Dennis Jacobs began playing guitar at age nine, going on to study with seasoned pros in his youth and perform professionally as an adult. And he holds a bachelor’s degree in music theory from SUNY New Paltz. But the success of Jacobs Music Center, the full-line music store he opened in Highland in 2005, is due to more than just his musical acumen. He was fortunate, Jacobs says, to have grown up in a family business that taught him business sense from a young age and hands-on skills that would later translate to his multifaceted business.
“My ‘MBA in business’ came by age 12 from the ‘Jacobs Family School of Business,’” Jacobs says with an easy laugh. “I learned from my father, who had three hardware stores when I was growing up in Utica. He taught me about the positives and the dark sides of business, and the things to watch out for. And my uncles had automotive shops, so I learned at a young age how to pull motors out of cars, do transmissions, and electronics. Fixing guitars takes a little more finesse, but it’s basically the same thing.”
Jacobs Music Center is often assumed to be just “a guitar shop” by casual passersby. But despite the number of colorful guitars seen through the windows of the store that wraps around the corner of 1 Milton Avenue — two years into opening the business, Jacobs doubled his space by incorporating another storefront that faces Vineyard Avenue — Jacobs Music Center sells a full line of musical instruments, from digital pianos and all the stringed instruments to saxophones and drums, all of which include a year of free service.
Instrument repairs are a large part of the business, with Jacobs doing 90 percent of the work himself; the set-ups and adjustments and fretwork and fine-tuning. A retired engineer comes in to do a lot of the amplifier repairs and another man services the band instruments. The business also provides band instrument rentals for area students and music lessons.
“I have a real passion for all of it,” says Jacobs. “I’m not a guy who just opened a store and started throwing money at it. I love to teach, I love to play, I love business, I love selling… I’m passionate about all of it. I hand-select what I sell, and I work with companies that are great companies and have been for years.”
Jacobs teaches guitar and bass himself and has instructors who teach the other instruments. Four comfortable lesson studios are available for students of any age. “They can start as young as age five on piano, violin and drums,” he says, “but most kids that age aren’t ready for guitar yet; usually it’s age seven. For the very young ones, sometimes I suggest the ukulele; it’s a bit easier to get them started.”
At the other end of the scale, there are a number of older adults who take lessons. “I have a guy who retired, and moved up from the city, who at 95 years old rides his bike around every day. He always wanted to learn how to play guitar, so came here and started lessons. That’s an inspiration right there.”
To retirees who say, ‘I should have played when I was young,’ Jacobs says, “Play now; there’s no age or time limit on when you can start learning an instrument and enjoying it.” And when his teenage students tell him they can’t make their regular guitar lesson because of football practice, he points out to them that music will be a part of their lives long after their playing days have ended: “You’re not going to be playing football when you’re 70, but you can still sit on your porch and play your guitar.”
His philosophy of teaching is a balance between fun and discipline. “I don’t compromise the fundamentals,” he says. “I make sure they know reading from the start.” There is an easier way to learn guitar, he adds, by just learning a few chords, but Jacobs believes it’s doing a disservice to the student to teach that way. “Some people just want to learn songs, but before you can learn songs, you have to build the foundation. And if a teacher compromises the foundation, at some point the student is going to stop playing and they’ll just know a few songs. But if you learn about theory and harmony and how it relates to the guitar, you develop command and facility over the instrument. You can play anything you want.”
If a person really doesn’t want to learn how to read music, or has a learning disability or just wants to have fun, Jacobs says, “I will adapt my style of teaching. But the fundamental base of what I do, I don’t compromise that. I can adapt the approach, and I want it to be fun for people, but there is work involved. Like anything you do that’s worthwhile, there’s work involved.”
Jacobs says he enjoys teaching young kids as much as teaching older people. “To see a kid play his first chord for the first time, with a smile on his face, is what it’s all about. Or the guy who buys a bass; he always wanted to play, so he bought a bass and he was happy when he left here. Now he’s going to take lessons. And that’s what it’s about, and that’s what it should be about; it’s about people and about love. My slogan is, ‘There’s love in everything we do, just like your grandmother’s sauce. If you want Ragú, then go down to the supermarket; you’re not going to find it in here!’”
One of the challenges of maintaining a local business is getting the word out that he’s there, Jacobs says. There is always a large influx of new people moving into the region and the hamlet of Highland is still a bit off the beaten track for many people in the area, he notes, despite a recent resurgence that has brought the opening of a number of new businesses including Hudson Ale Works a few doors down on Milton Avenue, where Jacobs plays once a month as part of a jazz duo for the First Friday Jazz & Brew series. (He also plays during Sunday brunch every other week at River Station in Poughkeepsie.)
Jacobs moved from Utica to the Hudson Valley some 20 years ago, to attend the college in New Paltz. He stayed after discovering how much he liked the area. “It’s close enough to visit Utica, and to the city, and within 20 minutes there’s a lot around us happening.” Jacobs had already been playing professionally in the Utica area while teaching and selling instruments, so he began doing the same in 2000 from New Paltz. When the storefront in Highland became available — he learned of it from a realtor who happened to be the mother of one of his students — Jacobs committed to opening the business, which celebrated its 13th year this past December.
Jacobs has strong feelings about the value of local businesses within the community. “That’s where the heart of America is. And that’s where we need to be giving incentives to young people who graduate college to open up businesses here and compete with each other in a healthy way, and offer incentives for people to buy things locally.”
In his business, the upside of buying musical instruments close to home has clear advantages over ordering online. A musical instrument is something that “you have to get in somebody’s hands,” he says. “You can’t just order it from Amazon and then when you have a problem, send it back. That’s why we offer a year of worry-free service with every instrument purchase. As a store and as a luthier, I go through the instruments, I set them up. And any problem you have — short of running the instrument over with your car — I take care of it.”
Jacobs references the AmazonSmile program that advertises a donation of half of one percent of sales from qualified purchases to schools. “They want you to think that if you shop online, you’re helping the schools out, but you’re decimating your downtown. If you buy it online because it’s ten dollars cheaper, the next time you come into town, all the stores are gone. You hit the pothole because there’s no money in the tax base and it costs you two grand to fix the front end of your car. We need to re-educate people who have already been programmed from a young age to shop online, that the best review is your own review. Buy it locally; put it in your hands and look at it and check it.”
In the same vein, Jacobs would like to see local school districts staying local when it comes to recommending places to get band instrument rentals or repairs, something that doesn’t always happen. “Come down to my store any day,” he says, “and you’ll have 100 percent access, a few minutes from the schools. Why support a guy from 50 miles away if you’re paying taxes here?”
When asked if he’s had to change the way he does business from the time when he opened the store, Jacobs notes the up-and-down nature of business in general. “There are formulas that have been in place since the beginning of time that don’t change. And if you stick to those principles, you’ll never have a problem. You’ll have challenges, but you’ll never have a problem dealing with challenges. And sometimes you have to charge through the mud; that’s part of it. You’re up, you’re down you’re sideways.”
In every business, he adds, you’ve got to be smart about it as a businessperson, to know that just because you had your best month or your best year, you can’t go out and spend it all. “Because, guess what, the next six months can be 40 percent down. And I’ve seen it happen. You want to stay optimistic, but there’s a balance as a businessperson. All of it is calculated risk… it’s juggling it all and balancing the risks.”
Jacobs Music Center is located at 1 Milton Avenue in the hamlet of Highland. Hours are Monday and Friday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and by appointment or chance. For more information, call (845) 691-2701 or visit Jacobs Music Center on Facebook or the website at http://jacobsmusiccenter.com.