South Austin Music owner puts service, relationships first

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James Palaima tests out a guitar Tuesday afternoon at South Austin Music, located on South Lamar Boulevard. The owner of the store, Bill Welker, concentrates around customer’s requests in running his business.

Photo Credit: Mary Kang | Daily Texan Staff

Almost 20 years ago, South Austin Music owner Bill Welker picked up the phone at his store and heard a voice on the other end ask for the guitar strap department.

“Small of a store as I am, I thought that was pretty humorous,” Welker said. “I put him on hold and then I got right back on the line. I said, ‘This is Billy in guitar straps, how can I help you?’”

The potential customer asked if the store carried a specific elastic strap. When Welker said he did, the caller told him he was with singer/songwriter James Taylor’s tour group, and could he please deliver the item to the Four Seasons Hotel as soon as possible?

“I get to the Four Seasons thinking I was going to meet James Taylor’s guitar player or someone in the band,” Welker said. “But then I’m standing in the lobby and here comes James Taylor. When you grow up listening to ‘Sweet Baby James’ and all those hits, and then you get to meet the writer, that’s pretty special.”

Meeting his childhood idol was a highlight of Welker’s long career at South Austin Music, but he has no shortage of good memories. Oct. 1 marked the official 25th anniversary of the store’s opening, according to the original resale certificate Welker still has hanging above the counter.

The business owner started the store after graduating with a business degree from Midwestern State University. Although he doesn’t play any instruments, he put himself through school working at a music shop in Wichita Falls.

“A lot of people have a natural ability when it comes to the guitar, and there are some people that really have to work at it pretty hard,” Welker said. “I’m one of those that had would have had to work at it really hard. I know a lot about guitars from years of experience, but my main interest is helping musicians.”

He said the store, which has been in the same location on South Lamar Boulevard since it opened, looks a lot different than it did 25 years ago. Today it is covered floor to ceiling with guitars, banjos, amps and every conceivable accessory.

In 1986, Welker said South Austin Music only had six or seven guitars in its inventory, but he tried to build up his business by taking customer’s requests.

Brent Wilson, a longtime South Austin Music employee and guitar player, said Welker still has the same “we’ll get you what you need” attitude he had when the store opened.

“He tries to support his customers by going to see them play live whenever he can,” Wilson said. “After working a full day and going home to take care of three kids, it would be just as easy to say ‘I’m tired, I don’t want to go out.’ But that’s not what he does.”

By building relationships with Austin musicians, Welker tries to ensure there’s always a few people in the shop testing out the instruments. But in an economy where many people are strapped for cash, Welker said it can be difficult converting browsers into customers. Sometimes the shop can feel more like a museum than a guitar store.

“I tell everyone to make sure they’re having conversations with people,” Welker said. “You might be talking about music, or instruments. You might even just be talking about the weather. When you have conversations with people in your store, it always leads to something and you hope that it leads to future business.”

Hispanic studies junior Adrian Haynes lives close to South Austin Music and has been visiting the store for the past four years. Several months ago, he brought his guitar into get serviced before recording an EP with his band.

“It’s like taking your car in to get it fixed,” Haynes said. “You don’t want someone you don’t know messing with your car, and it’s the same with this. I know the guys there and feel comfortable around them.”

Printed on Wednesday, October 5, 2011 as: Music store owner tunes in to patrons