COM­FORT­ABLY NICHE: THE STORY OF GLADESVILLE GUI­TAR FAC­TORY

HOW TWO BROTHERS TURNED SIX STRINGS INTO A 45-YEAR BOU­TIQUE GUI­TAR BUSI­NESS.

Australian Guitar - - Feature - PHO­TOS AND STORY BY PETER ZALUZNY

The back-end of Gladesville Gui­tar Fac­tory looks like the staff sec­tion of any other mu­sic store: old desks, com­put­ers, pa­per­work, a few ag­ing pho­tos, and stacks upon stacks of gui­tars and parts, all pre­car­i­ously perched around each other. It’s a kind of or­gan­ised chaos that only makes sense to the peo­ple work­ing there, and that’s the way a good gui­tar store should be. But amongst it all, tucked away on a shelf high above the ground, is a lit­tle piece of gold that be­longs to long­time store owner, Paul Chalker.

“My most cher­ished gui­tar is a ‘62 Epi­phone Texan,” he says, ca­su­ally ges­tur­ing to­wards the rare six-string. “It’s the gui­tar I learned to play on from 1962, when Gib­son had Epi­phone.” It isn’t long be­fore he grabs a step-lad­der, pulls it down and drifts off to the tune of some ca­sual chords.

The place is lit­tered with his­tor­i­cal nuggets like that, from the bou­tique, niche and rare in­stru­ments that line its walls, to the fa­mous faces that have passed through the doors. “I have a photo gallery on the stairs of peo­ple, sup­pli­ers, and cus­tomers that I’ve worked with and en­coun­tered over the years – that prob­a­bly goes back to the ‘80s, I guess,” he adds. How­ever, a quick walk­through re­veals that a lot of these vis­i­tors were more than day-to-day cus­tomers.

Most of the mu­seum pieces are mounted on what lit­tle wall space is left, mostly around the stars. The gallery starts about half­way up, be­gin­ning with Chalker and Billy Con­nolly. “Oh yeah, he bought a banjo from us,” he ca­su­ally men­tions, “And that’s Jim Mar­shall.” Chalker isn’t the kind of guy that’s into name-drop­ping – in fact, he seems to take more pride in the in­stru­ments than the col­lec­tion of celebrity guests. The fact that he can’t go more than five min­utes with­out grab­bing a gui­tar off the wall is a tes­ta­ment to his love of mu­sic.

Though he hasn’t been there since day one, Gladesville Gui­tar Fac­tory seems like a sec­ond home of sorts for Chalker and his son, who came on­board as soon as he fin­ished high school. Way back in the early ‘60s, a man by the name of Leo De Kroo opened a gui­tar re­pair busi­ness that grad­u­ally grew into a small store and mu­sic school. Chalker and his brother came on­board in the early ‘70s, and bought the busi­ness not long af­ter. In 1972, the brand that still stands to­day was born.

To­day, it’s a get­away for gui­tar nuts. Sure, they sell some of the pop­u­lar mod­els that don’t cost an arm and a leg, but they’re mainly in the busi­ness of bou­tique gear. It’s not un­com­mon to walk in and hear an afi­cionado ten­derly pluck­ing away at an in­stru­ment you’re un­likely to find in any other store, while hap­pily talk­ing shop with one of staff. It makes sense – af­ter all, you don’t spend 45 years in the game if you’re only in­ter­ested in flip­ping flavour-of-the-month fret­boards.

Chalker takes a fairly mat­ter-of-fact ap­proach to the busi­ness, which has helped him stay afloat for so long. But be­neath it all is a man that’s had a life­long af­fair with the gui­tar in all forms, and it doesn’t take much to bring that Chalker back to the sur­face.

The Epi­phone Texan has his­tory, but do you have any other favourites in the col­lec­tion?

Iron­i­cally enough, my favourite gui­tar is a beaten up old Aria clas­si­cal gui­tar, which is fall­ing apart [ laughs]. It was the first gui­tar that I took home from the shop and prob­a­bly has a value of about $50, but it’s like an old pair of slip­pers.

