Written by Bill Kopp | Photos by Anthony Harden
Paul Heumiller, of Weaverville-based music store Dream Guitars, doesn’t consider himself a salesman—he’s a sherpa.
A dealer in the highest of high-end acoustic guitars, Paul Heumiller is in many ways an unlikely entrepreneur. While his company, Dream Guitars, sells fine handcrafted acoustic instruments from the world’s most highly regarded luthiers, he doesn’t even consider himself a salesman. Instead, he’s a guitar sherpa serving up metaphysical soul food.
Heumiller’s interest in music came naturally, and at an early age. The youngest of nine children growing up in Freehold, New Jersey, Paul watched several of his older siblings play instruments—keyboards, drums, and guitar—and caught the bug. “I started playing when I was young,” he says. “I took over my sister’s nylon string folk guitar and all of her Alfred’s [Basic Guitar Method] books, and just went through them.” Then his older brother gave Paul an electric guitar. “That, of course, changed my life,” Heumiller says, with a chuckle. By age 13 he was serious about the guitar.
“I started taking lessons then,” he says, “and to this day I still take lessons.”
He continued to improve his playing—mostly in the rock ‘n’ roll and blues idioms—and soon became active on the live music circuit in New Jersey. “Since the very beginning, I wanted to be a rock star,” he says, laughing. But by his mid-20s, Heumiller came to a realization. “After trying to be a rock star for a number of years, I found out it’s hard to eat,” he admits. “So, I took a break from that and got into the real world and capitalism.” Through his interest in MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) technology, he had discovered the world of computer programming, so he pursued a career as a programmer.
“But I soon realized the corporate world was not for me,” he says. “That selling-your-soul thing, wearing a suit and tie, cubicles, and long commutes… I had some horrible commutes.” Heumiller’s time in the corporate world did help him develop some skills and knowledge he would eventually put to use in his own endeavor, but as a whole, the experience wasn’t one that fed his soul.
Daring to Dream
As the 20th century drew toward its end, Heumiller took part in something that changed the direction of his life. He signed up for a music camp in New York City called International Guitar Seminars, hosted by famed musicians Woody Mann and Bob Brozman. On the very first day of camp, he met award-winning English guitarist Martin Simpson. “I heard his music,” he recalls now, “and fell in love with his tone, his approach to music, and his arrangements.” The two became fast friends and soon began working together on an informal basis.
“At Martin’s encouragement, I got the best possible guitar I could afford,” Heumiller says; he bought a Stefan Sobell instrument. “And then I couldn’t walk by it without grabbing it. My playing [ability] went through the roof thanks to that great guitar.” And that planted the first seeds of an idea in his mind.
“I was doing website work and training [Simpson] how to be better at business—which most musicians need—and he was training me in guitar,” Heumiller recalls. The two would meet on weekends, either in New Jersey or at Simpson’s place in New Orleans. Eventually the two began traveling together, putting on guitar workshops of their own. “That was a business idea I gave him,” Paul explains.
Working with Simpson, Heumiller became quite familiar with some of the instruments the guitarist was using. “He had a lot of great guitars by custom builders,” Heumiller says. “We would stop and visit their shops, too. There was a point at which I decided to start a website offering guitars, and Martin encouraged me: ‘Do just the very best. Just offer handmade because there are so many shops that do everything else.’” From that idea, Dream Guitars was launched in 1999.
Heumiller’s new venture was initially a part-time endeavor. “I was phasing out of programming,” he says. “A big contract I had as a programmer ended, and I realized, ‘I don’t think I’m going to get another one.’ And then I sort of took a leap of faith.” He soon embarked on another leap: moving from New Jersey. “This was a move I was making completely with my gut and my heart,” he says. Having visited many cities and towns up and down the East Coast, he thought he knew what most places had to offer.
“I was tired of that rat race, and I wanted my kids to grow up somewhere a little slower, with a little bit more meaning,” he explains. He visited a now long-defunct website, Findyourspot.com; there, the results of an online quiz offered users suggestions on places potentially best suited for them. He eventually moved his family and business to Weaverville, North Carolina, a bedroom community some 20 minutes north of Asheville. It was there in his new home that he first opened a physical location for Dream Guitars.
Heumiller’s business foundation would be built more upon common sense than on any kind of formal training. “I’m very much an organic businessman,” he says. “I was brought up in a family of hardworking folks and got a good work ethic from my mother, father, and brothers.” Having worked for a brother when he was young, Paul witnessed good business practices firsthand. “I recognized what it would take to be a good business person: Do a lot of good customer service.”
