Guitars for rock gods

Louisville entrepreneur Jimmy Brown got his start selling vintage axes to rock royalty 30 years ago. And he's still at it.

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Guitar Emporium owner Jimmy Brown
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(Fortune Small Business) -- In Jimmy Brown's business, he never knows who - or what - is going to walk through the door. He fondly remembers many of the instruments that have found their way to his Louisville store, Guitar Emporium, over the years: a 1929 acoustic Martin 00-45, a 1954 sunburst Fender Stratocaster with a rare form-fitting case, a 1958 Gibson ES-355 with an original stop tailpiece and a 1959 Cherry Sunburst Gibson Les Paul, to name just a few.

"I may not always be able to remember who bought what," he says. "But I never forget the guitars."

Brown, 54, also remembers how he got his start. Already a guitarist with a talent for repair work at 15, he saved money from cutting lawns - $3 a yard - and bought a Gibson Les Paul SG Junior. That same day he showed his purchase to a friend, who offered him $150 for it.

"I made $75 in an afternoon. That was a valuable lesson for me as a businessman," he says.

But he got his real start after a buddy called with a special request: Neil Young was performing in town and needed an early-'60s Gibson. Unfortunately, Brown didn't have what Young wanted, but that brush with fame gave him an idea. He could buy vintage guitars at yard sales and local stores, then restore and sell them to rock stars passing through Louisville. "It was a totally different world before the Internet," he says. "I could find great deals, because the average person might have an old guitar but no idea how to connect with a rock band to sell it."

Still a teen, he had a pretty savvy business plan: After he acquired a few quality guitars that could fetch several thousand dollars, his mother would drive him to concert halls during sound check. He'd knock on the loading dock entrance and ask to show his wares to the road manager; more often than not he'd get invited backstage to sell his instruments to such guitar gods as Keith Richards (a pair of Gibson acoustics: a 1940s L-5 Archtop and an L-1 flattop from the '20s), Eric Clapton (a 1959 Epiphone Coronet electric) and Pete Townshend (a 1960s Epiphone Texan flattop acoustic).

"I've been in business since 1975," he says. "You name them, I probably met them."

That same year Brown became a partner at Guitar Emporium, which a friend had recently opened. Instead of injecting capital, he provided the inventory and customers. A year later he borrowed money from his father and bought his partner out. He played nights in a band, worked days at the store and attended the University of Louisville in between. By the late '70s the business was thriving, but Brown admits he nearly lost it all because of his "rock 'n' roll lifestyle."

"I saw that movie Almost Famous and I thought, 'That was my life story,' " he says. "I could tell you stories from those days that would make your hair curl."

By 1986 Brown had cleaned up his act, dedicated himself to Guitar Emporium and graduated from the University of Louisville with a degree in business. "I always thought guitars were something to do until I finished school," he says. "But college taught me that all I wanted to do was what I was already doing."

Today his business has grown into a 5,000-square-foot store with eight employees, annual revenues that range from $1 million to $3 million and a full array of instruments, including basses, mandolins, banjos and ukuleles. Though sales of high-end collectible guitars have slowed as a result of the downturn, Brown isn't worried. He's been through highs and lows before.

"People may not have money to buy the collectibles right now, but we're selling other guitars," he says. "You hold on to the investment pieces until people have the money for those purchases again."  To top of page

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