PEPPERELL -- It was the want of personal relationships with customers and professional industry people that drove Steve Zimmelman and Scott Litchfield to open Higher End Instruments Music.
Their Nashua-based brick-and-mortar operation, HEI Music for short, grew out of an online distribution company that Zimmelman maintained at his home in Pepperell. Vogel Guitars, an Ecuadorian manufacturer, made what Litchfield called the "most beautiful sounding guitars we've heard."
"It can be a lot of work, there is tons of product on the web, but we always had the vision for a neighborhood store," Zimmelman said.
Last July they opened an Amherst Street-plaza storefront and began business. Being a full-service establishment with repairs and lessons in addition to equipment, HEI prides itself on being navigators of the music industry, familiar with products and the people behind them.
"Vogel's are great sounding, but there are some quality control issues," Zimmelman said. "Some of their stuff was hit or miss and it became hard to carry their product."
Recently, HEI again reached out to Vogel, providing feedback to their online partner's and interest in carrying their products again. Although Vogel guitars aren't at the store, names like DR Strings, Korg, Gibson and Suhr are.
"We didn't start out higher-end, but strive to find well made instruments that sound great; be it those bigger companies or smaller ones like Armadillo and Luna, we want to carry
Roland, he added, being a leading manufacturer sold worldwide, is always concerned with how the store is doing.
"They are an elite dealer, but they have great reps and we've met the CEO of the company," Zimmelman said, adding that he was surprised to find that Roland engineers usually are musicians, playing the instruments they help design.
He and Litchfield are musicians too, turning passion into a business. Before moving to Pepperell, Zimmelman lived in California and dreamed of becoming Ringo Starr. Litchfield is a lifelong Nashua-area native, who began playing at church and has since moved on to studio work, and through HEI he has formed a partnership with nearby Studio 99.
"I enjoy all aspects of the music experience," he said. "And now I've enhanced it with product knowledge."
For years, Litchfield has been a dedicated Ibanez guitar player, and through the store, he has fostered a business relationship with them.
After being open for a few months, HEI Music was lauded for it's combination of carrying big names while maintaining the essence and look of a mom-and-pop by being nominated "Best Single-Store New Dealer Award" by Music & Sound Retailer Magazine. They didn't win, but HEI was one of four stores nominated nationwide.
Carole Zimmelman, Steve's wife who helped found the store and works there, said it was their "insider knowledge and having a clue about service" that earned them the distinction, and she always sees customer satisfaction at the store.
"I get excited when customers are here, and it's interesting to see their enthusiasm when they're in the store," she said.
According to Steve Zimmelman, patrons are "more like friends," and they are welcome to try anything in the store, plugging into a pile of amps or picking from the 'Uke Tree' to strum a ukulele.
One young customer, described by Zimmelman and Litchfield as a "monster bass player," even got a Tradition sponsorship through the store when the pair used their industry connections to send a video of the kid playing.
Litchfield said there is a good mix of customers, from aspiring kids to Berklee College of Music professors. The area also has a good garage band scene, which keeps kids coming in to replace or upgrade equipment, he said.
Still, despite their steady success, the pair agree they underestimated starting a small business.
"We underestimated in almost every aspect and were totally caught off-guard by some things," Steve Zimmelman said. "Visibility is hard, people still don't know that were here, they'll drive by never knowing about us."
Economy-wise, however, he said he feels they opened at a good time, despite the trials of starting up, HEI has gotten off the ground better than it may have a few years ago.
A small store has also allowed them to get involved with local music festivals and concerts. North Middlesex Regional High School's Winter Percussion ensemble, a drum core program, is sponsored by the store too. Last year, HEI began supplying t-shirts designed by the musicians and providing them with equipment.
The store is located at 433 Amherst St. in Nashua. Hours are 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Saturday. Contact HEI by phone at 603-546-6760 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.