By Juin Somer, Point Park News Service:
Erik Loeffert, the owner of South Hills Music in Baldwin, answers questions about opening his business and what it’s like running a retail store.
Q: What made you decide to open your own business?
A: It was sort of an accident. I never really sat around and imagined myself as a store owner. I was just a person who played guitar obsessively and that is all that I wanted to do.
When you’re a kid and you tell people that you want to play music all day, you usually don’t get good responses from people. They say things like, “You can’t do that,” or, “How are you going to make any money playing guitar?” I did know that.
I liked teaching, and I liked history class in school, so I decided that I was going to be a high school history teacher. However, toward the end of college, I really started to get the feeling that working in a school wasn’t for me. I really think for kids to get educated, you have to gear it for each one of them individually. In a classroom setting, it’s sort of a generic overview of studying history. … I really didn’t want to work for the next 30 years in a place where you had to teach a kid about a watered-down version of the American Revolution when they are in 11th grade after they’ve already covered it in third, fifth and eighth grade. To me, that would be a boring way to make a living.
Q: So back to the music store?
A: When I was having all of these thoughts about why I didn’t want to work at a school, a friend of mine who taught private guitar lessons at a store called Spratt Music told me that Cliff Spratt was selling his store, and I should buy it.
Immediately, my gut told me to do it. First off, I was only 23 years old at the time. There was really nothing to lose by opening my own business. I wasn’t married, I didn’t have any children, and the worst thing that could happen was that I would have to close up and lose $30,000 if it failed. The timing was perfect.
Secondly, I knew that I would be able to be a teacher where I could actually gear each lesson accordingly, so I could get the most out of each kid. In school, a kid has to sit in math class even though they’d rather be in science, but I always knew that I’d gear it to make each kid happy and excited. I wouldn’t teach a kid funk music if all he wanted to learn was metal.
In my last semester of college, I actually just left. I got a call from the head of the history department at (California University of Pennsylvania), and she said, “Erik, you haven’t been in class this week. Where have you been?”
I told her, “I’m not finishing. I just bought a music store, and I’m teaching guitar lessons now.”
I know it sounds crazy to leave school when you are 18 credits shy of being a school history teacher, but my heart really wasn’t into it and even if I had the degree, I would never use it anyway, so I never really cared to finish it. I’ve been enjoying being busy with other things.
Q: What are the benefits and problems from owning your own business?
A: The benefits far outweigh the negatives for me.
The most important benefit is that my fate lies in my own hands. I really like that. It keeps you always having a sense of urgency, and I think that is really good for me. I can never be lazy. I have to constantly practice my guitar and learn new things, so I can keep pushing forward to become a better teacher and a musician. If I take a day off — there is no vacation time — I don’t get paid and then, I can’t pay the rent or mortgage.
Also it is a practice in patience and a practice in keeping your moral standards as high as possible. … You always have to treat people right every time. I’m not a corporation that has an unlimited bank account. If I do a bad job or annoy or mistreat a customer, it would be very bad for me.
When you are a small business, you need word-of-mouth and happy customers to spread the word about you. I can’t afford to put ads on TV or on the radio or in Guitar Player Magazine. Basically, you become friends with your students and their parents, and then, they buy off of you because they want to support what you do.
People do still appreciate one-on-one interaction with a store. They can sense when people are sincere, and they like that. …
Q: Any advice for students?
A: Just whatever you decide to do, you have to go all in.
If I didn’t practice my guitar obsessively as a teenager, I wouldn’t have had the skill set that was required to be a guitar teacher. Although I said, “I just want to play my guitar all day for a living,” I really meant it, and I really did everything I could do to make myself the person who could do a good job when the situation presented itself.
If you really want something, you really have to study it nonstop. Four years of college study isn’t even scratching the surface. If you want to put yourself in a position to do well, you have to become an expert at it. It truly is a lifetime journey of studying.
But that’s what makes it fun too. There is so much to study, that you’ll never be bored. I always liked Neil Peart’s line: “Good work is the key to good fortune: Winners take that praise; losers seldom take that blame.” There is a lot of truth in that.