COMFORTABLY NICHE: THE STORY OF GLADESVILLE GUITAR FACTORY
HOW TWO BROTHERS TURNED SIX STRINGS INTO A 45-YEAR BOUTIQUE GUITAR BUSINESS.
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].