Sound of community

Family-owned business The Music Connection expands, settles into new digs downtown

The Music Connection recently relocated to a much larger building in downtown Chico, which used to be the Bidwell Chapel funeral home. (Photo by Trevor Claverie)

It was a sight to behold: dozens of customers with their trucks and vans loading up all of the tools for making music—keyboards and large amplifiers, down to each drumstick and music-lesson book—to help their local shop, The Music Connection, move across town.

That morning, Feb. 5, owners Bruce and Sally MacMillan, their team of employees and their volunteer crew were able to move all of the merchandise at once.

“No joke, it was an hour and a half, and the entire store had been packed up and moved,” said Dan Elsen, a local drummer who’s worked at the shop for 20 years. “That shows the serious dedication and love from our patrons.”

By Feb. 7, The Music Connection was open for business at its new downtown Chico location at 341 West Third St. On a recent afternoon, mellifluous sounds—a delicate, classical piano melody followed by the rhythmic beat of a drum, then the trill of a flute—energized the space as students practiced scales and songs with the shop’s instructors. Customers picking up repaired instruments or searching for a new one to purchase were greeted by name by friendly employees—and with a wagging tail from Daisy the dog.

During an interview with the CN&R, the MacMillans excitedly shared ideas they have for The Music Connection’s much larger new home. The two-story building features high ceilings and tall windows that bathe the main room in natural sunlight. It has a “very alive acoustic sound,” Bruce said, which seems ideal for hosting recitals, and the walls and perhaps even the ceiling would look incredible painted with murals.

Most notably, the building is about 50 percent larger than the store’s previous location, which the MacMillans rented in a strip mall off of East Avenue and Cohasset Road for the past 16 years. Now, they have three more teaching rooms (including two premium, larger rooms that allow for group lessons), for a total of 15, most of which are located in the building’s basement.

The Music Connection family—with owners Bruce and Sally MacMillan (holding their youngest daughter) at right. (Photo by Ashiah Scharaga)

The additional space has also allowed for another significant upgrade: more room for merchandise and shop inventory, which will help The Music Connection combat supply shortages and an increasing demand for instruments since the pandemic began, the couple said.

For the MacMillans, the move has been 10 years in the making. Most of their options for new locations over the years were offices, on the edge of town or part of another strip mall, Sally said. Then, in mid-August, they came across the former Bidwell Chapel building, a unique piece of Chico history erected in the 1920s and operated as a funeral home for decades. It felt like fate.

“This building, it just seems like she’s been waiting for us,” Sally said. “We’re really happy with how beautiful it came out, and the response from our customers has been awesome.”

Their last location was hidden in the corner of a shopping complex. Every week, people would call the business to find out how to get there, Elsen said. The new spot, in bustling downtown Chico, has already brought in new customers, such as students from nearby Chico State. The Music Connection also has its own parking lot across the street.

“We’ve always been thankful and grateful for all of our customers in the community,” Bruce said. “I think it’ll be easier to serve them in a better location.”

Lasting impact

The MacMillans have always focused on running a community-oriented business. The Music Connection was established in 1994, and that same year Sally started working there. She soon became the store manager, and eight years later, when she was 26, purchased the business. (Bruce became a co-owner in 2007, when they got married). Over the years, they continued to grow and expand to better meet the needs of the local music scene and students eager to learn (many of whom rent their instruments from the shop as well as take lessons there). They also have a store in Redding.

In 2018, the MacMillans and their three daughters lost everything in the Camp Fire, and even as they were moving around and searching for their own place to recover, they launched a program at the store for fire-impacted musicians. They helped hundreds of instruments get into the hands of fire survivors, who’d come in to the shop to connect with others who were suffering.

“Instruments are so personal and such an important part of your life. People gravitated to the store because those losses were so huge,” Sally said. “It was a hard but an important time.”

Elsen, who also teaches the drums at The Music Connection, said the MacMillans have always fostered a supportive environment, for employees and customers alike. The shop’s teachers are independent contractors who rent out the space for their lessons. This is significant because they have the freedom to create their own curriculum and scheduling, he said, and the MacMillans have kept rental rates affordable.

“Everyone who teaches at our store is very dedicated to it because of the ethical way in which [they have] done this,” Elsen said. “I have long-term students I’ve watched grow up, and adults that say, ‘I’m going to try to learn the drums,’ and it becomes this passion they never had before. It’s been super rewarding.”

The MacMillans remain humble about the store’s success—The Music Connection is a multi-year winner of Best of Chico and the longest-running music shop in town. They said that their family’s goal is to become as inseparable with Chico as Collier Hardware, Northern Star Mills and other iconic, locally-owned businesses.

This move, for them, marks an important step closer to that dream.

“I want to be this kind of business in Chico where people hear that you’re going to Chico and they say, ‘Oh you have to go by this great little music store!’” Sally said. “My goal is to always be growing, to always be doing a better job, to always be serving better—to be like one of those Chico institutions.”

The Music Connection, 341 West Third St.
Hours: Mon.-Fri, 10 a.m.-7 p.m.; Sat., 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m.

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