Anyone who played an instrument as a child remembers his or her first trip to the music store. Maybe it was a Guitar Center, the national chain that has become synonymous with music equipment. Or maybe it was a locally-owned store that pays more attention to customer service than making sales quotas. And maybe that store was Motor City Guitar in Waterford, a nondescript store – aside from the two 30-foot Les Paul guitars flanking the entrance, anyway – that is home to one of the most robust guitar and effects pedals inventories in the Midwest.
Marty and Melissa Minui opened Motor City Guitar in 1988 in the strip mall across the street from Waterford Mott High School.
"The students at Mott used to hang out and jam at the store during lunchtime, and had a lot to do with spreading the word about Motor City when we first started out," Marty Minui says. "Many of those kids have grown up with us and are still friends and customers 28 years later."
It is, in fact, this kind of long-term devotion from customers-turned-friends that is the cornerstone of Motor City Guitar's longevity. Even at a time when the music business as a whole was flagging and other stores were closing left and right, people still supported Motor City Guitar and the Minuis.
"Motor City Guitar is an anomaly in that it has been able to withstand every genre, from late '80s metal to '90s grunge and alternative rock, into all of the other offshoots in the break of the early 2000s," says singer/songwriter Sean Lynch, guitarist of local dream-pop outfit 800beloved who also mans the effects pedals counter at Motor City Guitar. "It doesn't really cater just to one genre or style of a musician. It's not really gender specific, but we get a lot of young and old-time rock and roll guitar-based types. There are a lot of long-time customers."
Part of this stems from the Minuis' unique understanding of musicians' needs, both being musicians themselves.
"I've played guitar since I was 10 years old, and Melissa played piano and clarinet since she was a kid as well, and guitar after we started dating in high school," says Minui. "I was one of those kids who lived, ate, and breathed playing guitar. I spent about 10 hours a day figuring out Jimmy Page and Randy Rhoads licks using a record player, old-school style!"
The inspiration to open Motor City Guitar came from Marty's and Melissa's desire to get married. Both were going to school while working multiple part-time jobs. They wanted something steady, so they opened their own tiny store – Minui says about half of the inventory was his own personal guitar collection hanging on the walls to fill up empty space.
"Things have changed a lot in the small business world since the 1980s," he says. "Back then we were able to open the store based on a $700 investment. That and years of long hours and hard work, of course! There are plenty of nights where we don't eat dinner until midnight and go to sleep at 4:00 a.m., but when you love what you do it makes that a lot easier."
Passion is the foundation on which Motor City Guitar stands. They eventually moved out of that tiny space inside a strip mall and relocated to the former Waterford Academy Twin movie theater, a space with a lot of history and cherished memories for folks local to the area.
Minui's own passion translates into the store itself. "Like many guitar players, I remember how excited I was when I first learned 'Smoke on the Water' at my first lesson – that was the greatest feeling in the world!" And one he loves to see happen for new guitar players, again and again.
Lynch says the Minuis regularly make concessions for customers as part of their good business practice.
"I'm able to help a young person get a guitar and use my own discretion if they don’t have enough money or need to get the price a certain way," he says. "That's the experience right there, when you see some kid who thinks he doesn't have enough money then his or her eyes light up and you see the wheels spinning – that is the big thing Marty and Melissa are interested in. That joy is what has kept them in this for this long."
Lynch adds, "This is a good, honest place where you can get good, solid equipment, and you don’t have to go through the ballet of commissioned salespeople who have quotas to make. It's a pressureless experience."
Motor City Guitar carries tens of thousands of different items, everything from major brands that offer hundreds of models like Fender and Gibson to tiny independent manufacturers that make just one style of guitar pick. They carry quite a few products that only have a handful of dealers in the United States, some being small, independent American manufacturers, others being imports from all over the world that are hard to find here in the States.
Inside the store you'll find guitars, basses, drums, PA and recording equipment, as well as more niche items like ukuleles, banjos, mandolins, and resonators. Minui says lately they've also been dabbling a bit into certain synths and sound modules.
"We're really big on offering variety, and we also carry tons and tons of used gear as well," he says. "We have been stockpiling vintage guitars for many years and have plans of opening a vintage guitar department in the near future."
