The reality that physical retail stores, big and small, are struggling all over the U.S. is not exactly big news in 2018. Still, when Carrboro's Music Loft closed near the end of December, many musicians in the community were stunned and saddened. Some felt as though a friend had died; as someone who worked there for two years, I felt this loss, too.
Though rumors of the closure had been swirling around for a few weeks, there was no official prior announcement and no going-out-of-business sale to soften the blow. On December 31, a few days after word got out that the shop was closed for good, co-owners Jim and Katharine Dennis posted a statement on Facebook.
"Relationships and music are powerful, which is why it is so hard to have to tell you all that we are not going to be able to have the same relationship we have cherished for many years," it read, in part. "Sadly as the New Year approached we have had to make the very difficult decision to close our doors."
The post included contact information for those who wanted to pick up their consignment items, or receive payment for consignments that were sold.
Jim and Katharine Dennis bought the business from its founder, Jay Miller, in 2002, and Miller became the store's landlord. In recent months, both Jim and Katharine have been dealing with serious medical issues.
"What is important to me is spending time with my wife, living my life, and being around the people I love," Jim Dennis says. "I ran that store for a long time, and I helped a lot of people, and I'm very proud of what I did. It was just the right time to walk away."
Miller says that, if he wanted to, he could advertise the Carrboro space now to the general public and have it rented out within thirty days. But he won't. The better news is that a new project that includes a music store will very likely open in that spot at 116 West Main Street.
Miller is currently trying to work out something new with some former Music Loft employees, as well as guitar repair specialist Brian McGee, who shared rented space with the store; guitar teacher Brian Dennis (no relation), who also used space there; and Frank Worrell, who runs the Creative Music Studios cooperative next door to Music Loft.
"We all have a stake in how this goes," Worrell says.
Miller said he's very interested in collaborating with Worrell, whom he's known for a long time and who is already a tenant. There's talk of using the Music Loft space as part of an expanded "music hub" that would include a smaller store, repair work, lots of teaching, and studio space.
"It would be pretty cool, because it would be a place where you could go to rehearse. You could record. You could take lessons, You could buy things," Miller says.
Miller already owned Music Lofts in Durham and Greensboro when he purchased B&B Music in 1985 and made it the third store in his chain. Eventually, he moved it to Carrboro because the rent was low and he wanted to be near The ArtsCenter.
"While I was there, Carrboro experienced a renaissance that I attribute, more than anyone, to [then-Mayor] Ellie Kinnaird," he recalls of that period from the late-eighties through the mid-nineties. When he was considering a move back to Chapel Hill, Kinnaird convinced him to stay, and set him up with a renovation loan from the town, to spruce up the Main Street building where the Loft has operated since.
Bryon Settle goes back twenty-three years with the Music Loft, having worked at the long-defunct Durham location before working in Carrboro until its closure. He points to the 2008 recession as the doomsday event that's taken a lot of music shops.
"The store never really recovered from that," he says. "Finally, people stopped coming in, which makes it hard to pay the bills."
So what makes aspiring music store owners think they can buck a bad trend? For one thing, several Triangle music stores have survived, and even flourished, mostly because of a commonly used term in that world: service.
"Why is Guitar Center doing lessons and things? Because it's a service," Dennis says. "You can't order a service from Amazon. You can order dog food from Amazon."
For Elayna Madden, the talented young singer-songwriter and guitarist for Carrboro band Cosmic Punk, the best part of the Music Loft's service was free advice, offered without condescension.
"What I really liked about the Music Loft is that Jim, and all the other people that worked there, didn't really think that any question was a stupid question," Madden says.
No matter what type of music store the Main Street space eventually becomes, Music Loft will be missed for its relationship to the community. The store offered two mini-PA systems for rent, and it would often lend them, free of charge, to nonprofit organizations.
Miller praises Dennis for his longtime dedication to the business and willingness to hang on as long as he did during rough times. Their working relationship goes back thirty-five years.
"Jim came to work for me when he was seventeen," he says. "When we opened my second store in Greensboro, he moved there and lived in the store to help get me going. He was invaluable."