The most important lesson Heumiller learned early on was a simple one: “Shut up and listen.” He put that into practice when he started Dream Guitars. “My customers were smarter than me,” he says, “but I was smart enough to listen and hear what they said about builders, guitars, why they’re collecting this kind of thing or that kind of thing.” And when he would meet professional musicians, he paid special attention. “I would listen and learn what a pro looks for in a guitar,” he says. “I’ve had a chance to do that for 20 years; I’ve learned a lot about how a pro—versus an amateur—tests out a guitar. And they’re totally different things.”
The Inspiration of Handcrafted Instruments
Heumiller explains the inspiration that guides him: “It’s a combination of things,” he says. “Of course, there’s my love of guitars and music, and how much guitar affected my life.” And he relishes the opportunity to match players with instruments. “I just had a 14-year-old classical prodigy in here; I helped him and his mom find a guitar,” he says. “That’s why I do this.”
But he suspects there’s an inherited dimension to his inspiration as well. Paul draws a line back to his grandfathers, both of whom were born in Germany. “One worked at Steinway Pianos in New York City,” he explains. “And my other grandfather was a metalworker in Germany. I’ve always loved metal shop, wood shop; for years I used to put together my own electric guitars.” While he insists he shouldn’t be classified as a luthier, Heumiller acknowledges that he has received training in the art of guitar building. “So, from that side, I totally appreciate what it takes to build one of these things.”
That appreciation extends to a kind of reverence for custom guitar makers themselves. “Even now when I meet builders and see how passionate they are, I really love being able to help them,” he says. “They’re just awesome folks; it’s a great community.” Ultimately, Heumiller is more a matchmaker—bringing together musicians and custom guitar makers—than a dealer or middleman. Spending time with him, one gets the feeling that he’d do this even if it wasn’t his livelihood.
When talking about the experience of guiding a player toward the selection of a custom guitar, Heumiller often uses the metaphorical phrase “soul food” to describe the end result. And he has no end of anecdotes that illustrate the idea. “One of my favorite clients is a 72-year-old guy,” he says. “He called me up and said, ‘I put off learning guitar my whole life. I had my kids, they grew up, and I had to help them. Now I’m going to play.’” The man bought an instrument from Dream Guitars. “He called me up six months later,” Heumiller says, a warm smile on his face. “He told me, ‘I’m in a guitar orchestra now!’ I want to be part of helping people do things like that.”
Some two decades after starting his business, Heumiller remains happy that he has taken Martin Simpson’s advice about focusing only on high-end instruments. He expresses boundless admiration—awe, really—for the care and effort that goes into the making of a handcrafted guitar. “Somebody spends 100 or 150 hours making them,” He says. “I’ve been in shops where they’re deciding, ‘Do I take one more pass of the chisel to get the most tone, or do I leave it alone?’” He says that approach stands in sharp contrast with the factory method: “Cut it the same way, glue it the same way, stamp it out.”
Heumiller emphasizes that one can see and hear the difference between a fine, handmade guitar and a mass-produced one. Waving his hand in the air to draw attention to the instruments on the walls of his showroom, he says, “I’ve had people crying in here. I hand them a handmade guitar, and the price doesn’t matter. I hand them something that is so open and so moving that they literally well up. These guitars are different. And you can’t do that at a thousand-dollar price point. You just can’t.”
Most of the guitar makers with whom Heumiller works make as few as 10 to 20 instruments a year. “That’s about all you can do when you’re building by hand,” he explains. “Most guys make one or maybe two at a time; it takes months for those to be done, then they move on. And if there’s any kind of inlay or artistry, that takes another 100 hours.” That extreme high-end, labor intensive process helps explain the lofty price of the guitars Heumiller has on offer. “Some guitars have to be $20,000, $30,000, $40,000,” he says. “Because it takes [builders] so many hours of time, and so many years before that figuring out how to do it.” He makes the added point that most handcrafted guitar makers only see a profit in the last five to ten years of their career. “It takes a long time for a builder to get on the plus side of things; it’s a big learning curve.”
Dream Guitars’ stock consists of a few hundred guitars from high-end builders, plus occasional trade-ins. And Heumiller often serves as a liaison between builders and clients wanting a special, built-to-order instrument. “That’s a big part of what we do,” he says.
Considering the price point of these fine acoustic guitars—it’s rare to find an instrument at Dream Guitars priced under $5,000—the demographic of Heumiller’s clients is primarily in the 50 to 70-year old range. “They’re people who have either played guitar their whole life, or who are getting into it later in life,” he says. His clients are a mix of professionals, semi-pros, and collectors. “As logic would dictate,” Paul adds, “younger clients—age 30 to 50—are buying from the lower end of what we offer.”
