Over the past two weeks, Lagniappe has given its readers an inside look into the survival of some of the more overlooked facets of the local music scene. From Dauphin Street Sound to local vinyl stores, many local businesses have had to restructure or refocus their business practices and/or ideologies. Local music stores join this list of sonic entities pushing for survival through the pandemic.
Owned by local musician (and Lagniappe cuisine columnist) Andy MacDonald, Picker’s Paradise is a Baldwin County music store that has been weathering the effects of COVID-19 on a daily basis.
When Lagniappe spoke to MacDonald, he said Picker’s Paradise is surviving by shifting focus to other aspects of its services. However, he added that the effects of COVID-19 on music stores will definitely be felt in the future.
Steven Centanni: You worked at Picker’s Paradise before you bought it. How long have you been running the place?
Andy MacDonald: This will be my third year. I took over in January of 2017.
Centanni: When COVID-19 hit and everything started shutting down, what was going through your head?
MacDonald: Well, we were primarily concerned with the safety of our students and secondly the safety of our customers. We wanted to comply with anything we were asked to do. When we shut down, I continued to go in and do repair work two days a week. I was doing lessons through FaceTime and Skype. I knew everybody was going through the same thing. It became troublesome to get anything from my distributors, because they shut down completely.
Centanni: As far as the distribution side of things, what was it like dealing with the distributors? What were they telling you?
MacDonald: I’ll give you an example. One said, “Your annual order is ready to ship.” I said, “Ship it. Ship it as fast as you can.” I wanted to get it before everybody shut down. It didn’t get out in time. So, it got hung up. It was a Friday that I sent that, and the following Monday they shut down. Talking to those guys, they were impacted trying to get everything out, not only for their own personal reasons to make some income for themselves, but I believe they were trying to take care of us.
If we don’t have products, then we don’t sell products. I think a lot of people knew that they may have to shift focus to online sales, but if you don’t have products, you can’t sell products. We don’t really do a lot of online sales. However, I wanted it to be in my hands for the time that we reopened. Even buying something as simple as guitar strings became just like buying toilet paper a few months ago. You just couldn’t get them. You figured that there would be warehouses full of them. I think that there were a lot of small- to medium-sized businesses that got [Paycheck Protection Program] money that stocked for the entire year. That provided more of a demand.
Centanni: Thinking of that and the laws of supply and demand, did prices go up on strings?
MacDonald: No, nobody was gouging or anything on the distributors’ end, but I could tell, as far as a retailer, people were less likely to get a “Deal of the Day.” I ordered a couple of banjos in March and got them last week. They told us that they are the last two that I will get until January. So, it wouldn’t behoove me to sell these at a really great sale price. You’re sitting on solid gold with them, but now is a great time to be learning or a great time to be replenishing their rig or getting their equipment worked on.
People are gigging, but they’re few and far between. So, it’s time to set everything up the way you need to. If you need stuff worked on, then get it done now. When the gigs start flowing in again, you’ll be set up. I think that we’ll be feeling the impact of people like Elixir Strings in Connecticut shut down. They shut down, and I couldn’t get Elixirs. I got 10 packs of Elixirs that I ordered three months ago that came in two weeks ago. I ordered $1,000 worth of strings and only got 10 packs. Whatever I order, I know it’s not coming in. I shoot for the moon and end up getting half or two-thirds of what I ordered. What you’re seeing is a shift to less popular strings that you haven’t thought about in years.
Centanni: Now that stay-at-home orders have been lifted, how would you say that business has changed at Picker’s Paradise?
MacDonald: At Picker’s Paradise, I couldn’t ask for anything better. About 30 percent of our business is repair, so we’re doing a lot of that. Another great portion is instruction. We’re doing a ton of that. During the crisis when a lot of these musicians were getting some unemployment money, it made it easier to buy instruments. Then, with a lot of people staying at home anyway and working from home, they’re finding time to say, “Hey, maybe I should learn to play the fiddle or the banjo.” So, we’re seeing an uptick in our lessons. With public schools in Mobile going virtual for the first nine weeks, a lot of those kids can come during daytime hours. So, that frees up some space for lessons.
I feel sorry for the people that make a living on band instruments with sixth and seventh grade bands that aren’t going to be doing anything. That’s a generous portion of some people’s money. Thankfully, I’m not in that game. I’m focusing on guitars. With marching bands, there’s a lot of those people in trouble right now. As a whole, the music store scene in Baldwin County and in Mobile likes to scratch each other’s backs as much as we can. We’ve lost a couple of stores in Baldwin County, but we are the oldest now. I think we’re going to be OK, but I don’t want to see anybody losing out to this.
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