The Early Edition·Still Standing

Creativity, community spirit are keys to Neil Douglas Guitar Shop's longevity

The Neil Douglas Guitar Shop has weathered many challenges since it first opened in 1968.

Guitar player Neil Douglas founded the New Westminster business in 1968

Neil Douglas in his store in New Westminster, holding a couple of his most treasured guitars — one of which is nicknamed "Picasso." (Cathy Browne/CBC)

Still Standing is a series about small businesses in the Lower Mainland that have managed to stay open despite the challenges. Listen every second Tuesday on CBC Radio The Early Edition.

Dozens of guitars and brightly coloured ukuleles fill the tiny, wood-panelled front room of the Neil Douglas Guitar Shop in New Westminster, B.C., now 51 years old.

But the cozy retail space is only the tip of the business's iceberg. Squeeze past the counter and down four wooden stairs and you'll find a warren of snug studios where hundreds of children and adults learn how to make music. 

The longstanding business has weathered plenty of challenges since it launched in 1968. Co-owner Neil Douglas says the key to its longevity is creativity. 

"We have to keep moving ahead. We have to keep learning new things all the time," says Douglas, who owns the shop with his wife Muriel.

Douglas decided early on that he wouldn't try to compete with larger chain stores, many of which can afford to discount prices. 

"We do everything they don't do," he says. 

That includes bringing in unusual brands and offering repair services, fixing around 1,500 guitars a year in its basement shop. Teaching has also been an integral part of the business since the very beginning.

Neil Douglas plays classical guitar in his shop. (Cathy Browne/CBC)

Teaching rock guitar

Douglas grew up in the '60s playing in rock bands and local coffeehouses in New Westminster. He took on his first student when a friend phoned and said his sister wanted to learn how to play rock guitar.

"I basically told them that nobody was teaching that back then, it was all by-the-book type of old style," he said. "If you were learning rock back then you had to learn it by yourself off the records." 

Douglas told his friend to send his sister over for a lesson and before he knew it, he had 20 students, all learning rock guitar.

Although he's semi-retired now, Douglas still gets a lot of satisfaction from watching the business grow. He's especially pleased with the way it offers employment opportunities.

"It's really tough for young musicians to make a living," he says. "We provide a place where some young musicians can work as teachers — most of them work on the weekends in their bands."

Douglas says doing what the big stores don't do is the key to his business. (Cathy Browne/CBC)

Sense of community

Studio manager Alexis Nery is one of those musicians. He says the shop taught 375 students last year, and that number is growing. Nery has been teaching guitar, ukulele and bass at the shop for 19 years. 

"One of the things that was important for me is to be a little bit more part of the community," says Nery. "I'll go to schools and I'll do little workshops. That's a lot of fun for me to do just because they're all bright eyed and bushy tailed."

Nery says that strong sense of community sets the studio apart from other music schools.  

"The whole 'family shop' feel permeates throughout the whole place, whether it's the teaching side or the retail side," he says.

Nery's enthusiasm for teaching at the shop is as fresh as ever.  

"Every year it just cranks up a little bit more and a little bit more," he says. "It's pretty exciting to see where this place is going right now."

Listen to the full story here: 
CBC story producer Rachel Sanders speaks with the store owner after 51 years in operation. 5:44

If you have a suggestion for a store or business in the Lower Mainland that's been around for awhile and provides a specialized service, or has an unusual survival story, please email earlyed@cbc.ca

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