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Rock and the hard-to-find place

Eric Berg and Billy Bergeron of Capitol Guitars have worked to make their St. Paul shop a destination for musicians despite an out-of-the-way location.
When local musicians Eric Berg and Billy Bergeron wanted buttons to promote their band, they figured out how to make their own.

T-shirts? Same thing. Recording label -- Robot Monster Records -- too.

In search of the ideal guitar shop, they took the do-it-yourself approach yet again and opened their own place -- Capitol Guitars on St. Peter Street in downtown St. Paul.

They had dreamed for years of having their own shop -- one with gear that would appeal to musicians who shared their taste for rock, heavy metal and punk; longer hours to accommodate last-minute string purchases, and a laid-back atmosphere where everyone from beginners to seasoned professionals would be comfortable.

"We just treat people fair, man, and that's why I think they come to our store and keep coming back to our store," Bergeron said. "Hopefully some day it will pay off. For now it's fun, and we get to see a lot of guitars and we like what we're doing."

The primary challenge facing Capitol Guitars since it opened in November 2004 has been overcoming the apparent drawbacks of its affordable yet hard-to-reach location. It's on the first floor of the Colonnade building, perhaps better known as the home of Babani's Kurdish Restaurant.

Capitol Guitars occupies a cramped 1,200 square feet in a storefront on a one-way street in one of downtown's quieter corners. The store has no off-street parking and is down to just a few metered spaces out front.

The business novices also were entering a highly competitive market, with national chains expanding in the Twin Cities, renowned high-end vintage shops and a number of local specialty stores.

In tune with target market

Given the challenges, Capitol Guitars could have disappeared as quickly as a Spinal Tap drummer. The store, however, appears to have found its rhythm, with revenue last year topping $200,000, up a third from 2005.

The answer in part has been to position the store as a destination for musicians in their target market, the owners said. For that they've plugged into their experience playing together in local bands since the early 1990s. Berg, 33, and Bergeron, 36, formed Invasion Earth in 1998 or so. The self-described sci-fi punk band features Berg on guitar, Bergeron on bass and his brother, Tony, on drums.

Knowing what rock, metal and punk musicians will look for, they stock brands that include Washburn, Jackson and Schecter guitars and basses and Randall amplifiers. The store just added ESP guitars, which the owners said are popular with bands like Metallica, Megadeth and Helmet.

The store is open seven days a week, until 10 p.m. on weekdays and 9 on Saturday nights, for guitarists who need a late set of strings or new cable.

The store also has used guitars and some vintage models, with prices ranging from $99 to $3,000, Bergeron said. Low overhead -- he and Berg are the only employees -- allows them to compete on price with national retailers.

They also sell instruments and accessories online and plan to beef up their Web store. They also hope guitar lessons and repairs will become new sources of revenue.

Despite their location's disadvantages, the truth is that Bergeron and Berg had little choice but to open the shop. They were so eager to get going that they signed a five-year lease on the space even before they had written a business plan or finished applying for loans they figured they wouldn't get anyway.

'Let's get this thing open'

The urgency to lock up the space came from their acute awareness of their limited finances -- malls, suburban strip centers and retail space on W. 7th Street were out of their price range. They were already paying rent on the space, so instead of waiting for business plans or loans, they charged guitars and other inventory on their credit cards and opened the doors.

"We realized the paperwork would have taken a year," Berg said. "We figured, let's get this thing open. We've just been busy keeping the business going."

To spread the news, they invited music-business friends and handed out fliers after local shows. That's how Brad Johnson, who plays guitar for local metal band Impaler, heard of Capitol Guitars. He visited as Bergeron was setting up the store and left with some free strings and other goodies. Johnson said he's gone back many times, buying two guitars and an amplifier.

"It would be nice if it was a little easier to get to," he said. "They carry some stuff that the big chain music stores aren't carrying. They're great guys, and I really prefer shopping with a small independent store."

Michael Bormes, a professional bassist and session player, said he happened to notice the Capitol Guitars sign while driving past the store. Berg and Bergeron quickly tracked down a hard-to-find instrument case he needed.

"They go out of their way for people," Bormes said.

T. Albert Lloyd, guitarist for national blues band T. Albert Lloyd and the Kingpins, said he got a "ridiculously cheap" price on a used guitar that caught his eye in the store. Now it's one he uses on stage. "Those guys have been gold to me," Lloyd said. "It's also nice to have something in downtown St. Paul."

The expert says: Tom Musil, a longtime guitar player and director of the Shenehon Center for Real Estate at the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business, said the fact that guitar players seem willing to drive to the shop probably minimizes challenges arising from Capitol Guitars' location.

"It's very much a relationship-type business that is built up between musicians and a guitar retailer," Musil said. "I think the location decisions in a business like that are probably not critical, but ... if it had a little more visibility, a little more access, it might bring in more walk-in business."

In focusing on rock, metal and punk musicians, the store also is tapping in to what can be very loyal groups, Musil said. "I'm not aware of any other guitar retailer that specializes in Metallica or heavy metal. For the consumer that might be value added that's significant."

Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Woodbury. His e-mail address is todd_nelson@mac.com.

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