Most everything about Dream Guitars’ approach is the opposite of the customary retail method of selling musical instruments. Volume dealers—both of the brick-and-mortar variety and their online counterparts—may sell good quality guitars, but the primary focus is on moving inventory. “On the business side, I’m where I want to be,” Heumiller says. “I don’t want to sell even 500 or 1,000 pieces a year.” He says that in a typical year, Dream Guitars might sell 200-300 instruments. And the timeline from initial inquiry to the guitar finding its way into the client’s hands often takes several weeks.
It’s fair to wonder why a prospective buyer might not simply go direct, cutting out any middleman. Heumiller smiles knowingly at the suggestion. “The first reason is that we’re the same price,” he says. “Many people think we add on to the builder’s price, but we don’t.” Dream Guitars takes a commission from the sales, and builders are happy to have Heumiller and his team do all the marketing and support work. “We’ve built a machine for representing builders’ work at the highest possible level,” he says, noting that Dreamguitars.com received nearly a quarter-million visitors last year.
The other reason clients come to Dream Guitars is for the expertise. “We want to help you find the guitar that’s going to motivate you and make you want to play,” Heumiller says. “I think that’s our reputation.” He says that many prospective clients are looking to be educated. “They know there’s this world of custom builders; they have an idea that those instruments are better than the factory guitars they’ve been playing for the last 20 years.” An initial phone call starts the education process. “There’s a lot of back and forth. Like, ‘Who is Bill Tippin? Who is Jordan McConnell? Who is Ervin Somogyi?’” Paul notes that Dream Guitars’ website features a demonstration video—featuring high-definition audiovisuals created in the company’s Weaverville studio—for every guitar in stock.
Life and Livelihood Entwined
With success, the demands of running Dream Guitars grew over the years; Heumiller loved the work, but found that his life/work balance wasn’t what it should have been. A few years after relocating to North Carolina, he attended a real estate buying seminar (“a momentary dabble of mine,” he says, with a chuckle) and found himself struck by a point the presenter made. “There were about a hundred people in the room,” he recalls. “The guy said, ‘If you work for yourself, raise your hand.’ We all did. Then he asked, ‘If you walked away from your business for two years, would it grow?’ Everybody’s hands went down. He told us, ‘None of you owns a business. You own a job.’” Heumiller pauses, savoring the memory. “He was completely right. And that made me reevaluate everything.”
If he needed further encouragement along that path, he soon received it. Heumiller recalls a discussion with a yoga instructor during private sessions focused not only on physical movement but on way-of-life issues. “I was complaining about running Dream Guitars,” he says. “Honestly, I was getting burnt out on the business because I was fighting it. And he stopped me in my tracks: ‘What about your business is not yoga? What about your business is not pure joy?’ And that really made me reflect on everything I do.” By focusing on the idea that his work is service, Heumiller achieved a different perspective. “Before I would answer a phone call, I would breathe and think, ‘How do I serve this person?’ It completely changed my interaction with everybody. And ever since then, I’ve had so much joy.”
Heumiller also set about developing a very small yet highly skilled staff to help him with the business. Today, the “Dream Team” includes eight people, handling everything from marketing to video production to routine business matters. And their enthusiasm absolutely radiates. Scott Bresnick works in both marketing and operations at Dream Guitars. He views his work as an opportunity to be “right in the middle of what I consider the Golden Age of Lutherie.” That kind of passion means that even when Heumiller’s not in the shop, Dream Guitars is well looked after. “So now, I’ll go for builder training for a week, or a ten-day meditation, or whatever,” Heumiller says. And the business is in good hands: “We don’t miss a beat.”
For his guitar business, Heumiller draws much wisdom from yoga. An experienced practitioner himself, with extensive experience teaching yoga and meditation, Heumiller brings the lessons of yoga to his work matching people and instruments. “It’s about service,” he explains. “Everybody I deal with—whether it’s a builder or a client—I ask myself, ‘How do I serve them best?’ That’s how I try to approach everything. And if you’re coming at it from that angle, the rest kind of works itself out.”
Today, the Weaverville house is primarily used for Dream Guitars; the showroom, photo booth, audiovisual recording studio, and shipping/receiving areas take up much of the available space. Heumiller lives nearby, in a small, remote mountain cabin, some 4,500 feet above sea level. “I’m a morning person,” he says. “Every day for me is total joy; I’m happy to get up every day to experience life, interact with people, and be a part of this wonderful world.” Having achieved a balance, he doesn’t feel the need to draw a line between his life and work. “Because I enjoy my work so much, it’s no different than me sitting at home with friends, being with my son, reading a book, or playing guitar,” he says. “My whole day is full of joyous stuff.”
