Greensboro is much like any other mid-sized, sleepy college town in the Southeast. Home to the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG), part of a statewide system that quite surprisingly encompasses 17 colleges, universities, and institutions of higher learning, Greensboro is nestled at about the midpoint of the state. In addition to UNCG and some really wonderful Southern pit-cooked barbecue, Greensboro is also home to Big Kids Toys, AV (BKT), a mid-sized, successful audio and home theater dealer I’ve been a fan and supporter of for years now. Owned and operated by the affable Mike Twomey, BKT sells, installs, and services systems from truly entry level to ultimate-level performance and literally everything in between.
Twomey had been pursuing a career in corporate America, but had always wanted to be involved in some capacity in high-performance audio, something he had enjoyed his whole life. In 2002, he threw caution to the wind and, along with the support of his wife, opened BKT for business. “In those early days,” he told me, “I had to beg for product lines.” Today, representing manufacturers such as Magico, Focal, Totem, PSB, REL, D’Agostino, Audio Research, Constellation, T+A, and a host of others, BKT can provide audio or video systems from perhaps a thousand dollars up to designs that top out at over $1,000,000.
In 2004, Twomey’s world crashed when his wife passed away from cancer. Because of her affiliation with UNCG, Twomey decided to establish a yearly scholarship in her name to assist college students with their tuition. And because of his lifelong interest and participation in cross-country track and field (he has traveled extensively through the years running competitively), he on occasion helps out UNCG students who run track. It was through this philanthropy he made the acquaintance of Luke Sumerford, a college student who was then on the cross-country team at the University.
Growing up as a Millennial, Sumerford’s parents had a very respectable stereo and because of this, Luke also developed a love of music and audiophile music playback. As a teenager, he listened less and less to the Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen his parents liked as he developed a taste for hip-hop and American pop music. Like most young people his age at the time, his reference audiophile rig was an Apple phone and some pretty modest wireless earbuds. But it was a start, nevertheless.
At the end of his freshman year of college, Sumerford wanted a subwoofer. He found BKT via an online search and went there to see about purchasing one. Not only did he do so, but Mike also surprised him with an offer for a summer job. In the beginning, he mostly helped Mike around the shop in basic tasks. He carried components Mike shouldn’t be lugging around. Luke did everything from random yardwork to helping installers with custom installations. Somewhere along the way, Luke became captivated by the amazing sonics of the variety of systems on display at Big Kid Toys. He was reminded of the music his parents enjoyed when he was growing up and became highly compelled to learn what made each of these systems special. It didn’t take long for overtime to become more fun than work.
Sumerford continued working part time for BKT while finishing college – a job path that many of the brightest stars from Generation X speak of as part of their rise to prominence in the audiophile business. Through working for Mike and also receiving some scholarship funding, Sumerford graduated and decided he wanted to work for Mike full time. His aspirations were higher than being the guy who picked up heavy boxes and occasionally worked in the yard. He wanted to be in sales where he could craft systems, be part of the excitement, and where the upside for a man in his early 20s was the potential for a six-figure income.
Sumerford began working to educate himself on the art and science of high-performance audio. He read books, watched videos, but perhaps his best education came from listening to Mike work with his customers during the sales process. He also sat in on informative meetings with manufacturers in an effort to better understand the full scope of the audio business. He had a lot of time to learn from LaMont Alexander, Big Kid Toys’ technical and network guru who is skilled in custom installations, computers, home network systems, and has been building speakers since he was in high school. Sumerford’s educational path to high end audio was essentially hands on.
Upon graduation, Luke’s first real high-performance system was based around an Onkyo receiver, PSB XT1 speakers, a PSB sub, and a Sonos front end. He was enamored with this rig. Today (only a few years later), his system consists of Focal Chorus 726 speakers, a stereo pair of REL T5 subs, a Marantz 5013 AV Processor, a Bluesound Node for streaming, and a Clearaudio Performance DC turntable – having never lost his enjoyment of vinyl.
When I asked Sumerford about how his friends that are his age feel about his profession and the hobby in general, he told me all of his friends love music in some capacity or another. Most of them love listening to music on his stereo and several will frequently get together for listening sessions. Inevitably, his friends will request one of their favorite songs and they can talk about what they liked or what was different from listening to a handheld device. Most of all, Sumerford, now married, particularly enjoys listening to music with his wife – who has the ability, Luke noted, to identify artists with “that intangible quality that just draws the listener in.” Luke sometimes listens alone but understands the hobby is a good starting place for social activities and younger people, both men and women, enjoy music as part of a social environment versus a “head-in-a-vice” listening-alone-in-a-dark-room experience.
Luke has also seen his interest in music, separate and apart from his enthusiasm for hip-hop, evolve today into an ever-broadening range of musical styles and genres. He finds joy in listening to the music customers request during demos as a way to experience more and more art on his own time. As Luke has gotten older, his enjoyment of genres previously ignored are now becoming more compelling. Additionally, those new musical genres also highlight how and where he will want to upgrade his reference AV system going forward.
Much has changed for Sumerford in the intervening eight years since he was hired. No longer doing yard work, Luke Sumerford has earned the right to being the Sales Manager for Big Kids Toys, which is a lofty feat for a man of his age. He has his own customers who seek advice and look for their own system upgrade path. He hosts a weekly You Tube channel that BKT sponsors. He especially enjoys making his customers happy and earning their trust. “Knowing they are enjoying their music more than ever before is extremely gratifying,” he noted. His job is very much a continuing education in audio.
As far as what he finds difficult about the job, perhaps his biggest challenge is problem solving. “Problems don’t stop at the end of the business day; they occur anytime,” he notes. One of his goals is to better identify with his customers, make them aware he cares about their needs, and help them with providing solutions. He sees the audio business as something constantly changing, not something exclusively occurring between the weekday hours of 8 AM to 5 PM.
As a young audiophile, Sumerford, now in his late twenties, feels the best way for the industry to attract younger enthusiasts is to not be so dismissive of their needs. He noted there are scores of young people, kids in high school and college, spending hundreds, even thousands of dollars on car audio. His advice is to endeavor to find ways to convert their obvious interest in music to something parallel with the systems audiophiles enjoy. One of his primary suggestions is to not “turn our nose up to their music.” “We show them,” he noted, “how good their music sounds on a relatively inexpensive system that they can have in their bedroom or dorm room.” Sounds like sage advice.
Sumerford’s transformation from a college kid to an audiophile is now complete. A hobby introduced by his parents and furthered by an AV dealer has now become his passion as well as his livelihood. He hopes to continue in the audio business and looks one day, maybe, to own and operate his own audio dealership. Meanwhile, working at Big Kids Toys, AV has transformed from a summer occupation into a career – one Luke Sumerford does not really see as a job; he sees it as a way of life.
We should all be so fortunate.