• Amid Constant Change The Mandolin Store Flourishes

    Dennis Vance

    Dennis Vance is seated at his desk amid a sea of mandolins on a brutally hot, 110 degree summer day at The Mandolin Store in Surprise, Ariz. assisting a customer by phone.

    The store is small enough that a private conversation is out of the question so it's easy to listen and sense most end with the caller feeling like they made a friend, comments I've seen mirrored online more than a few times. Many of Vance's customers not only bought their first mandolin here, but their second, third and more, and few calls end without Vance tilting his head back for a proper belly laugh.

    If you get the idea he enjoys running The Mandolin Store, you'd be correct.

    About the author: Scott Tichenor is the founder of the Mandolin Cafe. He traveled to Phoenix for the sole purpose of profiling The Mandolin Store, a long-time supporter of the site.

    Vance arrives for the day dressed in sandals, shorts and short-sleeve t-shirt and told me it doesn't particularly matter what he wears, because it's unlikely he'll see anyone. If walk-in business was what he was after he'd be better off selling golf clubs and carts to retirees that make up the area, home of the famed Sun City retirement communities.

    The Mandolin StoreSurprisingly small for its inventory, not an inch of space in the store is wasted. Over 60 mandolins display on two walls, another 80 in cases nearby, and yet, more are arriving soon. Inventory is down.

    General Manager Brian Farmer is seated nearby with another dozen instruments performing setup and repair on outgoing instruments. By my count, that's over 150 mandolins in stock.

    After imagining what the store experience might be after many years, walking through the front door I discovered I wasn't quite prepared. For a mandolin player, this is utter chaos of the very best kind.

    A look at the store's web site might conjure up visions of dozens of customers perusing instruments during store hours. Not so. "We'd be out of business if we relied on walk-ins," Vance told me. "Greater Phoenix area is not a particularly robust acoustic music community."

    Vance, who launched The Mandolin Store in his bluegrass and old-time music rich home state of Ohio in 2004 relocated to Surprise in 2007 to care for his aging father who passed away in 2017.

    Entering the store you're hit with everything from fine new Gibson mandolins to spectacular options from Ellis, Pava, Northfield, Kentucky, Eastman, Weber and more. It's simply nothing short of one of the most impressive mandolin retail operations on the planet and like nothing else I've ever experienced in person.

    It's unlikely anyone you can make phone contact with (ie., not amazon, not eBay), approaches as many Eastman and Kentucky models in stock.

    Some might question the wisdom of basing an entire business around a single instrument such as a mandolin, but for Vance, the decision was easy.

    I asked, he laughed: "I'm a one trick pony. It's all mandolins all the time. We're really passionate about doing the very best at what we do. We carried guitars for years but decided to concentrate on just mandolins. I love guitars, and we still take them in trade from time to time but our focus changed a few years ago and we never looked back.

    "We sell a lot of product, and in order to satisfy customer demand year-round we need to have a full range from entry level to the finest professional grade instruments available at all times. We decided a long time ago we couldn't afford to not have what customers need so we place large orders."

    "How large," I inquired?

    "We're receiving a shipment of 110 Eastman Mandolins as part of our Fall order of 300 in a couple of days. The rest come later," he said.

    The Mandolin Store

    "How many?" I said, thinking I misunderstood.

    He's also the main distributor for new Gibson Mandolins and is unabashedly enthusiastic about the new instruments coming out of Nashville.

    "I'd like to think there's nowhere else you can get this kind of selection, and because it's all we do, we're totally committed to that effort. We're all about selection and service.

    "Of course we work with all of the prominent mandolin companies everyone is familiar with: Gibson, Collings, Ellis, Weber, Pava, Northfield, Eastman and Kentucky for starters," he added, "but some of the best used mandolins from an endless list of small builders have all made their appearance here at one time, whether a Nugget, Dudenbostel, Gilchrist, Heiden, or many others at the very top end of the market price-wise. And we've had our share of high end vintage Gibsons as well."

    Brian Farmer

    General Manager Brian Farmer performs set-up work on all mandolins before they're shipped.

    Brian Farmer

    Sun Valley GuitarsAlthough The Mandolin Store no longer actively carries new guitars in retail, General Manager Brian Farmer has launched Sun Valley Guitars inside the store with Vance's approval and support.

