Jul 07, 2016
The Guitar Man
Neil Shimabukuro, co-owner of Island Guitars, has been playing the music game for more than 30 years.In the interview below, the longtime Ward Village tenant chimes in on the history of his business, what makes them unique, and how they see Island Guitars evolving in the coming years.
What prompted you to start Island Guitars?
My partner Jim actually started the business in a small office in Chinatown back in 1984. I got to know him by visiting his store and hanging out with him. After a few years of talking shop and becoming friends, we decided to go into business together and opened up our Ward Village location not long after.
Was it a hard decision for you to open up a guitar shop in Honolulu?
That's actually a pretty funny story. When it came down to committing to jumping into this business, I could think of a ton of reasons not to do it. But I just love music and guitars and decided to jump in anyway. It was a great decision and it's been so much fun!
In addition to selling guitars, you offer lessons as well, correct?
Yes, we have a woman who teaches lessons inside the store for us. She's been doing it for 20-plus years. Her forte is finger acoustic guitar, but she can also teach ukulele and banjo as well. If you're interested in learning more, this is a great resource and I definitely encourage you to swing by the shop or give us a call.
What interests you most about your business right now?
Back when we got started in the early days, we were actually focused on selling used instruments; no one else was doing that at the time. There were two other stores on the island, but they were only selling new instruments. So we saw a need for a storefront that could buy and sell used instruments. That's where it all started and it went really well. The market got so good that we expanded into collecting and selling vintage guitars to enthusiasts. We would routinely travel all the way to Dallas, Texas buying and selling inventory. That was our niche. It was lots of fun. Lots of travel. Then as time went on, the number of used guitars dried up a bit. It's not like I can go online and order used guitars from a supplier. You have to see them up close and hold them in your hands. So we ended up having to sell new guitars to sustain our main focus, which was vintage and used guitars. As time passed, sales of new guitars surpassed old ones, so that's how we arrived at where we are today.
The music industry as a whole, and how musicians actually make money, has undergone a lot of change over the past decade—much of it tied to ecommerce. How has the internet influenced your business model?
I think that's true that the internet has changed the music industry in all its facets. When it comes to instruments, however, I think there's something to be said for touching and seeing an instrument before you buy it. You want to play it. Grab the strings. Feel the instrument in your hands. It's hard to buy something without feeling it. You need to interface with it. But, that being said, some people are buying strictly on price, even without seeing it or playing it. So we're focusing on creating the best customer-service experience possible at Island Guitars.
Can you talk a little bit more about that?
We like to think that we build relationships with our customers. When you come into Island Guitars, we can talk story about music, guitars, or just about anything. It's a relationship. It's loose. We don't run our sales staff on commission. It's all about good service, making people feel comfortable, and stoking their love of guitars. It's not always a money thing for us; it's a passion thing.
How do you see the business evolving in the coming years?
We have to play up our strengths. We think that the general economy is moving toward people who provide service better than anywhere else. That's what makes us special. You get a relationship with us. We don't disappear after the sale. We love to help, we can repair, and if we can't do it, we can hook you up with someone who does. We want to keep doing what we've been doing, but just do it better and embrace customers who live in a more social world.
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