After 35 years in business — a full half of them up against online competition —Advance Music appears downright upbeat.
It’s no cake-walk, testify Mike Trombley and Jeff Wheel, co-owners of the Burlington institution.
But, they add, they’ve got stuff the internet can’t match: customer service with real people, community ties and hands-on, palpable encounters with instruments.
“I think people still need to come in and touch these things,” Trombley said this week. “The internet started to bite us in about 2000, and we decided we’ve got to do things they can’t do.”
An embrace of diverse income streams, at a pace that Trombley called “juggle-management,” has a big role in playing big online stores to a standoff.
Step in the door, and, a visitor can't help but admire the old-school eye-candy of new and used instruments that tempt beginning, student and professional musicians.
But you can actually handle this stuff, and people do: Customers hunker down in the front room to test drive guitars, amplifiers and various gear.
In other recesses of the rambling building on South Champlain and Maple streets folks of all ages coddle acoustic instruments, batter drums and fiddle with synthesizers.
Advance Music Center, at 75 Maple Street in downtown Burlington, has been a musician's go to for 35 years, offering a wide range of guitars, drums, amps and dozens of other items (Photo: RYAN MERCER/FREE PRESS)
Other regulars drop in for guitar and electronic repairs, music lessons or to rent a clarinet, sax or cello for a high school ensemble.
Performance venues rent amplifiers and drums for traveling musicians.
A 'lifeline' in Vermont
The Burlington institution marked its anniversary with a deep-discounts sale, a week in advance of Black Friday.
Early Christmas-season shopping continued apace in late-November.
Several times during a late-November interview, Wheel broke off to field customers’ questions.
During one interruption, he sold a $4,000 acoustic guitar to a man who had been playing it in the “quiet room” for nearly an hour.
“If you’re buying that kind of guitar, one would think that the customer would want to come in and touch and play and hear the instrument, right?” Wheel said after the deal was sealed.
From left, partners Jeff Wheel and Mike Trombley have quietly been rockin' out. Tucked away at 75 Maple Street in Burlington, Advance Music Center thrives, beating back forces that have steadily killed off other local, independent music businesses. For 35 years, Advance has woven itself into the community in powerful ways, providing instrument sales, service and lease programs for schools, to lessons for everything from piano to punk rock and development programs for local music and more. (Photo: RYAN MERCER/FREE PRESS)
During another break, Wheel secured the sale of a high-end electric piano to a woman who wanted to hear and play a quality instrument for her daughter, a music student.
Wheel and Trombley are going to personally deliver that one to the family on Christmas Eve morning, followed by other deliveries.
“I’m sure we get people that come in and try things out and then go home and order it online, to save on sales tax,” Wheel said.
“But what makes this store work is the long-term cultivation of customers,” he added. “I have customers that I dealt with back in the ‘70s that still come and shop here, and now they’re shopping for their grandkids. So there is that sort of lifeline that we try to foster.”
Newcomers get the royal treatment, too, Wheel said: “We try to train our staff to give the best customer service, and to make it an experience that people remember, and inspires them to come back."
It helps, added Trombley, that employees tend to stick around for long-term careers, with at least six people having logged a decade or more at Advance.
Currently, the store has 12 full-time employees, plus 7 instructors and Matt Shahan, who does on-site repairs three days a week.
Play by numbers
The tenures of Trombley and Wheel extend back a quarter of century.
A summary of the businesses’ family tree, birth and growth:
- Mid-to-late-1970s: Jeff Wheel, a Burlington native and gigging musician, gets a job at Peterson’s Music (“because, partly, I think, I had played in the same band as the owner’s son”). Trombley, who grew up in Hinesburg frequents Boyd’s Music on Main Street as a young guitarist; remembers swapping fries from Nectar’s for a new set of strings. Wheel buys Peterson’s Music, renames it Vermont Music, and moves into Burlington Town Center mall.
- 1982 – Advance is founded by Bill Shafer in Middlebury, as Otter Creek Music (same year: Trombley joins the band Quadra, an outfit he still plays with)
- 1983 – Shafer moves the business to Church Street, above the Little Professor bookstore. Three employees, including Shafer. Name changed to Advance, Trombley says, “because someone said it needed to be first in the phone book.”
- 1988 – Store moves to Main and South Champlain streets (present site of August First). Six employees.
- 1992 – Trombley, after having what he calls “a total right-brain/left-brain burn-out” at a technical drafting job, joins Shafer as a partner in Advance.
- 1993 – Wheel dissolves Vermont Music; signs on with Advance.
- 1994 – Advance buys the current building, a former electric store and warehouse. For the first two winters under new ownership, it shelters several antique cars.
- 1995 – Advance opens a small branch in Rutland, which closes after several years.
- 1996 – Trombley buys out Bill Shafer.
- 2002 – Advance expands into installation of commercial audio and video systems, as Advance System Design, a business that merges with competing Milton-based Gear Sound & Communication in 2016 and is spun off as Audio Visual Environments.
- 2010 – Wheel becomes part-owner of Advance.
- 2013 – Advance opens a mini-store at the University of Vermont Bookstore.
- 2017 - Rocking on with 12 employees; plus 7 instructors. Wheel and Trombley continue to perform with various combos.
Throughout, the music store has remained plugged in Burlington’s amateur and professional music scenes, as well as the broader, non-musical community.
This year marked the 19th year of the Advance Music Singer-Songwriter Search, a region-wide competition.
Donated gear from Advance supports Big Heavy World, the local-music curation nonprofit. It boosted a recent Make-a-Wish Foundation with not just a guitar, but with a solo performance on it by Grace Potter.
From left, partners Mike Trombley and Jeff Wheel have quietly been rockin' out. Tucked away at 75 Maple Street in Burlington, Advance Music Center thrives, beating back forces that have steadily killed off other local, independent music businesses. For 35 years, Advance has woven itself into the community in powerful ways, providing instrument sales, service and lease programs for schools, to lessons for everything from piano to punk rock and development programs for local music and more. (Photo: RYAN MERCER/FREE PRESS)
The store hosts clinics and workshops: Recent guests have included local guitar star Paul Asbell and the internationally acclaimed monster-picker Tommy Emmanuel.
With less fanfare, members of Phish swing by now and then to shop, Trombley said.
For those inclined to the virtual world, Advance maintains an online and social-media presence.
But the virtual realm’s primary role is to build enthusiasm, loyalty and “help drive feet through the store,” Wheel said.
Apparently, he added, the tangible world of musical instruments, and the sounds that reach human ears without the help of headphones, has an enduring appeal.
“And we’re looking to the youth,” Wheel added. “That’s our future. And that’s where I get my satisfaction.”
Source: Burlington Free Press