    Sun Valley Guitars is an authorized dealer of Eastman, Collings and Recording King guitars with the hope of adding Taylor in the near future. On The Mandolin Store web site, the link "Guitars" points to Sun Valley Guitars. On the Sun Valley Guitar site, the link "Mandolins" points back to The Mandolin Store.

    Even though the business has always been mostly internet based, the retail landscape continues to change.

    "We were always more of an internet-based business, but a lot more sales occur directly through the web site these days vs. over the phone. I love that kind of business, but what I really enjoy is talking to customers and making that human connection. This is a people business first. I've made and retained a lot of good friends over the years through the store."

    Another sign of changing times, a chat function just added to The Mandolin Store home page has turned out more productive than anticipated.

    Chats are directed to an app on his cell phone at times he chooses to be available. Having it on is apparently not restricted to just being in the store. Late the evening of my visit I watched as he completed a sale with a customer clearly intent on testing the store's hours. It seems Vance is more than willing to be available at hours of his own choosing. "I got a kick out of that one," he laughed. "They're surprised to get a response at that time of night and it makes for good conversation."

    "It's just a different way to connect," he said. "A lot of customers expect it and I enjoy the connection."

    While the store continues to be one of the hot spots for the mandolin community, change is inevitable, and more may be in its future.

    After his father's passing, his mother moved back to Ohio to be near her extended family. Part-time employee Adam McIntosh, who still performs video work for the store also moved back to Ohio but travels to Surprise a few times a year to assist. Single, with no immediate family in the area, Vance is staying for now with two dogs, Mandy (short for "Mandolin") and Emmy, but says the pull of the Midwest to be near family is strong. A talented mandolin and guitar player who loves classic country music and bluegrass, he also misses the strong base of musicians in the Midwest. A move of the store could be in the cards.

    In the meantime, phones ring, chats are answered, sometimes at odd hours, instruments fly in and out of inventory, and The Mandolin Store continues on as one of the favorite spots anywhere for all things mandolin.

    And yet there may be one more announcement he intends to share with the community at some point. It was the primary reason I traveled to Phoenix for this feature article, but Vance ultimately declined saying it would best be shared at a later time.

    "Soon, maybe," he said with a smile.

    Additional Information

    Comments 34 Comments
    1. tkdboyd's Avatar
      tkdboyd -
      Bought a couple of mandolins from Dennis. Great store & service.
    1. William Smith's Avatar
      William Smith -
      Dennis and crew are great! I've talked with him on the phone a few times about different Gibson mandolins and he always treats one really well even if there is a no sale as someday maybe he knows from anyone there can be a potential sale if you treat people decent! He's actually a really good guy and I actually years ago had a 1980 Gibson F5-L that was Wayne Benson's and before that Dewey Farmers but Dewey wasn't impressed so he had a full internal re-grad done and I had it for sale on the café-Dennis got a hold of me and traded me a brand new Weber Custom Elite for it-I asked why as the Weber was $ wise worth double what the Gibson was worth! I believe he said he had a customer that wanted that Gibson of mine really bad so we swapped! I later sold the Weber-pry should've kept it as it was great but a little too new and modern for me as I love my stuff old/withered/played in already?
      I later found out he used to work with my Aunt's 2nd husband and his banjo tech at the time-Doug Piper used to play and recorded some 45's in the early 70's with my Grandpa Big Bill Smith Sr.! So indeed a small world!
      If I was in the market for a new Gibson mandolin or any instrument at any level-deal with these guys, they are tops in my book and I have a big book-LoL!
    1. dulcillini's Avatar
      dulcillini -
      Great folks to do business with. I highly recommend them. I have purchased 3 instruments from them, all have been superb. All the best to Dennis and team.
    1. BradKlein's Avatar
      BradKlein -
      "Some might question the wisdom of basing an entire business around a single instrument such as a mandolin, but for Vance, the decision was easy."

