West Georgians, it seems, are suddenly hot for the ukulele.
“We have sold more ukuleles in the last six months than we have in the entirety of having the business,” says Lora Neese. “It’s been amazing.”
In fact, there has been such intense interest of late in the small, plucky instrument from Hawaii that the store has scheduled ukulele lessons for new owners. And for those interested in a particularly exotic form of uke, the store has recently acquired a vintage banjolele – a relic from the Jazz Age with banjo-type body and a fretted ukulele neck.
Since it was founded in 1964 by two brothers named Ballew, the store has always tried to cater to the shifts in consumer desire. Not only that, the store has adapted itself to a changing economic realities and marketing technology. The location and even the ownership of the store have changed – but not the name.
“Ballew’s has been a staple in Carrollton,” says Lora, who acquired the business in 2005. “It already was established, so we bought the name with the business (and) everything that goes with it.”
The store was founded by Travis Ballew, who already owned a shop in Cartersville, according to Marie Ballew, wife of Travis’ brother, Neal. She said Travis thought Carrollton might be a good place for a second store because of the presence of what was then called West Georgia College. Travis asked Neal, who then lived in Atlanta, to move here and take over the shop; within a year Neal had purchased the store from his brother.
Marie, who was a student at the college, met and married Neal within a couple of years. Neal ran the store until he sold it to local musician Joel Shipp – but soon bought it back at the request of the couple’s son, Neal Jr. Marie Ballew said the father and son ran the new Ballew’s together until the elder Ballew passed away in 2003. The son sold the business to the Neese family, who were then one of the store’s biggest customers.
The store is now run by Lora and her sons, Jeremy and Josh.
While Lora says she can barely play the piano, the two young men are avid musicians involved in Carrollton’s music scene.
“Definitely we’re thankful that we each have different talents because we couldn’t do it without any of the three of us,” says Lora. “Because Jeremy can fix anything, play anything; Josh can sell anything.”
Lora lends her skills in running the business.
Although she appreciates the advantage gained with the Ballew’s name, Lora recognizes the name is not a free pass, especially in a town that has competitors.
“Anytime anybody has a bright new (store), and think they can do it better, I think it is a challenge for the existing stores,” she says. “And I’m sure it’s the same from their point of view as well.
“When we first bought the store we had everything, did everything, and tried to do everything. And in this economy, the needs are not as great.”
Accordingly, the store has shifted. As customers have refrained from buying expensive new instruments, the store now concentrates on used ones. Owners of instruments also aren’t replacing their investments — instead, there has been an increased demand for repairs to keep them in shape and in tune.
The store has also kept up with changes in marketing, leveraging their web presence through their Facebook page. “Its so easy to put on there if we’re closed, or if we get something neat in. All your regular customers get that automatically, so it’s a whole lot quicker than word of mouth.”
The even have a picture of the vintage banjolele on their page.
The Facebook presence has been especially good to reach local customers, which now comprise what Lora estimates to be 90 percent of their current business. A sign, she says, that Carrollton residents are recognizing the need to support local businesses, and the need to spend their sales tax dollars on local infrastructure.
“You know, Ballew’s has been around for so long, this is the first place people think of when they think of a music store,” she says. “We get calls every day and people say, ‘you know, I came in Ballew’s and got my first pack of strings, or my first guitar.’”
As for doing business in Carrollton, Lora has nothing but high praise.
“We could not have asked for a better community to have a music store, ’cause there is so much talent here.
“It’s hard to be a really mean person and enjoy music. You know? People that truly love music appreciate it. We have great customers, a great community – and there’s something going on in Carrollton all the time; somebody’s playing all the time.”
Especially, it seems, the ukulele.