Sound jam

Chico’s mom-and-pop music shops brace for the arrival of the world’s largest music store

Rich Piers, owner of Herreid Music in Chico and Redding, at his downtown Chico music store.

Rich Piers, owner of Herreid Music in Chico and Redding, at his downtown Chico music store.

photo by ken smith

Go to for info about job opportunities with Guitar Center.

Earlier this month, as workers on lifts labored through rain in south Chico to install the sign announcing Guitar Center’s imminent arrival, Sally MacMillan apologized for the extra boxes of merchandise crowding her office at the back of Music Connection on East Avenue in the north part of town.

“We just had some flooding and had to move some stuff out of the way,” she explained. While destructive acts of nature can spell trouble for any small-business owner, the office has doubled as a war room in recent months as she and her staff prepare for what she sees as a much bigger threat—the Jan. 17 opening of the music mega-store on Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway, across from Costco.

Guitar Center, and its Internet subsidiary Musician’s Friend, is the world’s largest retailer of musical instruments and equipment, with more than 300 stores across 43 states. The company was founded in 1959 and bought by Bain Capital—yes, Mitt Romney’s former firm—for $1.9 billion plus assumed debt in 2007.

“We’re really worried about it,” MacMillan said. “I’m past the point of being scared, and now we’re in action mode. We’re trying to use it as an opportunity to up our game, tighten up anything we can and not take anything for granted.”

MacMillan bought Music Connection—formerly called the Music Teacher—in June 2003 and opened a Redding store last summer. Before owning the business she worked at the Music Teacher beginning at age 18—her first job.

She said the biggest problem is Guitar Center’s sheer buying power, which allows it to offer far lower prices than local stores.

“We want to match prices, we really do,” she said, “but we also have to pay the bills. I’m afraid that Chico isn’t big enough to support it. There’ve been rumors of them coming for years, but I thought Chico would grow more before it happened. No matter how good we do, even if we match prices, they still have a better location and more ability to advertise. I just have to wonder if this town can support three stores.”

Though there are smaller music stores in Chico, the three MacMillan referred to are Music Connection, Guitar Center and Herreid Music. She explained that Music Connection and Herreid have a good working relationship, regularly referring customers to one another when one store lacks products or services.

“Even before Guitar Center’s coming, I’ve always seen us and Herreid as rowing the same boat,” she said. “I think our biggest mutual competition has been the Internet.”

Rich Piers, who has owned Herreid in Redding since 1992 and opened the Chico store in 1997, agrees the locals will take a hit from Guitar Center.

“Oh yeah, it’ll hurt our business at first,” he said. “I think it will put a strain on all the music stores in town, but I think overall, from what I’ve seen with other places in the Unites States where this has happened, we’ll be just fine.

“I think our knowledge base is better. I’ve been in the business for more than 30 years, and there are guys who have been here a long time. We know musical equipment very well, and think we can relate to customers one-on-one much better.”

Guitar Center is opening its doors on MLK Jr. Parkway in early January.

photo by ken smith

MacMillan said she is not looking for patronage built on pity or obligation.

“I want [customers] to shop here because we have fair prices for the right product,” she said. “We stand behind what we sell, and we’re here for them.”

Candidate Romney liked to say Bain Capital was a “job creator,” and some are saying that about Guitar Center.

The store’s opening has already put people to work, said James Lane, of Commercial National Builders, the Temecula-based contractor overseeing construction of the store’s interior. Lane, the project’s general superintendent, said 17 subcontractors from all over California—including some local companies—have been working since mid-October, with 10 to 20 workers on the project every day.

It’s not clear how many people will be employed at Chico’s Guitar Center once it opens, but the number certainly will be considerable. Calls to the company’s corporate headquarters in Westlake Village were directed to an outside marketing company called KSL Media, which didn’t furnish the information as of press time.

Chad Cox, a former Emeryville Guitar Center employee who will manage the Chico store, said via email that he can’t talk to reporters until it is cleared through the company’s public-relations department. Lane said Guitar Center officials would be coming to the Chico store around the first of January.

Job seekers are directed via Internet listings and a sign posted outside the store to apply online.

According to a former employee who worked in store operations for 11 years, working at Guitar Center isn’t all it’s cracked up to be: “A lot of people think it’s a cool job where you just sit around and play guitar all day, but it’s nothing like that.”

The former employee, who asked not to be identified to protect friendships with longtime coworkers, said it was a good job until the Bain buyout. “They think they can train anybody, so the workforce is considered a disposable commodity,” he said.

Salespeople have been the hardest hit, and are now responsible for setting up displays and other tasks that cut into their selling time, he said. Also, Guitar Center, once known as a place to wheel and deal, has changed the rules significantly.

“Salesmen used to be able to cut a bit off the top depending on how much you were buying,” he said. “When Bain came they stopped being able to do that.

“They presented it as we had to retrain our customers, that the customers were conditioned to believe they could go in and pay less than the listed price. A lot of people said, ‘I haven’t paid what the tag says at this place in 15 years, why would I now?’ ”

Salespeople earn commission, the source said, but rarely make much more than minimum wage.

Many of the source’s criticisms are echoed by customers and employees at