Shop Spotlight: The Guitar Emporium in Melbourne

Located in sunny Port Melbourne, The Guitar Emporium is one of Melbourne’s most celebrated guitar stores, and is on the cusp of celebrating its 25th birthday. On the outside, the building is unassuming and easy to miss—a tiny oval placard behind a window is the only signage for the public to see.

Once inside however, surprises await the inquisitive. After climbing a winding staircase, adventurers are presented with their first reward: an absolutely gorgeous display of vintage acoustic and resonator guitars. Round the corner and The Guitar Emporium finally reveals its entire treasure trove—a dazzling gallery of rare electric guitars that would take even the most grizzled player’s breath away.

We had the opportunity to sit down with Darren Garth, the shop’s owner, to learn about the conception of the store and his special inventory of weird and wonderful gear.

Darren Garth (All Photos by Anthony Martin)

Tell us a bit about your store—how did it start out?

I started out about 25 years ago, up in Albert Park. I spent 24 years in Victoria Avenue, over three different buildings. When I started I had no money, and I had no stock—I just had a counter with some parts, a beautiful ‘62 Fender Jazzmaster, a Marshall speakerbox, and a couple of crappy copy guitars. Word slowly got out, and people would come and consign stuff with me, and from there it started to grow, you know, trading and all that stuff.

I moved next door for a year, and had a terrible landlord [Laughs]. He’d bang on the door on the first of the month at 7 in the morning and scream for his rent. I was just like, “Oh man, I’ve gotta get out of this place.” So I moved next door to this little house, and that’s where the shop really took off. I spent the next 13 years there. We moved down to the end of Victoria Avenue for another 10 years, in a similar kind of shop. But basically it was slow growth, you know? I never wanted it to be a big shop or anything like that.

I was always playing in bands at the time, so this was my fun thing to do, to hopefully help pay the rent. It snowballed slowly—and I think that’s a really good way for a business to go—you don’t want to get too big too fast.

And what was the main inspiration behind The Guitar Emporium?

Back then, our band was touring both overseas and all around Australia. Every time we went into a music shop, there would be some idiot, for lack of a better word, playing some heavy metal lick going, “Yeah mate?! What can I do for you? Need a hand?!” And I’d just groan and think, Here we go. And if you were looking for something like say, a set of vintage Klusons, he’d just be like, “Oh we’ve got these new locking tuners!” They had no idea, you know? [Laughs.] So every shop I went into just had a dickhead working in there, so I thought, “You know what? I’m just gonna start my own shop, it’s gonna be cool, it’s gonna have cool stuff, and it’ll be laid back.”

I used to work in a guitar shop years ago where a chap taught me how to repair guitars, and it had a really cool vibe. Over the years I’ve been to a fair few guitar shops with similar vibes and took some of that with me. Just not treating your customers like idiots, you know? Just treat them like how you’d want to be treated—that was the main thing, really.

I knew a lot about repairing guitars, and I was also teaching guitar at the time, while buying and selling stuff on the side. One day I just combined these three things together and thought, ‘I’ll have a crack at this.’ At the end of the day though, I think the only thing you need is determination – if you’re going to start something like this, you need to be determined to give it your best shot. And here we are – 25 years later.

[At this point, our interview was disrupted by a phone call. Darren picked up the phone, and is bewildered. The caller—a seemingly aggressive young man—asked if TGE had any sponsorship opportunities, and without letting Darren finish, plays him a demo via speakerphone. Darren is completely baffled by this, but politely lets the caller finish his rushed pitch.]

25 years—this is what you get. [Laughs.]

Speaking of 25 years—congratulations! With an increasing amount of Australian music stores closing over the past five years, how has The Guitar Emporium stood the test of time?

Thank you! There’s a couple of answers to this. Firstly, I tend to avoid new stuff. I think you can get into trouble with that. Most of the time I’ve just sold second-hand stuff—not everyone sells second-hand gear. Secondly, since I started with no money, I’ve always had to watch my money and being careful of how I spent it.

