Five years ago, former Dogs D’Amour bassist Steven James opened his own store in Middlesbrough, near to his home town of Saltburn by the Sea. Adam Savage caught up with store manager Anthony Sawdon to see how far the business has moved forward…
To become a successful MI dealer, it certainly helps to have a real passion for making music. Many retailers – before opening their shop – will have harboured dreams of chart success and playing to capacity crowds, when in reality, the closest most have got to that is ‘headlining’ the local village fete.
Steven James, founder of Steven James Guitars in Middlesbrough came closer to superstardom than most though, having been bass player with Dogs D’Amour – touring the world extensively – from 1986 to 1992.
But after all that – and following an eight-year stint as manager of the guitar department of Guitar Amp and Keyboard in Brighton – he then decided to move back up to Teesside and open a music shop. “I decided to return to my home town and create the kind of music shop that I would have wanted to visit and hang out in when I was a professional musician,” a statement from James reads on the store’s website.
So with the question of how the shop came to be answered, I spoke to store manager Anthony Sawdon to see how the store has progressed since it opened just over five years ago.
“Steve was originally from nearby Saltburn by the Sea and he felt the area didn’t offer much for local musicians,” says Sawdon. “He had always planned to return to his roots and he felt the time was right to come home.”
“I was Sound Control store manager at the Stockton on Tees branch for five years and I joined Steven James as manager in August last year. In the last six months we’ve taken on Taylor Guitars and we’ve just received our first stock from Gibson and Epiphone.”
Sawdon was actually UK product specialist for Korg and Vox when he first realised the potential of the store. In fact, he was so impressed that he became keen to be part of the project while still in his previous role.
“I didn’t want to leave my job when I first saw the shop, but the offering of stock for the relatively small area is phenomenal and I remember being amazed by the great vibe,” he reveals.
“We always let customers try out the instruments, we’re great with beginners, recommend teachers, give as much help as we can, don’t hassle people to buy, give honest advice and make sure people go away happy.”
Sawdon’s past perhaps gives him a distinct advantage over other store managers. Not only did he spend five years doing a similar job at a branch of a major retail chain – before its untimely demise – his on-the-road experience visiting countless shops allowed him to pick up ideas of what made some stores great, but also avoid the mistakes that have blighted the less-than-impressive stores out there.
“I used to see stores up and down the country and wonder how they’re surviving,” states Sawdon. “They simply weren’t being helpful to their customers and it really came across.
“But recently, some really good stores have gone, unfortunately. High-end guitars is not an easy market to be in and now you really need to know your products. Customers’ disposable income is harder earned than ever. But all of our stock is bought outright so we don’t have to worry as much about cash and we know that we can pay the bills.”
Despite mentioning end users’ reluctance to spend of late, Sawdon is still surprised at the quantity of people he sees taking up a new instrument or upgrading to a better model – an exact contrast to what other specialist retailers have been telling MI Pro lately.
“I’m amazed at the number of people learning to play and upgrading their instruments at the moment,” he remarks.
In business, five years isn’t a long time, but there’s no denying that Steven James Guitars has come a long way since 2006. According to Sawdon, its stock offering was already pretty broad to begin with, but nothing compared to the dealings it’s now doing.
“When we opened the selection was good, but when you compare our first Christmas to now, we’re turning over about seven times as much and we’ve just had our biggest growth year,” Sawdon reports. “We also must have more Rickenbackers on display than any other UK store, with 15 on the wall at present. We had a ridiculously busy summer last year as well and the figures were on a par with the previous Christmas.”
Steven James must be doing something right if stock is flying out the door during a time when most MI retailers are twiddling their thumbs and struggling just to get customers in the door, let alone buying.
So what next? With business going so smoothly, the management must surely face the decision to either make an ambitious attempt to move to ‘the next level’ or carry on as normal so as not to disturb all its recent good fortune. The reality, in fact, is somewhere in between.
“For now we’re just looking to stabilise the store and ensure we’re here for the long run, make it look better and perhaps find some other underground brands that aren’t currently available in the UK,” Sawdon added. “We’re working on a new website and we’re going to be putting a lot into our marketing going forward and building on our social networking presence. We’ve also got a few competitions in the pipeline – we’re giving away a Les Paul signed by Gary Moore, which people can enter in a couple of months.”
A combination of experience, understanding customers’ needs, product selection, clever financial planning and good location is sure to keep Steven James Guitars on the map during these uncertain times and beyond. There can’t be many other independents out there that saw 2011 as their most successful year, storming through a traditionally troublesome summer period in the process. All during what’s supposed to be one of the most difficult times to own a retail business for decades.
It will be intriguing to see what happens once the financial storm cloud eventually disappears and everything ‘returns to normal.’ How far could this store go? MI Pro will watch with interest.
STEVEN JAMES: 01642 867510