A Small Company with a Big Time Following
With stores in Arnold and south St. Louis County, the independent family-owned music retailer Nottelmann Music Company has grown and prospered in a retail music world dominated by giant, corporate-owned megastores that have hundreds of locations and million dollar advertising budgets.
Owner and President Dennis Gerfen, age 65, with his wife Jan and their two children, have successfully navigated ups, downs, and ever-changing music industry trends to expand the business founded in 1953 by William and Audrey Nottelmann.
Nottelmann Music Company today has 20 employees and, with its traveling sales team, serves hundreds of customers in metro St. Louis and southwest Illinois, including high schools, middle schools, other music stores, students, and professional musicians. The sales team visits band directors at between 80 and 100 schools every week.
That’s not including dozens of people who take music lessons from Nottelmann Music Company’s experienced teachers at both of its stores, or who visit to shop for merchandise.
“I see mostly school-related customers coming through our doors every day, but we have a busy repair service here, and many people come in from all over the region for instrument repairs or to buy an instrument,” Dennis says.
“We also have a tremendous market for people who need accessories – guitar accessories, recording equipment, PA systems, and other new gear.”
The Nottelmann music stores are located at 714 Jeffco Boulevard in Arnold and at 1590 Lemay Ferry Road in south St. Louis County. They gleam with virtually all types of band and orchestra instruments on display – from saxophones to xylophones and seemingly everything in between. Those instruments – plus shiny new electric guitars, amplifiers, drum sets, and electronic gadgets – make the stores enticing for anyone who plays or wants to play music.
For many years Nottelmann Music Company’s biggest market has been public and private schools throughout the region, says Dennis. The company is well-known to band directors and families in Jefferson and St. Louis County for introducing thousands of young students to school band instruments and musical performances.
Until he passed away in 2015, company founder William Nottelmann was revered by people in the region for his many years of musical community involvement. He played several instruments, taught private lessons, and was recruited as the first band director at Mehlville High School. He wrote a popular piano lesson book titled “Keyboard Adventures” that was widely used in the area for decades, and Nottelmann was a key influence in helping to develop Rickman Auditorium in Arnold’s Fox C-6 School District. He also often organized music events at Rickman.
“A lot of people knew him, liked him, respected him, and trusted him as a store proprietor and music teacher,” says Dennis.
Before he passed away, Nottelmann was honored by the Mehlville School District, which named its new auditorium after him. His entire family, including Dennis and Jan Gerfen, attended the dedication ceremony for the William B. Nottelmann Auditorium when it opened in October 2013.
William Nottelmann’s daughter is Jan Gerfen – her married name. She met Dennis Gerfen when both were students at Bayless High School where they began going steady. After graduation, Dennis studied draftsmanship and worked part time at Allied Electronics selling stereo equipment. Jan worked on Saturdays at her father’s music store. William Nottelmann knew that the couple planned to marry. Dennis recalls that his life changed in 1971 when “Mr. Nottelmann asked me if I’d be interested in learning the music store business and how to repair instruments.”
“I said, ‘Yes sir, I’d like to do that.'”
Dennis Gerfen, Owner and President of Nottelmann Music Company
Jan Gerfen of Nottelmann Music Company
Dennis Gerfen with sales team member Steve Owen
The rest is history. Dennis soon learned that operating a music store, managing employees, dealing with schools and customers often required 60-hour work weeks. Yet he thrived in the role of growing the business one school and one customer at a time. Jan worked as the company’s bookkeeper.
In 1979, Nottelmann Music opened its location in Arnold to serve customers throughout Jefferson County. In 1984, Dennis and Jan Gerfen purchased Nottelmann Music Company from Jan’s father, who continued to serve as the face of the business for years.
“Our focus stays on
what we do best.
You can’t be everything
You’ve got to stick with
your strong points.”
~ Dennis Gerfen
As the sales team grew, the business continued expanding its territory and the number of schools that it served. In 2001 as his health declined, Mr. Nottelmann stopped being a presence in the stores.
Dennis and Jan assumed control of the business that year. Yet the policies, procedures, and traditions that William Nottelmann established for the company were preserved and remain in place at the stores today.
“I like to believe that over the years we set the tone in greater St. Louis for how this business is done,” Dennis says. “Our business has grown because we respect our school customers and band directors, and we work extremely hard to earn their respect and their patronage.”
As a result, school band directors and parents depend on the fair-minded work ethic that Gerfen and his wife Jan and their staff maintain at Nottelmann Music. Dennis works in the store Monday through Saturday, arriving at about 7:30 am. He deals with people of all ages with all kinds of musical preferences, from orchestra members to young rock and rollers to new age folk singers.
“Our biggest non-school sales segment is probably acoustic guitars. We stock Alvarez, Ibanez, and Yamaha guitars – all fine acoustic guitars, especially for the entry-level players,” says Dennis.
“Over the years we have offered all the big electric guitar brands, but these days’ acoustic guitars seem the most popular guitars sold in our stores,” he says. “I think one reason for that is because these days electric guitar rock stars who influenced younger generations are now past their prime as performers or have passed away.”
Influential blues guitarist Eric Clapton, for example, is now in his 70s and nearly past his prime. So is guitarist Jimmy Page of the rock band Led Zeppelin. The legendary electric guitarists Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and B.B. King passed away years ago.
“A lot of today’s popular young guitarists and singer-songwriters – people like Ed Sheeran – play acoustic guitars, not electric models, in their concerts and recordings. And I think that is influencing today’s retail guitar market.”
The Gerfens and their store team members are proud to have built a business whose primary mission is to provide unparalleled service, sell and rent high-quality musical instruments, and handle repairs. And they are proud to preserve traditions that Mr. Nottelmann established decades ago.
The company website is informative, but website visitors cannot buy instruments directly from the site. Dennis has been known to say, “I consider the internet like an electronic pawn shop. Sometimes you can find a good deal there, but you had better know a lot about what you’re buying.”
He prefers doing business with customers face-to-face because he believes it builds positive relationships and trust. “That’s just how we do it, and I think that’s the right way to do it,” he says. He offers this advice for other small independent retailers: “Our focus stays on what we do best. You can’t be everything to everybody. You’ve got to stick with your strong points. Our business is built on word-of-mouth referrals. I could place 100 advertisements and yet it will be word of mouth that does the most good – that and our experience and exceptional service. And you’ve got to be honest with people.”
“Honest, reliable service is what we provide to band directors, rental customers, people who buy from us, and who rely on us for instrument repairs. Ninety-nine percent of our business is service oriented, and that’s what we are known for.”
“We often see people who took lessons with us many years ago now bring their children to us for music lessons, and that’s a good feeling” says Dennis.
“Sometimes they call me Mr. Nottelmann – and that’s OK with me.”
by Jeff Dunlap