“It’ll be hard to say it without him.”
That’s how a music producer and one-time employee at The Exclusive Co.’s flagship store in Oshkosh described the death of his former boss, James Giombetti, whose signature catchphrase, “Say it with me,” marked the end of the record store chain’s TV and radio spots.
Better known as “Mr. G,” Giombetti founded and owned The Exclusive Co. record store chain and sold music since the 1950s. He opened the first store in 1956 in West Bend before moving to Oshkosh, where he opened a second store a year later.
Giombetti died Saturday in Opa Locka, Florida, according to a death notice from Vallés Funeral Homes & Crematory.
The Exclusive Co. still operates seven stores across Wisconsin, including in Appleton, Green Bay, Janesville, Milwaukee, Oshkosh and West Bend, and bills itself as “America’s oldest full-line independent record store.”
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In a Facebook post Monday, Justin Perkins, of Neenah, said Giombetti’s impact on Wisconsin’s music scene and the community is immeasurable.
“Before social networking, it was a place to meet and chat with like minded people and discover new music. Especially true if you were too young to hang out at bars and nightclubs,” Perkins wrote. “I don’t think I’d be doing what I’m lucky enough to be doing today without Mr. G and The Exclusive Company.”
Perkins also recalled interacting with Giombetti when he worked at the Oshkosh store in the early 2000s.
“Quite often, he’d call down to what was probably the original rotary telephone and ask, ‘how’s traffic?’. As in, how busy was the store that afternoon or evening. He couldn’t wait until the end of the day to find out and there were absolutely no computers in sight during this era. He was there pretty much every day as I recall. 7 days a week. Always working, always present. Always pleasant.”
Tom Smith, who manages the Green Bay store, thought he was joining a pre-Christmas shopping season conference call Monday. Instead, a family member and other managers notified managers of Giombetti’s death. Smith said the news shocked him.
“Without a doubt the only reason The Exclusive Co. exists and has had the success it had was because of Mr. G,” Smith said. “He was a force of nature. He had an iron will. We understood what he wanted and he got great results out of his staff.”
Smith remembers taking a pay cut in 1988 to leave a Port Plaza Mall music store to work for Mr. G, whom he described as “the greatest motivational speaker in the history of the earth.” He said Giombetti gave his store managers leeway to adapt their operations to their local communities.
“He was loyal to employees who worked their butts off for him. And he gave us a lot of autonomy at the stores,” Smith said. “He let the individual store managers do their own thing and that’s why I’m here. I consider myself fortunate to work 33 years for a living legend.”
He said Giombetti cultivated a “mysterious” persona chock full of rumors which no one was ever sure were true or false. He said he found out many of the wild stories weren’t true, but they “contributed to the rich tapestry of who he was.”
Smith said Giombetti and his family weathered decades of change in the music and recording industry. Giombetti managed the finances carefully in order to stay ahead of the competition, whether it was a big box like Best Buy or the trend toward digital music.
“I am so happy that Mr. G lived to see the end of Best Buy as a prerecorded music force,” Smith said. “Best Buy put a lot of record stores out of business all over this country. Because of Mr. G, we were able to survive. Then the internet put more record stores out of business. At our peak, we had 11 stores. Now we’re at seven. But Mr. G wouldn’t allow us, through his sheer will, to close. Through his sound, smart business practices, we had the resources to survive.”
Smith said customers and musicians have stopped in to share their favorite memories about Giombetti. He said he played Elvis Presley all day Tuesday at the Green Bay store in Giombetti’s honor, since he was a huge Elvis fan. Smith expects he’ll tear up when “You Gave Me a Mountain” plays.
“He made us all listen to that song and then talked about it, that we have our own mountains to move. I might get a little misty,” he said.
Contact Bremen Keasey at 920-570-5614 or [email protected] Contact Jeff Bollier at 920-431-8387 or [email protected] Follow them on Twitter at @Keasinho and @GBstreetwise.