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Strumming along ‘against the grain’

In 2022 on a shoestring budget using funds from the sale of their home, Maria Hart and Frank Cogliano opened El Cajon Guitars and Music on Main Street not realizing El Cajon had a deep history of music, learning, and supporting the arts.

The store, located at 172 E Main St, Muzik Muzik was owned by Mike Fenton and next door was the Soul Kitchen, a music venue.

“Frank retired from a long career and his love for music is what decided us to open a music store here,” said Hart. “I have family here, we were living in Ohio, so we moved our family here to be here with my mom who happens to be Adrienne Hart, [the creator and director] of the Rhinestone Grannies]. There was a space in downtown El Cajon, and we decided to open a brick and mortar, going against the grain because most people want to buy things online. But we are so passionate about music, and the ability to buy quality instruments at an affordable price for the people here in El Cajon.”

Cogliano, who recently retired as a police lieutenant after 26 years, said that Hart supported his career, so he wanted to support her by moving closer to her family.

“I have played guitar for 40 years and really did not intend on opening a small business in this stage, but it worked out that way because Maria wanted to be here with her family as opposed to practicing law because I am still a licensed attorney back in Kentucky,” he said. “My goal was to retire from law enforcement and then work as a full-time attorney. Now I string guitars for less than minimum wage with Maria because we are passionate about helping people with music.”

Hart said their customers tell them every day about how glad they are that they are there and providing them with in-person information about their instruments, helping beginners to professional musicians.

“Maria grew up in a very musical family,” said Cogliano. “They are very big on musical arts, and her mom of course in performing. Her dad is also a musician and Maria sang and performed in school
plays, sang in churches and been extremely musical herself. She plays the ukulele, so when we met, we played a lot of music together. That is what we enjoy, and we love teaching other people how to do that. We try to provide an atmosphere where we want kids and people to exist in the real world. We help people of all ages. We have built some good relationships with people in the community in a short time. Part of how we did that was by drawing from our own life experiences. I managed a music shop many years ago before my lengthy career, and we have enjoyed music consistently throughout our lives.”

Cogliano said joining the National Association of Music Merchandisers was a huge help for them throughout the course of the year and they have received some awards in a very short amount of time. Locally with the San Diego County Office of Education’s 2022 Arts in Power Artful Advocate Ovation Award for encouraging musical arts in the community in San Diego County Region 2.

“Because we offer guitars at a very affordable price, and it gets kids and families into playing music,” he said. “That is one of our shared missions with NAMM, to get as many people as possible enjoying music because it does a lot for the community, and it does a lot for individuals.”

Hart said another award coming up for the musical duo is the NAMM Top 100 dealers award. NAMM is the world’s largest not-for-profit music trade organization representing the $17 billion music industry. The awards take place at the 2024 NAMM Show, in Anaheim In January.

“It is an international award, so we are considered one of the top 100 dealers internationally,” said Cogliano. “We are one of a handful that have ever received it with less than five employees and being a first-time nominee. We believe it is a community award. They looked at us and saw we opened a brick-and-mortar shop in El Cajon, and it is an uphill battle today for several reasons. But I think our vendors and our customers recognize that we are here, that we are passionate about what we do.”

Cogliano said they knew the new business would be an uphill battle, because everything is online.

“I think many people are rooting for us because we are an underdog, and it is a real challenge,” he said. “I think NAMM, as big of an organization that it is, see a couple of people as crazy as us going against the grain, and started a community-based music store. I think they think that it is a novel concept, especially when they hear that we have not taken a penny of pay in over a year and a half of working very hard. We are still paying the bills, but it is nice that they say that we are doing good things, helping people in trying to do something that is fun for everybody.”

He said what is difficult being in El Cajon, is that there are many people with mental health and drug problems, and their shop attracts a lot of that.

“We are trying to combat that with our efforts in music because we believe that is a common thread for people with or without problems and it brings us all together,” he said, adding that he loves Bob Marley’s quote, “One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.”
“Music, and what it does for all of us is a special thing. We invest in our customers and enjoy it. Even with some of the issues I described,” he said.

Hart said they also provide private lessons during off hours of the shop.

“There are just two of us and we are a small operation,” said Cogliano. “The only way we can do that is by dedicating some of the space. On our off days, we are teaching to do everything we are trying to do. We are open 24/7. If we are not sleeping, we are working on something. That is the only way we have achieved what we have. I have the title of janitor and sometimes Maria gives me the title of CEO. I am more comfortable with the title janitor because it is closer to what we do. She and I must do all of it, or we fail. We feel like we would not only be failing ourselves but failing our community.”

Cogliano said they both realize that they cannot just be a brick and mortar, so they have an online component, so they can have a balance of in shop and online business.

Hart said with the holidays approaching, all items are set at the lowest advertised price found online.

“We have some special buys on amazingly affordable, quality guitars and amplifiers with prices in store that are too low to advertise,” she said.

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