Foulds Musical Instruments, Irongate, Derbyshire

The local firm entering its second century serving the county's musicians

If anyone in your family has ever been musical, it's likely that Foulds has figured in your life. This also applies to several previous generations because Foulds music shop in Irongate, Derby, has been servicing musicians for 100 years.

When my daughter Helena began violin lessons, I was regularly despatched to procure sheet music at Foulds in order to bridge the considerable gap between Helena and Paganini. However obscure the violin piece, they either stocked it or could order it. Then when her grandmother offered to buy Helena a piano, it was the obvious place to purchase one. After all its Irongate building has long been known as the 'Piano House'. Shopping with Helena is a sure reminder of the awfulness of eternity but Foulds positively approved of the fact that it took nearly two hours for her to make up her mind which out of 15 pianos she was happiest playing.

'If your daughter had several thousand pounds to spend on a pair of shoes, you'd expect her to take her time,' points out Danny Jackson, manager of Foulds Piano Department. 'Also, everyone wants a piano for a different reason - maybe playing for exams or for enjoyment. Some people like a bright sound, others prefer a mellow one. Size matters too and it's also a piece of furniture you are buying. All in all you make an important choice and for many people the choice of a piano is a choice for life. A lot of customers come back three or four times before deciding which piano to buy.'

Fittingly the sound of keys filled the store as I returned to Foulds for the first time in several years. Mark Haigh, manager of the digital pianos and keyboard department, was trying out Foulds' latest acquisition, Yamaha's Tyros 3 synthesiser, which produces an awesome orchestral sound. From this regular sized keyboard came astonishingly authentic strings, reeds, brass and choral voices which, if they were real, would have filled the entire shop. Hearing this 'self-contained' orchestra felt fitting too: the Foulds building is often likened to the Tardis by visitors amazed to have entered what appears to be a cosy, slightly cramped shop to find a giant network of small rooms - it was originally the site of the George Hotel - which seems to stretch all the way to the bottom of Sadler Gate. Foulds occupies an amazing 5,000 square feet and although problems of space were eased with the assimilation of the premises next door to accommodate the guitar department, the shop is still chock-full of instruments. The newly available space has simply been filled up with more stock. At any one time you can view, for instance, over 350 guitars and over 50 pianos. There is every conceivable instrument on sale, from banjo to balalaika, flute to flgelhorn, cowbell to full drum kit. While upstairs in Guitars a customer parts with �11.95 for the pleasure of plucking a ukulele, there could be discussion downstairs in the piano showroom over the purchase of a �50,000 concert grand. There is a huge stock of sheet music - 'probably one of the largest in the Midlands,' says printed music manager Paul Marshall - and a vast array of accessories: metronomes, music stands, batons, birdcalls, washboards even, plus musical gift items like guitar pins, violin ties and even a notepad with the punning header Chopin Liszt.

There would have been scant space for even a guitar pin in the original Irongate shop of 1908 as only a small front part of the building was used for retailing, most of it being given over to a substantial piano reconditioning and repair business. These were the days when any respectable household had a piano in the front room for family musical gatherings. This may have been a factor that encouraged young Charles Foulds to enter the music retail business at the turn of the 1890s. He had also been tutored on the piano, suggesting that Charles's father William prospered as a Silk Mill textile worker, though it's believed his son began as a simple apprentice at William Orme's music shop in Babington Lane. Charles obviously showed an aptitude for the business because in 1893 Orme arranged for him to take over his Nottingham shop. By 1900 Charles had returned to Derby and established his own music business opposite the current site in Irongate, moving across the road to the larger premises of No. 40 in 1908.

Foulds' current managing director James Foulds showed me early stocklists that comprised not only the inevitable pianos along with harmoniums, concertinas, flutes and fifes, string instruments and sheet music, but also gramophones which accounted for nearly 10 per cent of the business. Pianos accounted for most sales and in the early days were delivered in a horse-driven dray. A story passed down through the Foulds family concerns the tetchy relationship between Charles and his head porter and deliveryman, a 'fiery individual' called Mr Pepper. It's said that every Saturday, Pepper would get the sack from Charles for using the firm's horse and dray to visit several inns where he would get spectacularly drunk. Charles would become further enraged on the Sunday when he took his family to visit relatives in his carriage using the same horse only to find it stopping at every pub and refusing to move until given a nosebag - as it had come to expect when pulling the dray for Pepper. However, on Monday Pepper would clock in for work and both employer and employee would carry on as if nothing had happened.

