Street Stories: Brian Rowe, Wunjo
‘Stairway to Kevin’ announces the sign. The sign is not on a wall, but on the stairs up to Brian’s first floor office at Wunjo Guitars. The Kevin it refers to repairs guitars in a workshop a floor above Brian.
‘Office’ does perhaps have a another meaning, a bit of a misnomer. Brian has a desk tucked into a corner of the upper sales floor, hemmed in by orange-ticketed mandolins, banjos and guitar amplifiers. Its sides are adorned with the marker-pen-scribbled signatures and comments by appreciative customers of the store: Razorlight, The Noisettes and even the late, great Rik Mayall ‘Less sound you bastards’, sub-signed ‘Cheers Guys Alan B’Stard MP’.
The desk is one of the few indicators of the better-known names that might shop at Wunjo; there are no photos of a celeb posed uncomfortably with a salesman dazzled by camera flash and a brush with fame.
When she gets there she knows, if the stores are all closed
With a word she can get what she came for
While I am with him, however, it becomes clear that Brian’s desk is the point around which the rest of the Wunjo universe turns. There is a constant succession of visitors: staff needing a view on whether to buy or discount a guitar, authorisations for payments to suppliers, customers collecting instruments and a surprising number of former employees dropping in just to say hello or to see if there is a chance of a few days’ work between tours. I get the impression that delegation doesn’t come easily to Brian Rowe.
I begin by asking him how he got into selling guitars.
I used to play in a wee band in Glasgow in the mid to late eighties. We were a wee Northern Soul band [The Burberries].
I bought a 1978 refinished red Telecaster. I changed the DiMarzio neck pickup. It weighed a ton. I saved a lot of weeks to get that guitar and worked hard as hell. I also realised that I loved the old stuff because it had a bit of character to it; a bit worn. I just did nae fancy any new guitars then.
When I got hold of this little guitar, my little pride and joy, that set me on the path. I don’t like new red knob Fender Twins that were coming out in the eighties, I liked the silver face Fender Twins from the sixties and seventies. I just started from there. I realised that my setup was just fantastic compared to anybody else around me.
There was no value to vintage instruments then. I paid about £240 in 1986 for a ‘78 Telecaster. I could have bought an American Telecaster brand new for about 330 quid they were about then.
I loved the old stuff, loved the fact it had been played before, been used and had that about it. I started it, when we were going touring everywhere up and down the country, I’d stop in wee places and buy a little acoustic guitar. It just grew from there.
The band folded in the early nineties and I thought ‘What am I going to do now?’
I went and trained up to be a guitar maker, a luthier. That brought me to London. I started two years in Glasgow, a lovely wee college in Anniesland and then I came down to the Guildhall School of Furniture in Whitechapel and finished a degree down there.
And that was it. After I finished there, it was 1996, I worked for Andy’s Guitars doing the tech-ing, I was his tech, also looking after the acoustic floor and selling acoustics from up there.
You learnt a lot working for Andy. A lot. How to do it, how not to do it.
You used to walk into Andy’s and think ‘Oh God I’ve no idea what I’ll find in here but I might find something completely unique that nobody else has got.’ He’d have some new stuff when he could pay the bills, but mainly he was doing a lot of consignments which got him in trouble.
But he’d have guitars from all over the periods, all over the world. From Russia in the sixites, you’d see one of them hanging on a wall. Now, I learnt from him, god bless him, that I want to be in this long term.
So, when I started up my company in 2001, I realised I’m going to do the right thing for customers. That’s my philosophy: do the right thing. If there’s a problem with a guitar, they bring it back; do the right thing. Give them their money back if that’s what they’re after, if they want to swap it if that’s what they want, just do it.
Long term, I want to keep customers coming back to me. Andy lost a lot of customers by not doing the right thing.
