When he stepped in from the chilly morning air, he recognized me by the fact that I was the only person there. Once his coffee was properly doctored, he sat and told me about his stringed instrument store located nearby and explained that the road to owning his own business was a bumpy one.
Right out of high school, Stephen thought he wanted to be a music teacher. So, he enrolled in college at UMSL and started down that path. But, paying for college out of pocket was hard, so after taking a break for a few years to work and save, he finally came back and finished his degree. With no time for the graduation ceremony, he went straight to work at Rockwood Summit High School leading the orchestra for a semester while another teacher was out.
“That was a real baptism by fire for education…” he raised his eyebrows and emphasized his point by leaning back in the chair. But, coming from a background of educators (his mom, dad, and brother) he had a lot of support and made it work. For that one semester.
“I decided kinda after about one semester of teaching, that teaching really wasn't for me. It wasn’t the kids; I really enjoyed working with kids and I really enjoyed teaching music to children and to young adults, but it was just like political stuff...didn't want to get into that. Didn't see myself doing that for a 30 year track.”
Instead of Selling His Bass, He Started Selling Basses
First various odd jobs, then a teacher, next a life insurance salesman. Stephen’s career path certainly was a winding one. One day, when life insurance sales weren’t going well, he made a tough choice. It was time to sell his double bass. Approaching the owner of the store, he was told they would not buy it back from him, but they were looking for a sales person. Stephen was intrigued. He’d already done all of the Dale Carnegie “stuff” where they “rewire your brain and shit” and he was passionate about music… so why not?
Two years later, he’d doubled their revenue thanks in part to all of his connections with music teachers. But, when he asked for a pay increase, because he knew his pay was not commensurate with the increase in business that he’d helped to deliver, he was fired. That was June 19th, 2014.
Working for the shop had become Stephen’s primary source of income, so when he was abruptly fired, he had to do something fast. Luckily, his reputation among music stores in the area had gotten around and he immediately received calls offering him a position. Not one to sell a product he doesn’t believe in, he visited these other stores and checked out their instruments and the quality of the maintenance work they did on their instruments. He was not impressed.
Two weeks later, at the behest of many of his connections with teachers, he had a business plan and $114,000 to start his own company, Top Notch Violin. MANY small businesses fail because of timing, and Stephen was not going to take that risk. Instrument rental season started in August, so he had 4 weeks. He flew to New Jersey and picked up 435 instruments and drove them 17 hours back here to St. Louis. The next day he began building shelving for them.
I was impressed and so were his customers. “We’ve already had to replenish inventory because the store looked a bit empty. I can’t complain, though. People love us.”
His Car Broke Down in Texas
It was clear that Stephen was passionate. During this entire time there was no pause as he leaned over the table and shared his story with me. When he felt he had relayed the entirety of it, he sat back and took one of the first drinks of his lukewarm coffee. Using this opportunity to find out more about him as a person, I asked him if he still played his instrument. He quickly assured me that, yes, he plays wherever and whenever he can.
One of his favorite gigs is playing with a friend who writes his own songs. Stephen describes the small group’s style as “roots American music”. They often hold house concerts together or play at local venues like the Wayout Club. When he let slip that he also writes music, my curiosity was piqued. “I’m a pop song writer, if I write anything. I try to write about real life experience.”
One experience that he wrote about was his car breaking down in Texas when he and his wife (an artist by trade) took their first vacation together. The song is obviously called My Car Broke Down in Texas. “We were fifteen miles outside of Corpus Christi with all our camping gear on the back, and we were trying to get back to St. Louis, but we had a good week of camping on the beach in Corpus Christi trying to figure out what we were going to do. It was a lesson and we learned a lot about each other on that trip; good things; overcoming adversities…”
His wife eventually hopped a flight home. Stephen went into a local Grainger branch (he worked for the company at the time), explained that he was with the company, and asked them to ship his camping gear home for him. They did and he later reimbursed them. The car? They sold it for less than $400.
With very little encouragement from me, Stephen launched into the hook of the song:
“When my car broke down in Texas just outside of San Antonio, we were on our way to Padre when the engine lights came on and we pulled into a Rest Stop with no quarters for the call. Nine Hundred miles from home we were stuck behind the big eight ball. I would feel like it was trouble if I wasn't there with you, might have gone a little crazy without your smile pulling through, one stop later to get there but no telling what I would do, when my car broke down in Texas I fell in love with you”