A VCU graduate and his wife are banking on tiny stringed instruments to help them carve out a niche in the Richmond music industry.
John and Genie Gonzalez del Solar opened Fan Guitar and Ukulele in October, about three months after moving 5,000 miles to Richmond from Hawaii. The shop sells new and used string instruments and accessories and offers repairs and lessons.
But it’s with the ukulele that they hope to stand out.
“It’s a pretty competitive business, and a lot of it depends on geography,” said John Gonzalez del Solar. “If someone down the road has been in business for 30 years, you have to respect that and try to find something different.”
The 35-year-old music school alumnus knows his way around a uke. After four years of playing guitar in the U.S. Navy Band, John Gonzalez del Solar found a job at a music store in Hawaii.
His boss came from a family of master ukulele builders, and he picked up the instrument about 10 years ago.
“You can’t be in Hawaii and avoid it,” he said. “It’s a huge part of the culture.”
After moving to Richmond to be closer to family, the couple leased a former tanning salon at 1308 W. Main St. They renovated the 600-square-foot shop themselves and converted the wood from the tanning booths into display cases for guitar pedals and picks.
“When you sink your life savings into something you aren’t sure will create paychecks, that can be scary,” Genie Gonzalez del Solar said. “But everything’s sort of fallen into place.”
Sales have varied from week to week, but John Gonzalez del Solar said December was a big month. They sold about 50 ukuleles before the holidays and have been able to do some business through trade. One customer traded in his old guitar for a higher-end model by throwing in $50 and three slices of pizza.
“This is our livelihood, and obviously we want to make money at it, but we also want have some flexibility so people are comfortable here,” John Gonzalez del Solar said. “There’s something really cool about helping people get a really great instrument that might seem out of reach.”
Prices on the ukuleles range from about $40 to $300.
He said they’ve become more popular over the past 10 years as musicians such as Jack Johnson, Dave Matthews and Eddie Vedder have worked them into their songs.
The instrument has also seen a local boost recently: The University of Richmond in November hosted a concert by ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro, while the Cultural Arts Center in Glen Allen was the site of the inaugural UkeFest Virginia, also in November.
“It’s the perfect recession instrument,” John Gonzalez del Solar said. “It’s cheap, and it always makes you happy.”