When the landmark Podium guitar shop in Dinkytown — the store where Bob Dylan bought a Martin guitar in the 1970s that he played on his “Blood on the Tracks” album — closed for good in 2017 after a six-decade run, it planted a seed.
Chris Quinn, who launched the predecessor to his Quinn Violins from his high school bedroom 30 years ago, saw a rare expansion opportunity.
It wasn’t without financial risk for Quinn, who had built a stable, four-person string instrument and accessories business.
The market for high-end violins for professional musicians and collectors, which ranges from tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars, is small and fraught with money-losing danger for those without very deep pockets and staying power.
Quinn, 48, had tasted a setback before, when a high-end violin store he operated with a musician partner on Nicollet Mall closed in 1998.
“I learned how to build a website,” said Quinn, who moved the single-proprietor Quinn Violins in 1999 to a tiny space in southeast Minneapolis. “I felt I had failed. I worked hard to try and turn failure into success.”
Since then, Quinn, has built online sales to two-thirds of his $1.5 million in annual revenue, selling violins, cellos, violas, cases and accessories — as well as repairs. He slowly expanded showroom space, including room for trial and performance.
“The customers range from kids buying their first instruments for $500 to $1,000 to instructors and even some professionals who will pay thousands,” he said. “Some of these customers will try eight or 10 fiddles before they pick. We also do rentals. But no super-expensive rare or antique.”
Quinn built a decent violin business, but with marginal room for growth.
“Things were static,” he conceded. “We were still recovering from the 2008-09 economic downturn. And there wasn’t a lot of room to grow.
“The violin industry in the U.S. is about $130 million annually. About the same size as coconut water. The guitar industry is nearly $2 billion.”
Quinn, who studied music and business at the University of St. Thomas, loves to play cello and electric bass. He performs occasionally with acoustic guitarist Billy McLaughlin. But he never pursued the often-vagabond life of the professional musician, preferring instead to focus on business.
The married father of two said he had achieved a decent living focusing on violins and enjoyed a flexible schedule. But he also needed to expand or he knew he would see his business wilt.
After Podium’s closing, Quinn’s entrepreneurial instinct told him to diversify and expand into the guitar market. He launched, slowly at first, what’s become “Fret Central,” alongside Quinn Violins, in separate but adjacent space at 1081 21st Av. SE., and online.
‘“The Podium sold a range of guitars,” Quinn said. “I’m not reinventing the wheel. If I can’t buy it [for a few hundred to several thousand dollars] and list it on Amazon and turn it at a profit, I’m not stocking it.”
Quinn is selling almost a guitar a day. Brands such as Eastman and Guild, go for hundreds to a few thousand bucks. He also sells higher-end models like Santa Cruz and McPherson in the $5,000 to $20,000 range. His retail footprint is expanding this fall to 4,500 square feet, 10 times his 1998 space.
Quinn also had to get over a financial wall. For years, he had tapped up to $120,000 in 18 to 25 percent interest debt from Can Capital and other online lenders to help manage cash flow. A friend, also a musician, who works for WomenVenture, the nonprofit business counselor, referred Quinn to the Community Reinvestment Fund (CRF), a nonbank U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) lender that focuses on rebuilding neighborhoods through small business.
CRF loaned Quinn about $350,000 that floats at 2.75 percent above the bank “prime rate” of about 5 percent. That gave him breathing room and expansion capital.
“My monthly debt service, including interest and principal, was close to $30,000 on those short-term loans,” he recalled. “It went to less than $5,000. More than $100,000 of the CRF loan went to [retire] old debt and the rest into working capital and guitar department expansion.
“Now, I focus more on running the business.”
Jennifer Ericson, a senior loan officer at CRF, said she liked Quinn’s experience, work ethic and vision.
He didn’t qualify for traditional bank lending because of his small size and “hiccups” in his credit and financial records.
“We saw a 20-year-old company in an unusual space but, because he is scrappy … had built a business and he had made great use of his online operation. He understands his customers.
“He’s not a CPA, but he was very receptive to our pointers and requirements for financial reporting. He really understands his cash flow.”
Since accelerating the expansion this year, Fret Central has lifted overall sales by up to 20 percent monthly.
Quinn projects total sales will double to $3 million by 2020 and “ultimately, the Fret Central division will become a greater share than the Quinn Violins division … mostly due to the fact that the fretted market is so many times larger than the bowed-string world.”
Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.