If someone comes back with a £500 guitar and I give them their money back, that guy’s going to come back to me in the future. I’ve not lost that customer. He’ll see that I’m here to do the right thing by him. That to me is everything, absolutely everything. It’s been the philosophy since day one, it’s the philsophy now and it will be for the future too, because I’m aware of the type of street I’m on. There’s a lot of competition around and I’ve got to do the right thing for people and treat them properly.
I learnt a lot from Andy’s but I also developed some of my own ideas.
I got into it basically just by loving guitars, loving the old amps and enjoying the work environment as well.
Even still now you still get these wee companies like Eastwood who are regurgitating the old classic brands that have become harder and harder to find. And I like that. So even new guitars do a lot for me. I’m very against modern style guitars: Ibanez, Jackson-y, Charvel-y, PRS-y. It’s never been my bag at all
You know what, it’s incredible how few people have taken to the brand because nobody seems to take the brand, which I think is a gap in the market somewhere on this street if someone is prepared to put up with that style of guitar.
Brian makes a metal sign with his fingers and laughs
I’ve never really gone down that road.
But take Ibanez – Ibanez in the 70s were a classic wee company that would take the old American models, particularly Gibsons, regurgitate them and give them their own little edge. I’m talking Ibanez Professionals, solid maple, set neck guitars. Weigh a ton, but just look amazing. Then they just changed their whole angle and that was it for me.
I was aware even then that Fenders and Gibsons were out of my price budget, so, I bypassed all that Fender-Gibson-y stuff and when I first started the shop it was all Danelectro, Silvertone, Harmonys, Kays, Mosrite. A wee bit of Rickenbacker because they had not gone. In the mid-90s, vintage guitars just gained momentum as far as price went and some of them became unaffordable to everybody.
I used to go to guitar shows in the States. In the early 2000s you could pick up the old Harmonys for a couple of hundred dollars when it was two to the one on the pound. You brought it back and you made a nice wee profit but selling a good old vintage beautifully made guitar for a lovely affordable price. That’s what turned me on more.
Obviously when you’ve got the old sixties Fender, sixties Gibson in it was exciting. We didn’t see many of them when we first started out, but because how the company has become established now we almost have to have the classic sixties Gibsons and Fenders. Fifties Gibsons and Fenders are pretty much gone. I’ve got a bunch myself, but they don’t come into the shop.
The sixties Fenders and Gibsons are sort of affordable to people, but still outside a lot of people’s price budget so I’m aware of that.
The problem with vintage, I think, and this can ruin people’s reputation, is that because there’s not much around it gives people almost a licence to print money. So you will see a ’62 Jazz bass in one shop for ten thousand quid, then you’ll see ’62 Jazz bass in another shop for four and a half thousand pounds. Of course your first impression is, well he must be a shark. Why? Because he’s selling it at ten thousand pounds.
What the normal everyday buyer maybe doesn’t understand is that ’62 can be a custom colour and it’s completely original and it’s nine and a half out of ten condition for its age. Now a collector is going to want that. Collectors more often than not, on that side of things, are people who are thinking long term in this investment, so they’re thinking twenty years ahead. So they’ll know that a nine and half out of ten ’62 Jazz bass in a custom colour will gain value.
Aye there’s a sunburst 1962, six out of ten; it’s all original, but the finish has been worn, it’s been played. A lot of people don’t see that difference. They’re easily going to go away and they’re going to go ‘Well, that shop’s really expensive – I’ve just seen a ’62 Jazz bass in that window for four and a half thousand pounds and one in that window for ten thousand pounds. They must be expensive.’
My market has always been the player. I’ve never really gone down the collectors’ market. I get the bits in and I sell to collectors who are on my wee list, but my main market, that I love dealing with, is the player.
This is why you will not find celebrities on my web site. I refuse. My most important customer who has got me to where I am right now is the everyday musician, player and character that you see walking up and down the street. I don’t put pictures of them on my web site, so I’m sure as damn it not going to put a picture of a celebrity who’s walked into my shop once on my web site.
