Last Friday afternoon, Lauren Aldrich was stocking, cleaning, painting, and designing advertisements for her father's Fremont music store, American Music. "Every day I come in here," says Aldrich, a hip, 19-year-old brunette in studded wristbands and flared brown corduroy jeans. "I try to make this place look better." Aldrich and the rest of her family have been working a lot these days. They have to. Guitar Center, the largest retail music store in the country, is driving them out of business.

Since American Music's flagship store opened in Greenwood in 1973 (it moved to Fremont in 1975, and the Aldriches bought it in 1981), it was the place Seattle musicians went to buy everything from guitar strings to smoke machines. Up until a few years ago, American Music was thriving, with four stores in the area. Since Guitar Center came to Seattle in 1998, however, American Music has closed its Southcenter and Tacoma stores.

"Because of Guitar Center, we're this close from shutting our doors," says Lauren Aldrich, making an inch between her two fingers. According to Lauren's mother, Susan, American Music had a 20 percent growth rate in the '80s, but is now struggling with negative growth. Across town, Guitar Center is raking in the dough.

Repetitive radio commercials blast from ceiling speakers, huge posters of rock legends hang from the wall, and almost every piece of music gear, stacked from floor to ceiling, has a brightly colored sale tag on it. Whether you're in the downtown Westlake store or at one of Guitar Center's 90 national locations, every store is identical. It's like being inside an all-music version of Wal-Mart.

In fact, Guitar Center and Wal-Mart have a lot in common. Both buy massive amounts of merchandise in bulk and then sell it to the public dirt cheap, making money from sheer volume, not individual high-priced sales. Guitar Center raked in $938.2 million last year. "Our biggest competitors are often our other stores," says Westlake Guitar Center employee Glenn Cannon.

American Music is in a tight corner. A few years ago, it was the Guitar Center of Seattle, the big, well-stocked place to go to when you needed anything. "There used to be a lot of variety," remembers longtime musician Jim Roth, guitar player for the Delusions and Built to Spill. But when Guitar Center invaded with deep pockets and low prices, American Music was knocked from the "one-stop" throne. Now, American Music is struggling to find a new identity.

"See this Canadian acoustic?" says American Music owner Andy Aldrich, picking up a maple-colored guitar and lightly strumming it. "This is a good product that I can sell cheap. It may be less known than the major brands, but it's quality." Aldrich is trying to compete with Guitar Center by selling lesser-known brands at competitive prices--like a car dealer selling a Kia instead of an Acura, for example.

Smaller music stores in town, like Emerald City Guitars and Al's Guitarville, have taken a different approach. Instead of trying to be all things to all people, Emerald City and Al's streamlined their gear, built up a vintage inventory, and focused on establishing solid repair shops--something Guitar Center doesn't have (though Guitar Center does have a 30-day warranty on new gear). Now they're thriving. "Guitar Center has actually helped my business," explains Emerald City owner Jay Boone, who recently expanded his Pioneer Square location. "All that massive marketing introduces more people to music," he says, "and when some kid buys a shitty guitar at Guitar Center, he's eventually going to come to me and want something decent."

Westlake Guitar Center manager Matt Blair laughs at the dig and says, "We have a wide range of guitars here."

pat@thestranger.com

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