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Foulds began to flourish when Charles's son Arthur joined the firm in 1911. The First World War brought increased demand for gramophones, sheet music and piano rolls. In 1920 Foulds opened outlets in Lincoln, Heanor, Mansfield and Eastwood. The Derby shop came under the aegis of James Locke who ran the business right up until 1950 and was the driving force behind Foulds' involvement in what is now known as the Derby Arts Festival.

Although the slump of the late 1920s and early 1930s saw Foulds reduced to the Irongate branch, the Second World War brought an increase in demand for radios and gramophones. Indeed, Foulds's history reveals an astute business always ready to adapt and move with the times. For instance, Foulds became the third UK dealer to take on HMV televisions, though Arthur missed a trick by refusing to get involved in TV rental, predicting that it would never catch on. However, unlike the Decca Records executive who told Beatles manager Brian Epstein that 'guitar groups are on the way out', Foulds had already invested in the beat group business at the turn of the 1960s and signed up for the Hammond organ franchise which was so successful that a separate organ shop was eventually opened in Queen Street.

Another trick Arthur missed was in an area outside the music business: 'My grandfather was a man of some enterprise,' reveals James. 'He designed and built one of the earliest caravans made for leisure use and used to take his family on outings in it, much to the amazement of most onlookers. However, like TV rental, it seems he saw no commercial future in it.'

It was James's father, Philip Foulds, who saw the rich potential of instrument rental in the early 60s. 'Through my father's establishment of a rental scheme, Foulds has sent literally thousands of local students on their way in music,' says a proud James who himself widened the rental scheme to include pianos.

Philip Foulds joined the firm in 1950 and during his tenure as managing director - from1965 to his retirement in 1984 - the firm once again responded to changes in the business climate. Noting the spread of national discount houses in TV and electrical goods, Foulds ceased its trade in televisions, radios and hi-fi and focused on musical instruments. Philip Foulds became president of the National Music Traders' Association as well as president of both the Derby Concert Orchestra and Derby Arts Festival and, in 1999, was awarded a Derby Civic Award by the City Council in recognition of his work for music and the arts, which continued right up until his death in 2003. His commitment to Foulds never wavered either: 'Although he officially retired in 1984 and I took over,' explains James, 'my father unofficially stayed on, continuing his involvement in the business. In fact, he was busying himself in the shop only a few weeks before he died.'

The longest-serving Foulds worker is well beyond retirement age but, for him, the music plays on. Chris Hudson has been a piano tuner for a remarkable 58 years - 52 years at Foulds. He appears as sprightly as the time I last met him in the mid-90s when he was tuning to perfection the Guildhall Steinway prior to a concert. With Foulds becoming the principal promoters of classical music concerts in Derby after the war, Chris came to tune the pianos of some famous virtuosos including Vladimir Ashkenazy, John Lill, Semprini and Gerald Moore, at one time the world's most acclaimed accompanist. Chris proudly recalls another concert piano great, Joseph Cooper, telling him that he was among the top six tuners in the country. 'You can tune a piano in an hour if you keep your head down,' declares Chris. 'You grapple with it, it's hard work but it's the joy of playing the tuned piano afterwards.' Chris reveals that all that hard grappling has brought him a permanent lump on the top of his arm. 'It's OK, though,' he says with a glint in the eye, 'it's pure muscle.' Chris then launches into a jaunty version of Spread A Little Happiness which he invariably plays after a tuning session. It seems to typify his character though it's also appropriate for the job, he reveals: 'That tune helps deflate the seriousness of the task but it's also a useful test piece because it contains a fair spread of the keys on the piano.'

Upstairs in the guitar department, you're never far from a jazz tune: the department has built a reputation for stocking one of the finest jazz guitar selections in the country. What's more, you know you are in expert hands: department managers Dan Johnson and Dan Martin play as a jazz duo. If, like me, you regard the guitar as a thing of beauty and wonder, I recommend visiting Foulds' Guitar Department as the aesthetic shapes and colours make it feel as if one is viewing a contemporary art exhibition. If you are actually a guitarist, upstairs must feel like a shrine; and you'll especially appreciate Dan Johnson's words when he states that 'the department tries to stock guitars which customers wouldn't necessarily see in other shops, like a bass balalaika, a five-neck electric guitar and a 1966 Gibson ES175... all under one roof.' Always under their roof is a Fender Stratocaster. 'It's still a huge favourite,' affirms Dan, 'though younger guitarists favour more modern brands such as Ibanez and Jackson. I get the impression that most teenagers don't want to play the same guitar as their dad!'

