The Ledger

Making sense of money, 2010

A rare guitar shop

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By Charles Desrochers

“A hole in the wall” may not be the best way to describe Tom Baxter Music but it certainly the most literal. On West Main Street, New Britain, operating out of the back of Warren’s Music is where Tom Baxter has been repairing instruments for Connecticut for the last 21 years.

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“Buried treasure” might be the better suited name since his store/repair shop is covered from wall-to-wall with wrappers, strings, guitars and clutter. It’s so messy it has a charm to it; like the customer stepped out of the cold and into their grandpa’s garage with so many various pieces and parts lying around it’s hard to know what is a piece of a mandolin and what’s an old lighter at a glance.

“What you do with the parts is what’s important,” says Tom Baxter, the owner and sole employee of the store that shares his namesake, “That’s why I do it. I’m pretty (eclectic) here. Most stores; they give you a box and take it home and play it but half of the time you can’t even play it because the guitars aren’t even adjusted when they come from the factories.”

And that’s how he envisions what he does, not as a luxury but a necessity. Baxter’s been playing and repairing some sort of instrument for more than 50 years. He’s played at The White House for George HW Bush and opened for Tony Bennett at Bill Clinton’s first Inaugural Dinner in the Army Reserve band.

Sean King is a customer of Baxter’s for the past 20 years. He says, “I live up in Enfield and drive down here because I know Tom will take care of me.” King said he comes to Baxter because he offers intangibles most places don’t.

He said, “Tom’s a great guy, he’s an outstanding businessman. I’ve gotten the best deals I’ve gotten from anybody, from Tom. Cus I’ve been everywhere… They can’t compare to the service that Tom offers and the prices Tom offers.”

What places like Guitar Center in Manchester and Lasalle’s Music and Sound in West Hartford do have that Baxter doesn’t, though, is walking traffic.

“There’s very little downtown traffic,” Baxter said, “ I’m a destination point for somebody with a guitar. Outside of that, New Britain doesn’t have a lot of destination points for anything else for the most part.”

Once Westfarms mall opened along the New Britain, Newington, Farmington, West Hartford border in the 1970’s, shoppers stopped making trip into downtown, opting for the convenience.

He said, “The malls killed all of the footwork and all of the traffic downtown. There’s very few shoe stores or clothes stores or anything else in New Britain.“

Even his sales have taken a hit in recent years, luckily it’s not the only part of his store.

“Retail business is quiet,” he said, “My repair business is very good because I just happen to be apart of a click that knows a certain amount of knowledge to my particular craft and there are lots of good repair people out there and we’re all a family so to speak.”

Following some flooding in his building, which was bought by and currently listed for sale by Bank of America, Tom’s store became a little less cluttered but not in the way he would have wanted. He says some of his merchandise became water damaged and was forced to clear off the top row of guitars from the wall.

But if it ever came to him having to move his operation he thinks he would be all right. He said, “I am in New Britain, it just happens to be where I am I could be I West Hartford, I could be in Newington. People would still find me for what I do.”

His most recent repair, he said, was a school teacher from Scotland, CT wanted her guitar worked on.  As he said, “She found me.” In fact, before being married six years ago, King’s wife had known of Baxter from friends in church from Manchester.

The day he was in he walked away with a Johnson guitar after finding the cost of the guitar he brought would have been too much. Tom said he realizes that the players aren’t making the livings they were when he regularly played along the east coast and that’s why he makes a point of providing inexpensive guitars that anyone could afford.

“It just comes down to carrying what people want to spend, not what I want to carry,” Baxter said, “but I have some high priced guitars, obviously. Most people are going to be a flash in the pan, gonna try it out and see what they can do with it. On the other hand a kid that wants to play a clarinet has to pay $500 for a plastic clarinet.”

He says guitars manufactured overseas provide such a lower labor cost that it’s hard for American factories to compete (the Bureau of Labor Statistics has the average hourly cost of musical instrument manufacturing in the as 17.44 per hour. Stephen Roach, Chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia and Senior Research Fellow, Yale University told Economist magazine China’s average labor wage per hour was under two dollars) but he has no problem carrying a chinese guitar versus an American.

“Against even Ovation, which is in New Hartford…they were trying to do All-American, even in their student line and they finally ended up going to japan and going to korea and now they’re in china now, but they still make good American made guitars. The problem is; stuff is $1000, $2000. The average person person can’t break that mold and get into that kind of price range. They also make Guild at the factory and they also make Hamer guitars at ovation.”
“People are playing for free,” he says, “breaks my heart that you can’t make a living anymore but years ago you could if you taught some lessons… These guys don’t realize the bartenders- the bar owners-  are making a lot of money and the musicians are getting free beers or not getting anything and it’s just really tragic.”
And that’s why one of Tom Baxter’s priorities is to do honest work before anything else. He works on every guitar he sells before it goes out of the door making sure that it is playable. If a customer thinks it’s isn;t they can return it to have it set up again to their liking.
The difference between a $150 overseas guitar bought at Baxter’s shop is that his hands have worked on every single one, cigarette lit, with customers perusing around him surrounded by the clutter. It’s a personal type of store and may be the reason why after 50 years he still does it.

Written by ccsu236

December 11, 2010 at 12:44 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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