I hate pandering to that celebrity culture we have going on around us now. Noel Gallagher might come in and buy a guitar off me, but I’ve got many customer who nobody knows who have bought three or four off me. I know how I’d feel if I was a customer who’d bought three or four guitars and my picture was nae up there, but the celebrity is. It’s never a game I’ve played.
Collectors are good, when you get a good piece offered to you at the right price. Pick up the phone, phone the guy, he comes along sees it, likes it, pays a decent price for it.
This is what keeps it interesting for me – a high turnover of stock. Stock doesn’t hang about on the walls for too long because it’s all mainly affordable stuff.
In the last couple of years, I’ve been buying in more up-to-ten-grand style guitars because I either do that or I give the money to the tax man, so I’ll do that. And it’s just good eye candy for people more often than not. It’s that opportunity with the guy, he’s in with his son and he’s playing a 355 guitar from 1960 that he’s never ever played before, he’s never going to afford in the future, but he can play it here.
There’s a feeling I get when I look to the west,
And my spirit is crying for leaving
The Wunjo name
Wunjo is a Celtic name for the joy when knowledge becomes understanding.
I grew up in Loch Lomond and there’s a big mountain there, Ben Lomond. There was the Wunjo Stone there, a big standing stone – it had Wunjo carved in it. That was our way, on a Saturday afternoon, when you hit fifteen and you and your pals started to get a wee sneaky bottle of wine. You’d sneak away and have your own wee party – you imagine Loch Lomond’s not got much around it, so we’d go up to the Wunjo Stone and sit there. It was the most beautiful sight you’ve ever seen anywhere.
Wunjo faced west, which apparently was part of the Celtic philosophy to its meaning. It had to face west: a new horizon, the sun sets over there, all that sort of stuff. That’s why it’s always been significant to me.
Then I made a guitar for a friend of mine, Del Sloan. Amazing player. The world should have heard of Del, but unfortunately it didn’t. He said ‘What are we going to call it?’ When I’d finished it, he wanted to put a wee logo on it. I remember we just had a wee conversation – we were talking about the Wunjo thing before and he goes ‘I want to call it the Wunjo.’
That was the first time I’d ever used the name Wunjo was on a wee guitar that I made for him. I’m going to give Del credit for that.
That sort of carried on with every other guitar I made after. I called it Wunjo Mahugo which was a wee mahogany body guitar I made for a friend of mine. From that point, whenever I made guitars they’d incorporate the name Wunjo.
So, when I knew I was going to open up a guitar shop I thought Brian’s Guitars? Not much rock and roll to it and then the word Wunjo came – let’s call it Wunjo Guitars.
It came from my wee childhood, a word that never left, to making guitars, the Wunjo brand to starting a guitar shop under Wunjo.
The First Guitar Shop
[I chose] orange and brown because it just stands out, more than anything. If I’m walking down a street full of guitar shops – I’ve seen the street: grey, black, blue and these are colours that have never done anything for me.
I remember Andy’s when it was open was red. It stood out, red and yellow. As you stood at that end of the street [Charing X Road] it was the one shop you noticed. And you stood at that end of the street [St Giles] you noticed it straight away. Every other shop disappeared into the glebeness and bleakness of these old dirty buildings, let’s say.
I opened up round the corner, on St Giles High Street [No. 55] was the first shop I had. I thought I’m going to go as loud as we can. People have to know we’re here. Basically, that was it. Let’s just go orange.
I employed a Brazilian fella, Dennis. He worked for me for many years, Dennis, holding my sign by the church there, a huge orange sign: Wunjo Guitars, a big arrow pointing this way. A Golf Sale sign, that’s where I got the idea.
We got by, it was tough. Then the week I moved in here [to 20 Denmark Street] suddenly it was ten times the amount of people walking in through the door. That was a revelation, that day, that week. We were just fifty yards round the corner. It made that much difference.
