It takes something special to keep a very small business in operation for decades, and two Fort Wayne retailers with that achievement to their credit have shown they didn’t need a big workforce to inspire a lot of customer loyalty.
Gisela Baeuerle, founder of Lampshades Plus at 6218 Covington Road, started planning this month to celebrate 30 years in business late this summer or early this fall. And Keith “Skip” Calvin said he plans to close the Fort Wayne Guitar Exchange at 1517 N. Wells St. this month after 25 years in business.
Their shops are among 512,348 small businesses in the state that comprised 99.4% of its businesses and employed 1.2 million, or 44.9%, of its workforce, according to the Small Business Administration’s 2019 Small Business Profile of Indiana.
The latest SBA data for the state on startups and exits showed 3,490 establishments started up during the third quarter of 2017, creating 12,883 new jobs, while 3,104 establishments exited, resulting in the loss of 13,665 jobs.
Nationally, close to four out of five establishments founded in 2016 survived until 2017. The SBA said about half of all establishments survive five years or longer, but only one-third survive 10 years or longer.
Superior service was the key to beating those odds for both Lampshades Plus and Guitar Exchange, their founders said.
Baeuerle is the only employee at Lampshades Plus, but it has had as many as four employees at a time in the past. She opened the shop after gaining experience working for local operations of Light World from 1969 to 1973 and managing a local Lampshades Unlimited store from 1981 to 1989.
“I try to accommodate the needs of my customers and I stand behind my products because I sell quality items; I don’t sell lamps you would go and buy in a box store,” she said.
“There is a difference between a lamp from Walmart and a lamp you or I would purchase here. I buy the basic lamps I know people still like and try to find lamps that are the latest things and that are unusual,” Baeuerle said.
“There is quite a variety and it has kept me in business,” she said. “When they bring in a lamp for repair it never leaves the premises; it’s always here at the store from the day they leave it until they pick it up.”
The store sells lamps, lampshades and finials. It also repairs lamps. It can have lampshades re-covered through an arrangement with a factory that does the specialized work, but that typically costs three times the price of a new lampshade.
Many customers replace lampshades about every five years and have shopped at the store for those replacements and their other lighting needs for decades, Baeuerle said.
In addition to appreciating the quality of the inventory she carries, “I think customer service is one of my main things,” she said.
“I have many customers who have been with me for 30 years or at least 20 years, and it’s almost like we have a friendship because of the type of rapport we have with one another,” she said.
“I respect them, and they respect me and when I do the work, they know I will do it correctly. I have many customers who say, ‘I don’t care how many days you’re open, just don’t close.’”
Lampshades Plus is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays. Baeuerle is thinking of celebrating 30 years in business with a drawing for something at the store, she said.
Fort Wayne Guitar Exchange buys, sells and repairs guitars in a commercial district of North Wells Street.
“There has been as many as four, but these last several years it’s just been the two of us,” Calvin said of his staff. Around the same time that two employees died, “we moved into a smaller, more central location and just two of us could handle it.
“We had a building out on Clinton Street, but it just ate us alive and really we had to move to survive. It was agonizing. I didn’t want to lose the building; I had invested a lot of money in it.
“But that was ’08, and it really took out a lot of businesses. The economy was terrible, so we found this place that was a little smaller and the area it was in was thriving as well.”
Fort Wayne Guitar Exchange was founded on Calvin’s passion for the instrument. He got into the business gradually by buying and selling them at guitar shows to supplement his musician’s income to expand his personal collection of them.
Through the years, the business had to adjust to a shrinking market as people became busier and musical instruments lost their share of the remaining available leisure time hours to an explosion of digital entertainment and related pursuits such as social media.
Over time, Calvin said he began noticing fewer venues in the area offering live music, which translated into less financial support for its musician community, the shop’s primary patrons. It also faced increasing online competition, he said.
Superior customer service is what kept Fort Wayne Guitar Exchange going in the face of those challenges, Calvin said.
“We’ve always put service first and taken care of our customers. If you took your guitar to bigger shop to get it fixed you would be lucky to get it back in 90 days, and if you play a guitar in a band you need it by the weekend,” he said.
Speedier work for most types of repairs “was the thing we could do, and get it back to the owner,” Calvin said. “We dealt in 95% used stuff too, and with our customer base, most of them like the vintage stuff.”
In recent years it became clear that to remain profitable, the business would have to get larger or smaller, and Calvin said he didn’t see the point of putting in the effort the growth route would require. It now has a closing sale underway.
“The fellow who works with me, I think he’s going to spin off into a guitar repair service, so he’ll still be doing that, just at a different location. That’s where a lot of our profit came from,” Calvin said.
“I probably will continue to sell guitars through the rest of my life but do it in a different manner, going to guitar shows and doing that in a way that will eliminate my overhead,” he said. “I’m 70 years old and … it is time to see what is next.
“Most businesses don’t make it 10 years, and many don’t make it 10 months. I’ve been at it 25 years. I started with just my initial investment and my guitar collection and now I’ve got a bigger guitar collection. And that’s what I wanted to begin with, so I win.”