MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - Eric Martin loves guitars. He learned to play at 16, an affair of the heart.
"When I was a kid, all I could do was try to figure out a way to keep a guitar in my hand," Eric said. "I'd come home from school, play guitar. Mom would call us to the dinner table. I'd sit down to eat and then I'd run back to my room and play guitar. I wish I had the amount of time that I did then now to continue playing the guitar all the time but that's why I'm here. I keep guitars around me all day long."
Lovers of stringed instruments in Memphis, the Mid-South, and all over the world have taken note of the guitar passion that lives at Martin Music at 1659 Poplar Ave. in Midtown. The well-stocked guitar shop features the equivalent of a cigar humidor kept at a constant 45 to 55 percent humidity for the benefit of solid wood instruments.
"With solid wood, you have to maintain it at a specific temperature and humidity level. If you don't --- if it gets too dry --- they'll split or crack and they don't sound as good either. You'll have other issues with frets and other maintenance problems," said Eric as we stood in the room surrounded by guitars placed with tender, loving care.
Eric played in high school and college bands and even started a recording studio as a young man. By day, he worked at Memphis' old Colie-Stoltz Music store and would record music by night. But his friends in the recording industry warned him that he'd likely end up recording jingles and commercials to pay the bills.
Recording up and coming bands might be fun but hardly ever fills up the cash register! So Eric made a bold move just as the owner of the Colie-Stoltz Music store decided to change careers.
"Wendell Stoltz closed to go into law practice and I bought a bunch of his old fixtures, his mailing list and that sort of thing," Eric said. Martin Music was born. "I was fortunate, too. In 1997, I had this idea. I could take pictures of guitars and put them on a website. Before then, I would advertise in national magazines. People would call. I'd actually take a Polaroid picture and mail it to them. A week later they'd say OK I want that guitar. So then I bought a digital camera and set up a website 1997 that was really new. There were very few stores doing that. It really worked," Eric said.
The website attracted fellow guitar lovers from all over the United States and around the world.
"If you go to a lot of guitar shops, typically you'll see there's more low end and mid-range instruments than there are high end and here we have more high end ---we have a fair amount of low-end and mid-range as well --- we have way more high-end inventory than this local market would support. Again, we started this internet business in 1997 and when people are looking for high-end instruments, they will look everywhere. You can see a picture of every one of these --- not stock photos --- but each one of these instruments on our website in multiple angles, descriptions of all of it, specs, everything, all the details on it so if you're looking for a certain thing and you're in Collierville or you're in Sacramento or Singapore, you can find us," Eric said.
Martin Music's Poplar Ave. store opened more than eight years ago, complete with a distinctive sign custom made to look like a giant guitar and amplifier. Eric originally opened his business on Germantown Parkway and served customers from Cordova for a dozen years. He also had a store in Southaven for three years. Eric and his four staff members got a sweet wake-up call as they went about their business selling high-quality guitars and shipping them with TLC. "We had been shipping stuff all over the place. It was probably 2005 or 2006. There's a company called Paul Reed Smith Guitars, the same brand you see Santana play. The artist roster is pretty amazing. It's one of the premier American brands. They called me and said hey, you are the second largest dealer for us in the world last year! That would be like saying if you're a car dealership, you were the second largest Lexus dealer in the world. It's that kind of equivalent. I had no idea. I was just doing what I do. That was very cool," Eric said.
Martin Music's inventory includes a wide selection of Gibson guitars, even though the manufacturer has a retail shop of its own across from FedEx Forum at the Gibson-Memphis factory.
"The [Gibson] hollow bodies are made here in Memphis. The acoustics are made in Montana. They make other electrics in Nashville and have imports made in China, Indonesia. The guys at the Gibson plant have been fantastic to us. They have tourists come through to tour the guitar factory and go into at the Gibson retail shop there (and customers ask) where else can we look at guitars? They will send them to us. Whenever I want to get a guitar for my inventory, they will allow me to come into the factory and hand pick out guitars. They have been nothing but kind and generous to us. We're in Memphis so I should be selling Gibson. It's part of being in Memphis," Eric said.
In addition to selling guitars, basses, amplifiers and anything you need when it comes to the stringed instrument, Martin Music also offers repair services. Robert Scoby, a "luthier," repairs guitars and Lyle Caldwell handles amplifier fixes.
Some gifted teachers also give lessons at Martin Music, an idea that touches the guitar loving heartstrings of Martin Music's owner.
"I have teachers here that I would like to take lessons from," Eric said.