LITTLETON — Happiness is doing what you love and wanting what you have. By those standards, Dan and Moocho Salomon are very happy, living and breathing guitars as the owners of Northern Lights Music.
An anchor of Littleton's downtown on the corner of Main and Mill streets, Northern Lights Music is part museum, part candy store for musicians and part a conversation waiting to happen. For the past 36 years, the Salomons have been having fun and turning a profit, even in the face of big-box competition.
A sign on the front door of the historic three-story structure, which was erected in 1833 and is the oldest wooden building on Main Street, immediately makes it clear that this is not your typical music store, in so far that in most other stores, "unattended children" most probably will NOT "be used as percussion instruments."
Inside, you can buy a bumper sticker in school-bus yellow and black with the safety message "Warning/Driver Signing," a nose flute — a veritable steal at only 99 cents — a didgeridoo, drums, ukuleles, violins, mandolins, and, of course, guitars, ranging in price from $100 to $100,000. Northern Lights is the reflection of Dan and Moocho, creatives with a hippie sensibility, part of which they were born with, part which they cultivated at the former Franconia College.
Opened in 1963, Franconia College was a small liberal arts school — Moocho, who grew up in Buffalo, earned a degree there in fine arts; Dan, who hails from Worcester, earned a degree in electric bass and a minor in acoustic blues ragtime. Franconia College closed in 1978, which, coincidentally was when Northern Lights Music opened, ironically, as a small teaching studio to serve the college. Nonetheless, the company began to grow, selling instruments and later adding steros and other electronics to its offerings.
In 1982, Moocho and Dan married; the couple have three children: Eva, Benjamin and Asher — and it was also when they moved Northern Lights to its current location. Things were good for a long time, but when Wal-mart opened not far from the downtown, the Salomons had to make some tough decisions.
They ultimately decided to eschew the electronics and instead tripled the number of guitars they had on display.
In an article she wrote in the Summer 2013 edition of the "Women's Rural Entrepreneurial Network Zine," Moocho wrote that "We realized that what made us unique would also ultimately make us very happy. We would provide quality guitars, personalized service, inspiring lessons and a creative fun environment."
That credo has helped Northern Lights — which was named after the aurora borealis that used to be visible in Littleton back in the day — become an independent powerhouse in a market that is, in large part, dominated by chains, including Guitar Center, which has stores in Portsmouth and Nashua.
Northern Lights will match Internet prices with superstores, but Dan noted that he couldn't recall the last time a customer asked for that, because its prices are already fair and comparable, he said. What separates Northern Lights from the competition is service and selection.
"This is the best-stocked acoustic room in Northern New England," said Dan, adding "there's like a million dollars worth of inventory here," including high-end Martin, Taylor and Santa Cruz guitars. The store also carries more modestly-priced guitars by those and other manufacturers, including one made out of carbon fiber by Composite Acoustics that Dan said is "indestructible" in being impervious to heat, cold and impact. Although they may look alike, each guitar is as unique as the person playing it, said Dan.
"Taylor calls it a 'bone tone.' You can hand their guitar to 20 different people, and it's 20 different guitars," he said, because every person has different sized hands, arms and bodies, all of which should be factors in deciding what kind of guitar to buy. According to the April 2014 issue of Music Trades magazine, this is a "golden age" for acoustic guitars with the market for acoustics costing more than $1,500 up 40 percent in 2013 over 2012.
An American-made, solid-wood guitar starts at about $1,500 with an average cost of around $3,000, said Dan, whereas a Santa Cruz starts at $4,000 and soars up from there. Add a rare wood like Brazilian rosewood or Hawaiian koa and the prices rise geometrically.
Northern Lights currently has two humidity-controlled rooms for its guitars and is looking to build a third on its 2,400-square-foot sales floor. As part of that effort, the business will also combine and expand its vintage case which contains numerous classic "axes," among them a 1957 Gibson Les Paul Goldtop, which, while available for ogling, is also available for sale at a cool $95,000.
The "coolness" factor is ramped up at Northern Lights because it is both inclusive and exclusive, being, for example, the only Northern New England retailer for Santa Cruz guitars — which has just 60 outlets worldwide — and for Carr amplifiers.
"Yes, we're profitable," Dan summed up, adding that revenues in 2013 were some 20 percent above 2012, something he attributed to the "acoustic boom."
"A lot of people have gotten to a point in their lives where they can afford what they've always dreamed of having," said Moocho, with Dan pointing out that the typical Taylor owner has four guitars.
"We've made a lot of friends over the past 36 years," he said, and they are loyal as well as practical.
Although its customer base is local as well as international, Northern Lights, which is situated equidistantly from Boston, Montreal, Portland and Burlington, has many customers from those cities, who Dan believes come to his and his wife's store because "high-end guitars and no sales tax go together."
Northern Lights survives and thrives, Dan said, because it is also a leanly-run enterprise.
"We learned to do it without employees," he said, "just mom and pop and a kid (Asher) and a guitar teacher." Rent revenue from six apartments upstairs helps offset the Salmons' cumulative operating costs and also covers some modest salaries.
"We pay ourselves, sometimes in guitars," Dan said.