You can also purchase the crme de la crme of acoustic guitars: a �3,000 handmade Northworthy designed and built by celebrated Hulland Ward guitar craftsman Alan Marshall, who famously once made a ukulele for George Harrison. Interestingly, Foulds is having a run on ukuleles - 'it seems to be taking over from the recorder at schools,' reports James Foulds - and it's proving popular amongst staff too. When I asked the guitar guys if they were irritated by hearing some tunes being played ad infinitum in the department - Stairway to Heaven? Smoke on the Water? Sunshine of Your Love? - Dan revealed that they are close to banning the theme to Steptoe & Son as it's being played on the ukulele rather too much by Foulds employees!

Downstairs in the Piano Department, one of the largest in the country, you might hear Danny Jackson playing her favourite piece - Schubert's Piano Sonata in Bb D960 - but she reveals that the sound most often heard is that of a piano being tuned, at least five times a day. In spite of that, Danny thinks she has found the perfect profession: 'I remember walking into Foulds for the first time and feeling I was in piano heaven. Soon after, I would come into the shop every Saturday to buy sheet music when I would just drool over the pianos and think what a wonderful place this would be to work - and here I am!'

Such is Danny's fondness for certain pianos, especially the Bechstein, that she has mixed feelings when they are sold: 'I have to admit I am sad to see some pianos go but happy that they've found good homes.'

Such affection for their work is reflected in all the staff and makes Foulds the ultimate in customer satisfaction. James Foulds clearly appreciates this: 'It is undoubtedly our success in finding good staff that has been the reason for our continued survival, especially in an age when big retailers expect their customers to accept a minimal amount of staff expertise.

'Every customer is important and our level of aftercare reflects that,' confirms Danny. 'We have had families who have shopped at Foulds for generations.'

'I think our service stands out because we care about the people buying from us,' states Mark Haigh. 'We are musicians first, sales people second and because of this we are able to give honest advice on which product suits each person's needs.'

'Foulds is a great place to work for a musician as most of our customers are musicians who often become friends,' comments Paul Marshall, Printed Music manager. Arthur Foulds counted Hamilton Harty, Adrian Boult and Yehudi Menuhin as friends, and the shop's proximity to the Assembly Rooms brings a stream of famous faces to Foulds including Bruce Welch of The Shadows, folk and acoustic guitar legends Ralph McTell, Bert Jansch and John Renbourne, jazz guitar ace Martin Taylor, Jethro Tull's singer and flautist Ian Anderson, contemporary singer/songwriters James Morrison and Seth Lakeman and even the comedians Jack Dee - who tried out but didn't buy an Ovation 12-string - and Harry Hill, who bought a didgeridoo, evidence yet again of Foulds' wide range of instrument stock.

Over most of its 100 years, Foulds has attracted customers from the immediate region, although Paul Marshall points out that as well as supplying local choirs, his department is posting sheet music all over the Midlands and beyond, and that they have customers from music schools in France, Bermuda and Hong Kong.

It's the internet that, according to James Foulds, represents the firm's 'big opportunity - and threat'. Enter another generation of Foulds: James's son Ben who is currently developing Foulds' online presence. 'It's become more important for businesses like us,' states Ben. 'A major benefit to online representation is that a large part of our highly varied stock can be browsed through quickly and easily. However, we need to be constantly aware of other retail sites being just a few clicks away, so we need to be very competitive with prices.'

So, as Foulds enters its next century it's poised once more to adapt and move with the times, although online buying does pose a challenge. According to James, 'The worst aspect of the internet is that it offers customers the chance to come in, take advantage of our expertise and then go and buy cheaply on the net from a "box-shifter". For instance, this has led to an explosion of poor quality Chinese-made instruments that music shops wouldn't touch. At its best, though, our website not only shows the incredible depth of our stock but has also widened our market place in those areas where we are strongest, particularly pianos and guitars. It's brought us customers from further afield. We pride ourselves on the combination of real expertise, quality service and a really good website. We shall never be the cheapest in the business - you can't offer this sort of service if you are - but we think customers will increasingly value what we offer... not least our 100 years of experience.'

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