Dennis had to leave anyway, his visa was up to stay in the country. We didn’t need him any more because we were just now getting floods of people coming through the door. Everything just changed: bank balance, the type of guitars we could really go and buy. We could afford to pay staff, my attitude.
I’ve got to be honest, when I first started the shop it was a lot of pressure. The type of person I am now is completely to the person I was when I opened up the shop. For the first five years I never took a day off. Seven days a week, here every day. You just want to get the best out of the day. You had to pay bills, you had to pay wages, pay your tax money, your PAYE, your business rates. All of that had to get paid and it was borderline pretty much for the first two or three years.
Then when we moved here, suddenly the turnover’s improving. So I could and buy more exotic guitars and more guitars. Everything just changed.
The Bass Shop
I used to have a wee drink with Rick Harrison [of Music Ground] the odd Friday afternoon at the Tin Pan Alley Bar across the way. He’d tell me, ‘cause he owned those shops at the time, he used to tell me how they were performing and I couldn’t believe the figures he was coming up with. They were incredibly low.
I thought there’s something going on there. I walked in the shop, and, I’ve got to be honest, I never found it an inspiring shop. I was never a bass player, so I was never going to be naturally inspired anyway.
The layout of the shop destroyed me as I walked in there. The middle of the floor was the big bass heads and cabs and then along the sides there was a channel you’d walk along the shop in, along the sides of the wall where they kept the basses. There was such a severe lack of light, I never wanted to stay long. God, it’s miserable, I want to get out.
I’ve tried to learn from looking at that to how we have that bass shop now. I have more basses than I do amplifiers because my understanding is you will sell a lot more bass guitars than you will amps, so I dictate a lot more floor space for that. Also, the heads and the cabs are almost a bygone thing now because you can get combos up to five hundred watts, a thousand watts. You don’t need the head and a cab any more, maybe with the exception of the Ampeg SVT. It’s a classic and we still would stock that every now and then.
I learnt from that and that wee shop is like a gold mine now. It’s a great little shop. Its competition in the area is not what it is with guitars, but people are not daft, they can go on their iPhone and check prices, so I’ve got to be really keen on prices. As we are in the guitar shop, the bass shop and the keyboard shop.
I think Tom in there has done a brilliant job, between him, Laurence and the other Tom (Williams). Between the three of them they run a really tight little shop there. Nothing’s ever too much bother for them.
If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now,
It’s just a spring clean for the May queen.
When it was announced we were getting the Olympic Games in London, suddenly the work just started. It had been on the cards since 1981. Apparently, it was proposed to Parliament in ’81 about this Crossrail development. So, since then the landlords have never offered a long lease.
If you put yourself in their shoes at any point the government could just pass that – I’ve got 20 guys tied into a 25 year lease, they’re two years into it, I have to pay them out on that. I get it. From a business point of view, I understand why we’ve been on these leases.
Now, because we’ve been on these leases, you want a lot of transparency from the landlord. I deal with Richard Metcalfe [of Consolidated Developments] and Richard, I’ve got to be honest, has only been completely honest with me. Any plans that are on the table, he’ll pull me into the office, he’ll say ‘This is what’s being proposed, this is what’s happening. This has to get passed through Camden Council. If it passes through there, this is what’s going to happen.’
He’s talked me along stage by stage as it’s happened and progressed.
As we have it now, from the back of 21, the saxophone shop, he told me that was going about four or five years ago. He says ‘From the back end of that building up to the end of the street away from your number 20 Denmark Street, we’re going to be knocking the back of the buildings away.’ It’s happening now and it’s what he said.
He says 20 is fine. This is 20 we’re sitting in now, so as we are now, we’re fine. This is not getting knocked away, which he told me six or seven years ago.
Every stage of the way they’ve told me everything that’s happened and it’s happened as they’ve told me. Now I’ve got no reason to really doubt them whenever I hear anything from them.
