years ago, but I come in once a week to make sure things are going well,” Cappiello said. “My 35 years of work is paying off, and it’s time to slow down, but I expect to keep doing this forever.”

“This store is my kid,” he continued. “There’s a lot of sweat in this building. Let’s keep going and help the third generation, and fourth generation, of customers. We kill them with service and make them happy.”

No more articles