If you really want your mind blown at the proverbial 11, the most impressive collections are the guitars and effects pedals.
Motor City Guitar stocks several hundreds styles of guitars, and guitar pedals are one of their specialties. They stock at least 1400 different models from over 100 different manufacturers. If you have a certain sound of overdrive in your head, for example, they stock over 100 different overdrive pedals that you can demo to nail the exact sound you're searching for.
Lynch, whose domain is the effects pedals, says, "This is a strange age for musicians because gear of all variety, everything from the obscure to the boutique, is available at the click of a smartphone. To have a brick and mortar store that has hundreds and hundreds of effects pedals ranging from local Detroit and Michigan makers to stuff that's been shipped in from the UK… people come in and are shocked by the volume of gear. The pedal counter is an eye catcher for people who have never been to the store; it's like candy for musicians. It looks like a sea of effects pedals."
He remembers being a teenager and shopping at Motor City Guitar, and the experience of spending hours at the music store or the record shop just browsing and enjoying the being in the scene.
"When kids come in, literally any sort of 'cool' façade drops and they're like, 'What IS this, Wonderland?'" he says. "Millennials didn't grow up going to record stores. This experience of getting in the car and going to the shop and spending a few hours there, when kids discover that it's like everything they've heard about but never experienced themselves. There aren’t many outlets for people to have a tangible experience – the experience of buying something is limited. It's experienced first via a YouTube demo, then ordered on a Macbook, then the item is shipped in the mail and they have it. But really, there's no real treasure hunt. This experience is really more like a treasure hunt."
"We try to stock lots of choices of anything you might be looking for," Minui says humbly. "We've always made it our goal to offer a wide variety of products at our store, to cater to the individual tastes and preferences of all different kinds of players, because music is a really personal thing. It's definitely not a 'one-size-fits-all' kind of business. People sometimes say that we are one of the only 'original' style music stores around, which we consider to be a huge compliment. We try to make people feel comfortable and not under any kind of pressure to buy anything, but just to enjoy being around other musicians and cool music gear."
They're also very competitive and very customer-focused. They'll beat Internet and competitors' prices; they take trade-ins and offer layaway.
"We work with people however we can, and it's our goal to give people more than they expect when they come to Motor City," says Minui. "We know that there are a ton of places that people can shop for music gear, and we appreciate it so much that people come to ours. We want to give them the best gear, the best deals, and the best service we possibly can, and truly earn their business and hopefully their recommendations to their friends."
Motor City Guitar is so much more than just a music store, both to the Minuis and to their loyal clientele. The Minuis treat everyone like family because they actually view everyone as family.
"We deal with people of all ages and of all styles of music, everyone from little kids to internationally touring artists and bands. The majority are regular people, like ourselves; we all love listening to music, playing music, and dreaming about the gear that helps us makes music," says Minui. "Music is a very personal thing, and so is the music business, and it's really rewarding helping people find ways to express themselves in a way that only music can. The store's customers, employees, and many of the reps from the manufacturers we deal with are like family to us."
Minui says the secret to their success is that there is no secret. He cites the golden rule as a fundamental practice of good business – treat other people the way you wish to be treated.
"We have always felt that as long as we focus on what's really important, the rest will take care of itself," he says. "In other words, as long as we had our 'why,' the 'how' will fall into place."
That "how" just happens to be consistently offering the best products they can at the best prices they can, and truly caring about their customers and staff. Again, the secret is there is no secret.
In addition to all of this, the store also offers lessons for all levels from professionally trained musicians, as well as repair services. They also just recently launched their online store where you can check out the inventory (though it should be noted that the online inventory is not yet complete) then come test out whatever you want inside the store. Or order it online, if you must, but where is the fun in that?
When asked what he and his wife are most proud of with their long-running independent music store, Minui says, "When we see someone leaving the store with a big smile on their face. Or when they stop and say that someone at our store helped them find just what they were hoping for, or took good care of them on a service issue – that makes us feel really proud. Or when somebody plays us a song that they wrote, or hands us a recording of their music and says that we helped them with it somehow. That is a really great feeling. The people at Motor City are like family to us. Sometimes someone will say that we are like family to them, too, or that Motor City is like their second home. There probably couldn't be anything that makes us feel prouder than that."