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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Chris Graham, Clayton Jones, Greg Nipp, Isaac Wood, and Richard Long at Picker's Exchange on Ringgold Road in East Ridge.

In the 1992 movie "Wayne's World," Mike Myers' title character visits a music store and picks up a guitar he's long coveted, but can't afford. He starts a classic Led Zeppelin riff, but is cut off by a store staffer, who points to a sign that reads "NO Stairway to Heaven."

Greg Nipp said no such prohibition exists at Picker's Exchange, the East Ridge guitar shop he's owned since 2012.

"We tell people to feel free to play anything they see," he said. "When it gets too quiet in here, we'll actually ask people to play."

If figures cited by Nipp are any indication, a lot of people turned to guitars when their homes got too quiet during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The retail guitar industry had a 30% increase nationwide in 2020," he said. "[Guitar maker] Fender had its biggest year ever, and our sales here doubled."

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Picker's Exchange

At the outset of the pandemic, Nipp said he thought his store would be overrun with individuals wanting to sell guitars for some extra cash. What actually happened, he said, was the exact opposite.

"We sold our entire stock of used guitars in about two weeks," Nipp said. "We had to add new stock — about a dozen brands we hadn't carried before."

Picker's Exchange manager Clayton Jones said that while people weren't selling their guitars at the store, they were still bringing the instruments in.

"It seemed to me that everybody who had a guitar under the bed dropped it off to get it repaired so they'd have something to do," he said, adding that the store never had to shut down for an extended stretch.

"We followed all the guidelines," Jones said. "For a while there, it was just Greg and me every day — masked up, with social-distancing markers in the shop. We continually met new customers who'd say, 'I wish I'd known you were here.'"

Picker’s Exchange

* Opened: 1996

* Address: 4316 Ringgold Road

* Online: PickersExchange.com

* Employees: Five

While Nipp has owned Picker's Exchange for nearly a decade, he said he started working there in 2001. He said he's also taught guitar at the store for 20 years and saw the pandemic affect that enterprise, as well.

"My teaching business just got decimated," he said. "In one week, I went from having 35 or 40 students to about 15 — and those 15 all had webcams, so those lessons were all on Zoom.

"It made me step back and take a new look at our focus — I'd treated to store as kind of secondary, there to support my teaching. That changed last year. The store's now at a different level," he said.

Just before the pandemic hit, Nipp connected his store to a guitar-specific online sales platform. Picker's Exchange did about 10 percent of its business online in 2020, he said.

"We sold guitars in Japan, Finland and Italy," he said. "Ideally, I'd like to continue to increase online sales, but I don't aspire to be an online store."

Nipp and Picker's Exchange seem ideally matched, given that Nipp was a guitarist long before he became a business owner.

"I knew from the time I was a teenager that I wanted to play, but the deal at home was 'Get your degree, then you can do whatever you want.' I got a degree in business, then started playing in bands."

By the time he hit his mid-30s, Nipp said he'd had enough of long car trips to and from weekend gigs. He focused on teaching, and eventually found a home at Picker's Exchange, which turns 25 this year.

"From the time I was 22, I spent every day in music stores," he said. "I got a good idea of how I'd want to run one — guitars should have price tags. Amplifiers should be plugged in, so you don't have to spend five minutes trying to figure that out.

"And whether you're with a customer or on the phone, everything stops when someone walks in the door," Nipp adds. "You want that customer to know that they're important."

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