Willis Music and Manager Bob Totten – A Winning Duo

Being a sales manager for World Book Encyclopedia paid marvelously well, but for Bob Totten, the hours were just too long and too irregular to continue, so he got busy and found himself another job -- managing a Willis Music company retail store. He solved at least part of his problems: the hours were more regular, if still too many. He began to be involved in something that was of interest to him -- music -- and combined with his background in sales, the position was tailor-made for him to find success and that is just what he has done.

A recent Saturday found Totten trying to decide whether to talk to customers or to the national representatives from Gibson Guitar Company who were in town to help in the "Gibson Day" promotion that was going on. A drawing to give away a Les Paul Standard was scheduled and the crowd of shoppers in the store was evidence of the effectiveness of such a technique. Nonetheless, Totten took time out to talk about the store.

Displaying several of their line of guitars are, standing, from left, Gibson representatives Jim Hilditch and John Hawkins, and salesman Gary Rosenbaum. Bob Totten, Manager of Willis Music, is seated in the foreground. Photo by Tom Metcalfe

Totten noted that Willis is interested in building up a customer base composed of mothers and their children. If Willis sells them their first instrument and teaches them to play it, then they'll buy sheet music and upgrade their instruments at Willis on into the future, he observed. The store handles only a few electronic devices, primarily keyboards, and there are no plans to increase that part of their business. Totten explained that the electronic market is changing so fast that by the time buyers pick up the equipment and get it to the retail level, it's nearly obsolete.

Totten has the background to prefer acoustic instrumentation. During his more youthful days, he hung around at the Storefront Congregation, a Bardstown Road establishment run by Ken Pyle and Sheila Joyce, current owners of the Rudyard Kipling Restaurant. At that time, the Storefront Congregation was the favorite hangout of the folk and bluegrass crowd in Louisville and was famous for jam sessions featuring mandolinist Sam Bush, banjo player Courtney Johnson, and other talented players, both well-known and not-so-well-known. These days, Totten occasionally appears at the Rudyard, but his spare time (such as it is) is devoted to studying jazz guitar and he has recently been accepted into the Bellarmine Music School, where he will pursue a course of study with jazz instructor Jeff Sherman.

His schedule at the store doesn't leave him a lot of time for playing, particularly since he has increased the store's business by about forty percent since starting with the company two years ago. Besides that, he has recently gotten on the Board of Directors of the Mall Merchants Association and has been instrumental in assisting the Merchants Association in sponsoring and staging entertainment events in the Mall, which are quite popular.

"The Willis Company really runs six separate businesses in each store," Totten explained. The company is a publisher of sheet music, with over two hundred and fifty thousand titles in its catalog, including the John Thompson piano courses, which Willis acquired many years ago. The company is currently running a series of promotions featuring famous players who started out on the Thompson piano method. The list of such players reads like a Who's Who in the music business.

Susan House holds the Gibson Les Paul Standard she just won from Willis Music. Photo by Tom Metcalfe

There is a band instrument rental program, and a piano sales and rental section, both of which support sheet music sales. The store sells a complete line of Gibson and Epiphone guitars and banjos, plus Martin, Ovation, Fender and Takamine instruments, as well as a house brand. Instrument buyers are then offered the opportunity to take lessons for their instrument from a teacher in the store.

The teachers on hand at the store offer a wide variety of musical styles and instruments. Local luthier and classical guitarist Tom Lee teaches guitar and banjo; jazz guitarist Ron Hayden is teaching a summer series before returning to the East Coast, where he has been gigging in the Atlantic city casino circuit; Chris Tolbert, guitarist with the Bellarmine Jazz Trio, has a steady parade of students; Bonnie Buchanan, lead guitarist for the newly re-formed all-female rock band Genuine Risk, is particularly good at teaching kids; wrapping up the staff for guitar is Walt Butler, who passes along tricks of the metal and rock trade; Nancy Harris, spouse of local band leader Sam Harris, is the flute instructor; Monica Oldaker teaches saxophone and clarinet; Melanie Isaacs is the classical piano teacher; Darrin Mitchell also teaches classical and jazz piano; David Crites, bassist for Walker and Kays, teaches that instrument.

The emphasis on education is in accordance with the direction in which the Willis Company is traveling. With six studios in the rear of the store and the large stock of song titles on hand, the Jefferson Mall store is leading the way for the remaining nine stores in the Willis chain. Totten thinks that the future for his company and store looks very good.

After only eight years in the retail business, Willis Music is doing quite well. Totten notes that he has even moved a gnome, referring to the little figurines which constitute the final piece of the Willis business, which is as a gift store, dealing primarily with musical items.

Totten has also gotten interested and involved with the L.A.S.C. and has recently been collaborating with a couple of other members in writing songs. He has not yet performed them in public, however, and he says that doesn't think that he will be in the near future.

Meanwhile, the crowd in the store was getting more dense, as the hour for the drawing approached. Totten moved into the middle of the store and began the drawing, giving away T-shirts, gig bags and tour jackets before getting to the big finale featuring the Les Paul Standard, which was won by an expectant mother, Susan House. Totten the salesman kept the crowd in the store just a little longer by throwing packets of guitar strings into the air. Finally he quit and the crowd dispersed, allowing him to get to the final, most important part of his "Gibson Day" day -- counting the money.