Several times each year, Heumiller takes week-long classes in yoga; he’s currently in the middle of a 1,000-hour program. “That’s just for my own growth,” he says. “I don’t need to have any certification in that regard, but I just enjoy it. He also launched a yoga program for inmates at the Buncombe County jail a few years ago. And he rides his Triumph motorcycle whenever he gets the chance; the mountains of Western North Carolina are ideal for such a pursuit, but he sometimes ventures farther afield. “I like to travel, and often I’ll combine it with business. I’ve motorcycled in about ten countries,” he says.
Heumiller is motivated in all things by what he describes as oneness. “I’m really of the mindset that we’re all one, and this whole world is one big thing that we’re all part of. I’ve learned to try to be my best self and my highest self; that’s where the service part comes from.” That philosophy informs his day-to-day life. “If we’re each true to ourselves, then the whole thing will work perfectly well. It took me a long time to learn that, but that’s where I’m at.”
That sort of measured approach to life—one that places focus on the things deemed important, and away from stress-inducing activities—characterizes Heumiller’s daily existence. “I can do my part of the business anywhere I am,” he explains. “Other than shipping or touching the guitars, we can do everything else that the business needs remotely. And that’s very much by design.” Paul’s an early bird: His day usually starts by 6:30AM. “My clients will tell you that by seven, they’re already getting emails from me. I tend to work long hours, but it will be at my own pace. I might take an hour off and exercise; I might go take guitar lessons.”
Service Brings a Smile
Asked what he enjoys most about his work, Heumiller has a ready answer. “It gets back to that idea of service,” he says. “But really, it’s that look when we hand somebody a guitar, and we know that’s going to change their life.” He admits that phenomenon doesn’t happen with every single buyer and guitar. But it does happen a lot. “The guy is sitting there playing the guitar, and that look comes over his face,” Heumiller says. “And I just know: He’s done. I always tell people, ‘When you get it home and you can’t walk by it without grabbing it and playing it, that’s a good guitar.’ The rest of it is all superficial. Will it make you play and make music? Buy it. You’re done.”
For clients, the experience of choosing a guitar—whether it’s from Heumiller’s small and carefully curated inventory, or the result of a custom build—is a highly personal one. “What makes Paul special is his motivation to get the right guitar in a client’s hands,” says Tony Russo, a longtime client. Another client, Henry Welt, echoes that sentiment: “Unlike a conventional relationship between buyer and vendor, I consider my relationship with Paul to be a friendship with a trusted advisor.”
The service Heumiller provides includes asking the client—via phone, or more often online video chat—a lot of questions. “I’m asking them, ‘What are you playing? What genre? What guitars do you love? What players do you love? What would you like to play five years from now?’” With that information in mind, he can make specific recommendations.
“Then,” Heumiller continues, “it gets down to start talking practical. ‘What do we have in stock? Are you willing to wait and order one? I have two in stock.’ So, I’ll play those for them. They’ll say they like the sweet or warmer tone versus brighter, and then I can play those two.” When a final selection is made, Dream Guitars ships the instrument, providing a three-day trial period. “I’d say that 80-plus percent stick,” Heumiller enthuses. “That’s because I care enough, because we ask a lot of those questions, and we don’t rush it.”
Not every inquiry leads to a sale, of course. And because Paul doesn’t think of himself as a salesman, he’s okay with that. “There are some people who are just looking for a deal,” he says. “If it’s too business-y, I’m not interested. If it feels like a sale—if it feels like I have to try—it doesn’t feel good to me.”
Since the worldwide Great Recession of a decade ago, Heumiller has seen some changes in the rarefied marketplace of handmade acoustic guitars. “The phone completely stopped ringing in ‘08 and ‘09,” he admits. “Even people who were quite wealthy weren’t spending it.” And since that time, American buyers—Dream Guitars’ primary clientele—have become a bit more fiscally cautious. Fifteen years ago, Heumiller wouldn’t have been surprised to have a client tell him, “Hey, I’m getting a home equity loan. I want to buy a $10,000 guitar.”
“Now,” says Heumiller, “they’re more like, ‘I’ve got to sell one before I buy one.’”
One thing that pleasantly surprises Heumiller is the constant reminder he gets regarding just how important music is to people. “They prioritize music as ‘soul food’ in their lives,” he says. “Maybe they’re making a lot of other sacrifices everywhere else in their life, but they’re going to have that one guitar that gives them an hour of total peace at night, or whenever they get a chance to play.”
Heumiller re-emphasizes his main point. “I’m not really selling anything; these guitars sell themselves.” He laughs and says that he considers himself a kind of sherpa. “If I get you the right one in your hands, you’re going to know, and you’re going to fall in love. And that’s it.”
The full article continues below. Click to open in fullscreen…