Chances are, being a left handed guitar player you’ve probably heard of the famous Southpaw Guitar store. Afterall, if you search Google for ‘left handed guitar’ Southpawguitars.com is the number one result to pop up! This week David Kaplan of the Houston Chronicle interviewed the owner, Jim Duncan.
Left handed guitars are hard to come by, which is why Southpaw Guitars thrives.
What’s viewed as a bother for most music instrument stores is Southpaw Guitars’ reason for being. It has almost 1,000 left handed guitars in-house — acoustic and electric.
The Internet benefits Duncan greatly, enabling him to reach lefties around the world. His 30-year-old business quadrupled when he began selling online in the late 1990s, he said.
He expects to take in $1.2 million this year, and the store has generated about $1 million in sales annually each of the past eight years.
‘A great niche’ – Left Handed Guitars!
“He’s found a great niche, since about one out of 10 people is lefthanded. That’s one of the best niche businesses I’ve ever heard of,” said Irwin Miller, a counselor with the Houston chapter of SCORE, a group advising small-business owners.
Today, a small business almost has to have a niche, whether it’s by offering specialized merchandise or offering exceptional service or expertise, Miller said, because you can’t go head-to-head with a mass merchandiser.
The key to Southpaw Guitars’ success is having a deep selection, Miller said.
There are other left handed guitar stores online, Duncan said, but he hasn’t seen any with nearly as many instruments available.
A number of online businesses cater to lefties, including those selling golf equipment, scissors, corkscrews, can openers, writing instruments and office supplies. The London-based online Anything Left Handed Store has been selling a wide variety of lefty products since 1968.
Firsthand experience of being a left handed guitar player
Duncan was drawn to his business being a left handed guitarist himself. Since age 10 he had trouble finding a southpaw guitar.
Store manager Larry Bararata, also a left handed guitarist, ships about 30 instruments a week, most outside Texas. The average price of a guitar is $2,000, Duncan said. Lefty guitars in the store range from $99 to $7,000. A southpaw guitar costs slightly more than a traditional one, he said.
He sells Gibson, Martin, Fender, Taylor and other brands. A left handed guitar is the mirror image of a right handed guitar, Duncan said: “Everything is backwards – the bracing, strings and bridge.”
“If it weren’t for them, I don’t know what I’d do,” said John Coffman, a high school librarian in Oakland, Md, referring to Southpaw Guitars. He bought a guitar from the store by phone last week. Coffman spent about $2,600 for a left handed Gibson J-150.
He discovered Southpaw Guitars during a Web search. It is the only place where he has found a vast selection of quality left handed guitars, he said.
Southpaw Guitars’ website, left-handedguitar.com, is not slick but is easy to find if a consumer enters the search words “left handed guitar,” Duncan said.
Clout with manufacturers
The store has cultivated clout with manufacturers, he said. For example, he has the U.S. exclusive for left handed Fender Jazzmaster and Jaguar models, he noted. And it sells left handed basses.
Southpaw Guitars also serves walk-ins. In addition, the store sells traditional accordions, banjos, guitars and other instruments for right handers, and it does repairs.
When Duncan opened the store in 1980, he sold mostly traditional guitars and had just a few left handed guitar models in stock. He went to the Dallas Vintage Guitar Show each year to accumulate left handed guitars from vendors who had no use for them.
It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that he had more lefty than righty guitars.
In the pre-Internet days, he cultivated a mailing list of 8,000 left handed guitar enthusiasts through word of mouth. Two years after using the Internet, he stopped sending mailers.
Famous left handed guitarists include Paul McCartney, Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain.
Professionals who have bought from Duncan include Los Lobos band member Cesar Rosas. Marc Bonilla of the Keith Emerson Band recently spent more than $25,000 on a left handed guitar, a rare vintage Gibson electric, Duncan said.
A retired rocker in Massachusetts spends a minimum of $60,000 a year ordering from Southpaw Guitars.
“He just sits around his house and plays,” Duncan said.
A homey feel
Southpaw Guitars has a homey feel. Some signs in the store reflect Duncan’s Christian faith. Other show his style of humor: “Hippies Use Back Door. No Exceptions.”
Southpaw Guitars attracts regulars, one of whom, Mark McDaniel, became the store’s CPA.
He first came in 1998 and bought a white Fender Stratocaster. After that, he’d drop by to play guitars. Southpaw Guitars allows customers to try out its instruments.
Duncan still strums, too. Asked to describe his skill level, he said: “Not that good. I just love them.
“When I was a little kid, I had a dream about being surrounded by guitars, and they were all mine.”
I don’t know about you, but Houston was just bumped up a few notches in my ‘places to live’ list!
Have you bought from Southpawguitars.com? Leave your comments below.