The media have released other statements about what’s going on here. They gathered their information from our Hungarian and Bulgarian squatters who decided to squat the 12 Bar Club. At the time, Channel 4, MTV were going down and interviewed them. They never interviewed us! They didn’t have any interest in what we had to say, but they went to them.
Those guys, I think they were confused
‘You’re here to save the 12 Bar Club?’
‘Er, er, yeah. That’s what we’re doing here. Yeah.’
The squatters, they took advantage of an empty building.
So, as far as the landlord goes, honestly, I don’t have a problem with him.
As far as the works go, or have gone since it started, all this demolition; it’s affected the West End. People traffic has dropped.
Our figures haven’t, our figures have gone up! Which gets me excited. When it’s all done in 2018, we’re going to get people start to come back. We’re going to sign 25 year leases on the properties. The place is going to look amazing; it’s going to be designed to encourage people to come to the West End. So, from our point of view it gets me really excited.
Of course, everybody’s concern, is when we do come back into the buildings. You’re going to have to vacate the buildings in about a year, two years time because they’re going to want to put fresh fronts on some of the buildings, redo the wiring inside. I’ve been told by the architect it could be a month we’ll be out of here for. That’s my concern because I’ve got my staff. If I’m out of there for longer than a month I won’t be able to keep paying staff.
I’ll just close, maybe just start doing some wee bits on eBay or something. Just sell it on eBay to keep some money coming in. I don’t know. It’s still up in the air at the moment. It could be anywhere from a year to two years away. It depends on how the builders who take on the contract to do the job want to do the job.
Rent is our big concern. That’s the thing that’s been in the media.
Between Camden Council and the landlord (and of course we’ve got certain groups that aren’t helping us as well) that is our concern, where are the rents going to go when we get back in here.
We probably do need help. Whether it be legal help, whether it be people voicing their opinions loudly, I don’t know.
There’s been a talk about caps on rent, and this is what I’m expecting to happen. But, whose cap on the rent? Is it Camden Council’s estimation of a cap on rent or the landlord’s estimation of a cap on rent, or our estimation of a cap on rent? That’s the concern.
See, we’re all a bunch of independent shops that run in Denmark Street. And the big concern I would have for the street is that the big multi-shops who you’ve seen just moving in closer and closer to the outskirts of London – I don’t know who’s backing these guys and they’ll have to change their philosophy if they move on to Denmark Street. Obviously overheads are a lot higher here: business rates, staffing requirements . The chains – there has been talk of a couple of them trying to get on to the Street and that would change the dynamics of the Street. I won’t lie to you, we’ve all found our little angles. There’s a Gibson dealer, Macari’s are a Gibson dealer, between us and Regent Sounds we are the Fender stockists. There’s other shops; Rose Morris have found their wee niche brands. Everybody’s found their wee place here to keep us all happy.
If you get the big companies on, their stock is Gibson, Fender and everything else, so that’s obviously going to upset the balance of what we have going here. I think price wise, we’re as competitive as they are. I’m not scared of price at all. It’s just the attitudes that I think would take away a bit of the vibe on the Street. These guys, they look at the money, they look at the profits, that’s what they look at at the end of the day. Quantities sold. It’s like any big business, it’s how they’re run now.
Whereas we obviously care about business, profits and things like that, but you can talk to us easier. If a guy has a problem with a guitar he can talk to me. I own these shops. He can tell me his concern and I can say, you know what, mate, I’m going to give you the right thing. He’ll hopefully walk away with a good impression because I’ve done the right thing for him.
Up to seven eight years ago, this street did have a bad reputation with the old Music Ground domination, with the old Andy’s carry-on. So we were struggling a little bit with reputation. I think since then we’ve improved it a lot. Not necessarily just me, but the fact of Crispin in Regent Sounds, with Andy Macari coming onto Denmark Street. We’re not perfect, but we’re getting better. I think with these big boys coming on, it could set us back as far as that reputation goes.
