A Retail Pioneer In Silicon Valley
In 1965, the music of the San Francisco Bay Area was poised to dominate the soundtrack of the next decade. As Carlos Santana, Jefferson Airplane, and the Grateful Dead started climbing the charts, a local guitarist named Bud Eastman founded a guitar shop and lesson studio in San Jose, calling it “Eastman Studios – Guitar Showcase.” Three years later, Eastman got out of retail to found a magazine for guitarists, selling the shop to brothers Barry and Gary Wineroth. It turned out they were all winners: Eastman’s new publication was none other than Guitar Player magazine, and Guitar Showcase grew into one of the country’s most iconic music stores, forging links to some of the era’s legendary musicians and making history with the great Northern California Folk-Rock Festival of 1969. The Wineroth brothers would run the shop together until Barry’s retirement in 1987. In the 25 years since then, Gary has stayed on as sole owner and CEO of Guitar Showcase, which now boasts California’s largest selection of acoustic guitars, as well as the famed Showcase Vintage Collection
Now into his fifth decade at the helm of Guitar Showcase, Gary hasn’t said how much longer he plans to run the shop—though he’s hinted he’d consider selling to the right buyer. There’s no doubt that if Guitar Showcase did go on the market, it would make an attractive package: With an address on the west side of San Jose, the shop sits in the heart of Silicon Valley, home to high incomes, a dynamic music scene, and consumers keen for high-end and vintage guitars. A typical customer might work at Apple, Google, eBay, Oracle, or Netflix. With the Bay Area’s active amateur music culture, there’s no shortage of customers for entry- and mid-level gear either.
For the past 25 years, Guitar Showcase has occupied a two-building complex on San Jose’s South Blascom Avenue: a 12,000-square-foot facility housing showroom, warehouse, and office space; and a freestanding 5,000-square-foot building devoted to the Showcase Music Institute (SMI), a lessons facility and performance venue that also holds a rental department. For many, the store’s must-see attraction is its steel-lined “Vintage Vault” room, sometimes compared to a Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame exhibit, showcasing Gary’s staggering personal guitar collection dating back to the 1950s. An ever-changing display of historic and collectible models includes gear from some of music’s all-time greats.
After a vast expansion in 2010, and a second round of renovations in 2012, Guitar Showcase’s upstairs acoustic guitar department became the largest in the state. A 4,000-square-foot acoustic showroom, spacious enough for a dozen customers to try out guitars at once, holds a huge selection from Martin, Taylor, Gibson, Fender, Breedlove, Bedell, Yamaha, Takamine, Ibanez, and many others. A complete sound stage within the acoustic floor, used for a weekly open mic night, also displays a collection of 30 hand-signed Steve Miller guitars and amps, all used by the artist onstage or in the studio. A stairway leading up to the acoustic room is lined with vintage acoustics dating as far back as the 1930s and ’40s. A separate area has been dedicated solely to bluegrass instruments.
Downstairs in the electric guitar department, high-end Strats and Les Pauls highlight offerings from Gibson, Fender, Gretsch, Rickenbacker, Ibanez, Alembic, and others. The store is famous for a separate room, known as “Lefty Land,” offering an impressive range of left-handed guitars. A selection of amplifiers, chiefly Fender and Mesa Boogie along with a broad sampling from other major brands, are stocked alongside the electrics. Trade-ins and consignments are also popular, keeping Guitar Showcase stocked with unique finds in used and vintage guitars and other gear. Along with guitars and amps, the store also offers accessories, drums, keyboards, and pro audio equipment.
Next door at Showcase Music Institute, a staff of 20 music teachers offer lessons in everything from guitar and bass to keyboard, flute, and voice. More than 200 students attend lessons there each week. A small onsite theater seats 50 people for clinics and recitals. SMI also houses a complete rental department for local and touring bands. Between SMI and the store’s main showroom, Guitar Showcase is known for its open mic nights, student workshops, clinics and road show events with major suppliers, and a monthly “Food For Strings” events where customers get free re-stringing services in exchange for donations to the local food bank.
Set in the technology capital of the world, Guitar Showcase has its wired side—with a dedicated Digital Marketing Department, a sleek new point-of-sale system platform by Tri-Technical Systems, and an upcoming digital edition of its own publication, the Showcase Times, which racked up a circulation of 70,000 in print. To date, however, the store still makes 97% of its sales in-store, a figure its management team views as both a distinction and an opportunity. On one level, Guitar Showcase’s hands-on culture, its visual appeal, and a staff with more than 300 years in total experience combine for an in-store experience it doesn’t intend to lose. On another level, its nearly untapped web market is seen as the next great expansion opportunity for Gary and his team—or whoever might take on the project in the future.
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