PEPPERELL -- Tucked away on Hotel Place, cornered by the dog-legged section of Main Street, it's somewhat hidden, but not to the outside world.
Pepperell Music Center, which began as an extension of owner Alan St. Croix's passion for music, has been recognized as a top 100 dealer by the National Association of Music Merchants. Since 2006, when his store opened, St. Croix has been a member of the nonprofit NAMM, which represents 9,000 members in 87 countries.
"The organization is great. There are so many members and they do great things for mom-and-pop stores," he said.
His store could be number one for 2012, for all he knows, but St. Croix said he was just grateful to have been picked for the top 100. Summer NAMM, a festival held in Nashville, will hold a ceremony for the winners, but winter NAMM is more St. Croix's gig.
Each January, the Anaheim, Calif.-based exhibition boasts an attendance of about 150,000, St. Croix said. Store owners, product nerds, heads of industry big and small and recording artists go out west for a week and simply mingle.
"It's good for checking out gear and meeting people, after going for a while there are people who know me. Earl Slick and I meet up every year and have a beer," he said.
Slick, a rhythm guitarist, was a studio player for John Lennon and Yoko Ono and has toured with David Bowie since the mid-70s. Although someone like Slick is relatively unknown to the general listening populace, St. Croix has
He began playing music around 13, absorbing everything he could about the industry: who's who, what gear they play and where they do it. By age 15, he was playing in clubs.
Over the next decade, his band covered ground from Maine to New Jersey. He made a pact with himself that if he hadn't made it in the music business by 30 that he would get out.
St. Croix began Alan's Photography, across the street from where he is now and walked away from playing for 15 years.
"Even though I walked away, it stays in your blood," he said.
Like NAMM's mission to promote music making to people of all ages, Pepperell Music Center started in 2006 and quickly became known as a lesson store. A place not just to buy gear, but to "Come in and Play," as its motto suggests.
"We see about 50 students per week during the school year, 5 to 82 years old," St. Croix said. "We have a solid group of instructors who have always been here, too. There is a familiarity with our staff."
During the summer, his seven instructors run a sort of garage-band camp. St. Croix says the store was "something Pepperell needed."
"When I first got the idea, people thought it was crazy," he said. "But if I was ever at a point where I had to leave the area, I wouldn't. I want to continue to bring music to Pepperell."
Piano instructor Darrell Lambert, one of the first instructors to begin teaching out of the store, says the sense of community is what makes it such a great place.
"It's really been word-of-mouth marketing, a lot of our students are brothers and sisters and cousins and nephews, or people in the same circle of friends," he says.
Lessons are structured around the student, too, Lambert added.
St. Croix is self-taught, and promotes that same personal approach to new musicians.
"It's whatever they want to learn," he said. "If they want to learn chords, music theory, learn how to improvise or better themselves to be a part of jam sessions or bands, they can do it."
The personal touch comes on the sales side, too. St Croix said there have been times when he has gone out to customers' houses to set up drum kits and will give out free sticks or free guitar strings for musicians who are just starting out.
NAMM helps, too. One year at the Anaheim trade show St. Croix and some instructors met representatives from Cort Guitars. Pepperell Music Center became a distributor in the area.
Recently, the store received a phone call from them.
"'Another store wants to carry us, but they're 6 miles away. You were the first one in the area -- it's your call' they said," St. Croix said.
His answer was no, he said, because he wanted to remain the sole dealer of such a unique product. St. Croix called it a perfect of example of how the NAMM trade show allows shops like his to build rapport.
Locally, he plans to keep his prices modest and products unique. As for what's next, St. Croix is planing on bringing big-name performers into the store for shows and clinics and possibly expanding the lesson spaces.
This is the second year he has been booking the Pepperell Business Association concert series, which happens each Thursday at the town field bandstand during the summer. On June 16 the Pepperell Music Store band Middle of Nowhere will be performing at the Lawrence Library.
Visit the Pepperell Music Center at 4 Hotel Place or on the Web at Pepperellmusiccenter.com.
Follow Luke Steere at twitter.com/lsnashobapub.