Everybody likes to have a pop at the big boys and it’s incredible to think that people think I’m a big boy now because I own three shops on the street [laughs]. I’ve never ever thought of myself as that because you can come talk to me. Tell me what your problem is. If you’re pissed off at me or my company for what they’ve done, come and tell me! I will sit there and listen.
There’s many concerns because of change, but change has got to be a good thing. I’ve got to look at it positively, I’m trying to look at it positively.
When this is all done, it’s going to look amazing. The amount of people that will be filtering back into the West End again. There’s people who are not necessarily walking through to buy a guitar. Those people will pick up on the fact there’s a guitar street here. They go home to the suburbs where they might live: ‘I was in the West End today and there’s this big guitar shop street that’s full of guitar shops. You should go there for a guitar.’
The Denmark Street Traders Association
Again, credit to Richard Metcalfe on this. That died a death whenever Andy’s left. It was Richard Metcalfe who went round all the shops and said ‘You guys should set up this Traders’ Association.’
So, Andy Cooper, who is Cliff Cooper’s nephew. Andy Cooper used to run the PA shop there that went out of business about two years ago. Andy was the one leading that. When he left, suddenly they were trying to pass the torch to me, and Crispin to be fair.
Honestly, I just did not have the time. Any time I approached any of the other shops regarding a meeting we should have, they weren’t interested. The likes of Paul Smith and Rose Morris, just weren’t interested. No. Tom over there, not interested. Even Andy Macari wasn’t really interested.
We were all losing traffic, we thought ‘Let’s just do an advertising push’ and we’ll see if we can just push it – ‘We’re still here, we’re still trading, we’ve got lovely gear here.’
It seems that some people want to help and others just not interested. So for anybody to put money in to do anything only two or three shops were willing to put money in and the rest weren’t.
It became such a hard slog, and Andy Cooper did really well at it, I thought. He really tried. He played a peaceful game with everybody, trying to get everybody in. It just was nae working for him.
It’s something we really should have taken advantage of because we could have had some sort of a power there, or a voice on behalf of us all. It’s something that somebody should do, but I think there’s different agendas from most people here. Some people going, “well, if there’s money to be spent, they’re going to spend the money on Denmark Street anyway and we’ll get the benefit of it. We don’t need to spend the money on it”. That type of attitude. That’s obviously what annoyed the people who were interested and tried to take it forward.
It just died a death, really, and it is the thing that could probably have helped a lot.
I had issues about five, six years ago with the street, what was happening and I didn’t get any support [from the council] at all.
You can’t even get to speak to anybody.
For example, the rubbish. They tie us to these contracts for the rubbish on the street. There will be days when the bin men just don’t turn up, so the street’s just an absolute mess. They’ve told us to get the rubbish out at ten o’clock in the morning. You phone them up and go ‘Where’s your rubbish. It’s three o’clock in the afternoon and the street’s a mess.’
‘It’s not a problem mate.’
‘Yeah, but we’re paying a contract for you guys to pick up the rubbish here.’
Nothing gets done. You can never to anybody. You speak to somebody in Business Rates: ‘Make your appeal.’
‘Have you seen your appeal forms to make an appeal against the business rates? That’s not worded for the normal person to understand.’
‘Well, get one of those business rates companies in to do it for you.’
‘But they want to take 40% of anything I’m trying to save off the bill. You can make things simple. Just talk to me, I can tell you the situation. You log it, send me your decision then.’
‘That’s not how it’s done.’
There’s no help coming from any council at all.
I pay through the nose to be here. I pay £95 for a roll of bin bags. Green bin bags, £95! There’s about thirty bin bags on there. It’s absolutely extortionate.
So, I’m not a big fan of what Camden have done for us so far, unfortunately.
And if you listen very hard
The tune will come to you at last.
When all are one and one is all
To be a rock and not to roll.