You men­tioned Billy Con­nolly and Jim Mar­shall ear­lier. Have any other no­table names come through?

We get a lot of peo­ple out of the coun­try scene. John Wil­liamson’s an old cus­tomer – I’ve been deal­ing with him for 40 years – Casey Cham­bers and Troy Cas­sar-Da­ley too. Diesel’s a good cus­tomer here: we do ser­vic­ing on his gui­tars and he buys a lot of gear from us. Plus, we deal with most of the ses­sion play­ers in Syd­ney. We’ve been here for 45 years, so there’s not a lot of peo­ple in the gui­tar scene that we don’t know.

Did any of those vis­i­tors feel like a piv­otal mo­ment in the busi­ness?

I guess what I al­ways con­sid­ered a piv­otal point for our busi­ness was the in­tro­duc­tion of Collings. They’re a fairly small bou­tique man­u­fac­turer in Amer­ica, and the first time I saw a Collings gui­tar was in Los An­ge­les back in ‘96. I picked it up and played it, and it just blew me away, so I spoke to the lady that ran the store. She said, “They’re great gui­tars, but don’t worry about pur­su­ing them, even we can’t get stock.” But many years later, I came in one morn­ing, opened up my emails and saw that I had one from a guy called Steven McCreary, who’s the gen­eral man­ager of Collings. He said, “I’ve had re­ports from sev­eral sources that yours would be a good store to ap­proach to sell our gui­tars in Aus­tralia.” That was one of the high­lights of my busi­ness, and it gave our shop a lot of cred­i­bil­ity.

You weren’t al­ways in the busi­ness of those niche gui­tars, though. When did you make the move from be­ing a re­pair-ori­ented busi­ness that sold in­stru­ments on the side, to­wards a full-on re­tailer?

Around 1981, we had a fire and the shop pretty much got wiped out. We went from be­ing a fairly well-es­tab­lished pro shop back to square one and had to start the busi­ness over. It was a slow jour­ney, and be­ing a small sub­ur­ban mu­sic re­tailer, we dis­cov­ered at that time that it was very hard for us to com­pete with the big­ger chain stores in ma­jor lo­ca­tions. So I de­cided then that it was best to fo­cus on niche mar­ket prod­ucts, be­cause my phi­los­o­phy was that it was bet­ter to have a lion’s share of a small mar­ket than a small share of a large mar­ket. So we still did the main two brands – Fender, and Yamaha – and what have you, but we started fo­cus­ing more on niche mar­ket prod­ucts: ban­jos, man­dolins, lap steel gui­tars and a lot of the folk in­stru­ments that wasn’t be­ing catered for. To­day, we’ve prob­a­bly got the big­gest range in Aus­tralia.

But you kept the re­pair busi­ness go­ing?

My son Michael came on­board when he was 18, fresh out of school – I had him ap­pren­tice to a cou­ple of the re­pair­ers and builders that work for me, Jim Williams and Jeff Mal­lia, who’s one of the best re­pair­ers in the coun­try. The guy that we have run­ning our re­pair sec­tion now, Zach Ware, was an ap­pren­tice to Jeff Mal­lia too.

It’s a pretty cosy place these days – the kind of joint where peo­ple can just sit and play for hours. How much time do gui­tarists spend noodling away on in­stru­ments they’re think­ing of buy­ing?

We get guys who’ll come in and spend sev­eral hours here, and we’ve had guys who’ve bought gui­tars here come in and spent a few hours a day for two weeks in a row mak­ing a se­lec­tion. We do sell a lot of high ticket items, and you don’t ex­pect some­body just to come in and make a snap de­ci­sion if they’re about to fork out $5,000 or $6,000 for a gui­tar. But it is nice when some­body just comes in, plays a cou­ple of gui­tars, and says, “I’ll have that one” [ laughs].

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