A lot of these big shops will just spend money hand over fist, and then realize, Hey, it’s been a quiet couple of months, we’ve got no money, we’ve got to close. I’ve never done that, because I’ve never had that sort of money. But now that everything’s gradually built up, I can afford to buy something special if it comes in, but at the same time you’ve still got to watch your bank balance, and just be frugal in some sort of form.

A lot of people who start shops have never owned shops before, and don’t know what they’re doing. They just want to be like the big shops, and as I said earlier, they get too big too fast, and the next thing you know is that they’re swimming in debt and that’s the end of them.

When you mentioned that you could “get into trouble” with new gear, what did you mean by that?

For instance, if you’re trying to sell one of the big names—Fender, Gibson, for example—there’s a whole lot of people selling that same stuff. People will shop around and obviously look for the cheapest one. They’ll come to you and ask for price matching, etc. Before you know it, you’ve made nothing on a guitar. And in this business you’ve really got to make something on a guitar just to keep your head above water.

You’ve got an incredible globe-spanning inventory here, from Burns to G&L to Tokai—a little bit of everything. How is it that Australia has such a vibrant second-hand gear scene compared to other countries?

That’s a really good question—I honestly don’t know! I do know that when our dollar was more or less at parity with the United States, people were buying things left right and centre on eBay and bringing them into Australia. Around 2012, after things got better after the global financial crisis, people started to sell their gear, and all of a sudden there was an explosion of cool gear in the country. Unfortunately that was the year I didn’t have any money, so I couldn’t buy anything!

Apart from their places of make, there’s also a wide variety of vintage and modern pieces here. Do you consciously try to balance vintage and modern gear in your inventory?

I do, yeah. Although I try not to have any pointy headstock guitars. [Laughs.] I believe the word emporium stands for a variety store back in the old days, so that washed off into this shop with having a wide variety of different guitars.

Since we moved here a year ago, the place is so much bigger, and we’ve got twice as much stock, which means a bigger variety of guitars to choose from. People love the place too, so they’re bringing guitars in to sell or trading them in—it’s been pretty good.

Speaking of this building, what’s the history of this one like? It’s like no other store I’ve seen before.

I’ve actually been finding some interesting stuff out about this building. An old guy came in one day and told me a lot about the history of this building—he’s lived in this area for years. In the 1890s, this place used to be a horse-park.

You mean like a carpark, but for horses?

Exactly! Upstairs where we are right now, in the loft, was where all the hay was. There was a big beam there with a hook on it, transferring hay up and down from the street. And in the ‘50s this place was a bakery, and that old guy and his mates used to climb up the back wall and steal bread from the place. It turned into a newsagent in the ‘70s, and this loft was a storage room of some sort. So it’s had its variety of uses throughout the years. It’s an absolutely charming building with these rounded bricks and arches, which work really well with the wood we’ve put in here too.

What’s some of the most notable pieces of gear that have passed through the shop?

Got a spare couple of days? [Laughs] There’s been so many incredible things in here over the years. We’ve had plenty of authentic L-series strats, they’re fantastic. Old Les Pauls, SGs, all-metal Veleno guitars... actually, see that one there? It’s a 1965 Dynacord, made in Germany. They made only 100 of these—75 in chrome, and 25 in gold. They’re crazy.

And you’re using it as an epic wall ornament.

Yeah—and it’s actually a really good playing and great sounding guitar too! All these special guitars that I’ve collected over the years are just absolute works of art. Those Hagstrom guitars with the sparkle finish over there too—I love those—they’re pretty special to me. There’s also a beautiful D’Angelico jazz guitar from 1956 over there, a 30-thousand dollar guitar, I think.

How has Reverb helped you in finding new homes for these beautiful guitars?

Reverb’s been a great thing for the shop, I’ve been trying to tell my friends about it to tell them what they’re missing. It’s a great platform, way better than eBay. I think a lot of people are turning away from eBay to Reverb, since it focuses only on music gear and instruments.

I’ve sold guitars to places all over the world just with Reverb alone—it puts you out onto the world map, not just limited to Victoria or interstate. And we get people visiting from overseas, too. I just met a guy recently from Ireland who said he checked out my store on Reverb—he said that he’d come all the way from Ireland just to see my shop!

comments powered by Disqus