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Why Orville Gibson’s hometown guitar dealer dropped the brand

Gibson Guitar bankruptcy, part 2 of 2

As I wrote yesterday, I was not surprised when the Gibson Brands filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on May 1. For years there had been signs of trouble.

A decade ago the company (then known as Gibson Guitar Corp.) issued a Robot Guitar that tunes itself, which was just weird. In 2011 the federal government raided its Tennessee factory and busted it with a stash of endangered, illegally imported wood, which CEO Henry Juszkiewicz defended as being legal in India (but not in Nashville, USA, where the company had it). In 2013 it formed a larger parent company, Gibson Brands, and started buying up consumer electronics companies such as Teac, Phillips and Onkyo, diverting its attention from its primary product. That venture was unprofitable and will now be dropped, according to various news reports.

But the sign that worried me most was when, in 2014, Dick’s Country Store in Churubusco stopped being a Gibson dealer.

Dick Decosse inherited the small gas and grocery store from his parents in the 1970s and added on wings for guns and guitars — close to 1,000 of each in stock. He has many reasons to love Gibson guitars: For one thing, he plays one in his bluegrass-country band, the Busco Bandits, and for another, he is as close as anyone to the company’s founder, Orville H. Gibson. It was Dick’s research that nailed down Orville’s 1856 birthplace, a few miles northwest of his store. Dick and his wife now own the site.

So when Dick told me last year that he had dropped the Gibson line, I was shocked. If any guitar dealer was going to stick with the company through thick and thin, I thought it would be Orville’s hometown store — but no. It still had Gibson guitars for sale last I checked, but it isn’t ordering any new ones.

Dick will tell anyone who asks that the Gibson company is a pain in the butt to deal with. He, too, was not surprised by the bankruptcy news.

“In my opinion, it’s poor management right down the line,” he said in a phone interview Friday. “They got everything going for them, and they’re not dealer-friendly.”

His biggest complaint was how hard the company leaned on him to constantly increase the amount of product he bought, regardless of how much he sold. On top of these unrealistic quotas, he said Gibson made him immediately buy a new instrument to replace each one he sold. Maybe big-box stores such as Guitar Center can pull that off, he said, but his store can’t, despite having nearly 1,000 instruments in stock.

“It was like you were the brand-new guy on the block every year,” he said. “I’ve been buying from Gibson since the ’80s. It didn’t amount to nothing.”

By contrast, Dick said, when his Fender rep comes in, he simply says, “What do you need?”

Dick said he can name every Fender rep he has ever had, going back to the ’80s. It’s telling that he can’t do that for his Gibson reps. They turned over too frequently, usually every couple of years. Dick remembers joking with one rep who had been there about two-and-a-half years, asking if he had his resume ready. The man assured Dick that he was safe, that he had the company’s biggest and most profitable territory, including New York City and Boston, as was its sales leader.

“Two weeks later they canned him,” Dick said.

There were other frustrations, too. The company wouldn’t let him post a picture of any Gibson product on his website, even though online dealers such as Musicians Friend do so.

“How do I advertise your product if I can’t use a picture of it?” Dick said.

At one point he dropped Gibson but continued with its discount line, Epiphone. But then he discovered he wasn’t allowed to order Gibson parts for repairs, even though he was a dealer with the same company.

“They need to get with the dealers,” he said. “They rely on these big-box stores for the majority of their sales.”

Despite his criticism, Dick insists Gibson still makes top-of-the-line instruments and that its quality control is strong. I’ll echo that from my limited experience. After playing a 1960s Gibson for 15 years, I shopped around in 2015 and became convinced that no other brand would do for me. I almost bought a new one from Dick’s, but I ended up getting a 2005 model in great shape from another upstate store.

“What they need to do is build guitars … that are based on the old designs, because that’s what people still want,” Dick said. “Keep going with the good, solid brand models that brought them along … and be really, really strong on customer service, and customer service that dealers can help provide. You see, everyone wants to do stuff over the internet.”

Gibson isn’t the only company with customer service problems, Dick said, but many others do things right. He remembers that when Chris Martin, now head of the C.F. Martin & Co. guitar company, visited his shop and asked him, “What do we have to do in the future?” he replied, “You don’t have to do anything. All the other companies are trying to be you.”

“I think they still have a lot to offer,” Dick said of Gibson. “They’re a staple of the music business.

“I don’t think it’s that’s hard to build that company back.”

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