‘IT IS PART OF YOUR SOUL’
Twenty-three years ago, when Santa Barbara resident Chris Kamen first decided to go into business importing and selling high-end classical and flamenco guitars, he saw ahead of the curve.
Consisting of no location and only one worker, himself, Mr. Kamen’s store Classic Guitars International has operated entirely online since the late 1990s.
Though he initially opened a physical store on Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks, it didn’t take long for him to realize that renting a location and having a sales staff were becoming “things of the past.” Mr. Kamen expected the internet would become an increasingly viable method of conducting business.
“Fortunately for me, the internet grew as I suspected it would and I eventually became one of the better known international guitar dealers with clients all over the world,” he recalled.
Mr. Kamen was originally a dentist and practiced for three years before retiring from private practice. He then started SmileSaver, a dental HMO that he described as “one of the larger plans of its type” in California. Big enough, it turned out, to catch the eye of Montcorp, a subsidiary of retail company Montgomery Ward. When Montcorp bought SmileSaver for several million dollars in 1994, Mr. Kamen retired at the age of 43. His retirement only lasted five years, because he “did not like it at all.”
Though he had played guitar as a hobby since he was boyhood, Mr. Kamen started taking multiple weekly lessons for classical and flamenco guitar during his retirement after his wife bought him a small classical instrument. In search of something to do, Mr. Kamen soon realized that he could make money from his love of guitars online.
Produced by luthiers from Canada, Germany, England, Spain, Australia, and France, the new and used guitars Mr. Kamen imports range in price from $5,000 to $80,000. On average, he sells between 35 and 40 guitars per year. For Mr. Kamen, the best part of his work is its matchmaking aspect, as he equated setting up a guitarist with a new instrument with setting someone up with a significant other. Quoting a late luthier named Manuel Velazquez, Mr. Kamen said “A guitar is more than a soundbox, it is part of your soul.
“When I am discussing the needs of one of my clients, and trying to figure out what is the best guitar for his or her specific personality and playing style, I often feel more like a matchmaker than a guitar dealer, the relationship is that intimate.”
Just as Mr. Kamen’s guitars come from all over the world, so do his buyers. While he is frequently visited by clients from Japan, Russia, China, Australia, and England, he stated it is “oddly rare” for him to receive a local client. Though he has worked with certain clients for two decades, he hasn’t met most of them. When selling an instrument, he ships it to a client for a 48-hour risk-free trial, during which time the buyer either has the option of buying the guitar or returning it. Because he has developed an ability to listen to his clients’ musical needs, Mr. Kamen estimates that his buyers choose to buy the guitars he suggests about 90 percent of the time.
His clients include professional classical guitarists like Pablo Sainz Villegas, Sergio and Odair Assad, and Ana Vidovic.
At this point, Mr. Kamen describes his business’ status as “in cruising mode” and doesn’t see any massive changes for it on the horizon. For 2020, he is considering adding the products of a few luthiers not yet included in his selections, but he doesn’t add luthiers to his inventory willy-nilly. Though guitar builders constantly contact him and express interest in doing business, Mr. Kamen is “very picky.”
“My clients expect this of me,” he said.
By working via the internet, Mr. Kamen has avoided the challenge most local businesses face: high rent. Because Classic Guitars International is a one-man operation, he has no salaries to pay and would like it to stay that way. In theory he could grow his business, but it would go against what has become his motto.
“The day I have to hire my first employee is the day I have failed,” he said.