      One might say the same for the author, just substitute 'Scott' for 'Vance'. ;-)
    1. Mike Romkey's Avatar
      Mike Romkey -
      Nice profile. Thanks, Scott, and keep up your wonderful effort, Dennis.
    1. Todd Bowman's Avatar
      Todd Bowman -
      NIce to see this article. Dennis and crew at The Mandolin Store are great guys to work with and honest businessmen! I've purchased two high end mandolins from them and 100% satisfied with both. TMS rocks!
    1. LadysSolo's Avatar
      LadysSolo -
      Oh no! If he moves the store back to Ohio, a road trip would be in order and my in remission MAS may be reactivated. Third job, here I come!

      I purchased two mandolins from them some years ago, still have and love them. I highly recommend their knowledge, plus nice to work with!
    1. JEStanek's Avatar
      JEStanek -
      I have had several interactions with Dennis and always been pleased by the deal, his frankness, and honesty.

      Zero regrets.

    1. darylcrisp's Avatar
      darylcrisp -
      I've purchased a couple mandolins from Dennis and Brian, always pleased with the instrument I get, and the customer service is beyond excellent.

      And even years ago, an email sent late evening or night, usually received an answer within a few minutes. One wee hour morning email around 3am, I sent to inquire about a mandolin and almost immediately Dennis replied. I returned something like, "what are you doing up this time of night" and he replied, "same as you, looking at mandolins".

      My current, all time fav mandolin, came from Dennis about 2 years ago. A shop custom Weber Yellowstone with fern appointments. Its simply "swell" in every way.
      thanks Dennis and Brian!

    1. Cheryl Watson's Avatar
      Cheryl Watson -
      I send my new students who need a good beginner or intermediate mandolin set up RIGHT to The Mandolin Store--online.
    1. lukmanohnz's Avatar
      lukmanohnz -
      Loved this profile. Dennis might have one of the best jobs in the universe....
    1. HonketyHank's Avatar
      HonketyHank -
      Some would say I am crazy (and I wouldn't argue), but last week a light bulb went off in my mind and I just decided I needed to drive down to Surprise AZ to visit TMS. Dennis and Brian were great and I got to sample the diverse and high quality inventory. Nothing beats hands-on try outs to refine one's ideas of what is possible in terms of tone, playability, and price. I also was surprised by a few mandolins that were better than I expected. I didn't buy anything but I sure got some ideas about what to be lusting after.

      Five days on the road and 2600 miles of beautiful scenery interrupted by a couple of hours sampling great mandolins in the company of friendly folks. That's not all that crazy.
    1. Scott Tichenor's Avatar
      Scott Tichenor -
      Hank, you're hard core, man. Love it.
    1. Bernie Daniel's Avatar
      Bernie Daniel -
      Great story! It would be wonderful if Dennis and the Mandolin Store returned to Washington Court House, Ohio!!!
    1. Br1ck's Avatar
      Br1ck -
      Just when you guys in cold weather states are going stir crazy, jump a flight to Arizona and catch some spring training baseball. Hint: Surprise has a stadium shared by two teams.

      Do call ahead though. Not your typical open at 9, close at 5 shop. The more money you have to spend, the better off you'll be. LOL.
    1. Leester's Avatar
      Leester -
      Dennis you'd be welcomed warmly back in the beautiful state of Ohio!
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      If you've been looking for one of the Eastman MDO305 octave mandolins that have been difficult to find in retail, Dennis just told me he took an order for 20 of them and they're in stock now. Guess that'd be a mini order?
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Oh, I asked for clarification. That was in addition to another 70 Eastmans...
    1. archerscreek's Avatar
      archerscreek -
      One upcoming announcement? How about "Gibson slashes prices for loyal fans to indulge." Haha.

      The Gibson Goldrush they have looks and sounds fantastic. I was in the woods the other day and while enjoying the beautiful fall colors (the yellow fall leaves reminded me of the Goldrush mandolin) I kept thinking that I should call the Mandolin Store and inquire. Must resist lest I get tempted by a great deal. Lol
    1. Aldwyn's Avatar
      Aldwyn -
      I just got back from Grand Canyon and Sedona, with a layover in Phoenix... getting to Phx late in the evening because my wife wanted to do last minute shopping in Sedona, TMS would have been closed, so I couldnt take a look. But my biggest regret of that trip is not allowing more time in Phoenix to take a stop at TMS... I blame my wife. I am pretty sure this is grounds for divorce...