A Gretsch Abroad — A Tale of Two Families in the Musical Instruments Business
This month “A Gretsch Abroad” will focus on Gretsch Drums in Sweden, and some of the interesting people that help bring “That Great Gretsch Sound” to this fascinating nordic country with such a strong musical tradition.
The best of times? The worst of times? Whatever your stance on the techno-driven, global nature of our economy, there is no denying it can be a difficult environment for family-run companies whose passion for craft and commitment to clients is often at odds with the bottomline.
The Gretsch Drum Company, with its attention to “That Great Gretsch Sound,” is proud to be one such business. Smålands Musikvaruhuset, a near-century-old instrument dealer in Sweden, is undoubtedly another.
We begin in the summer of 1925: Fred and Charlotte Gretsch take their 18-year-old son, my grandfather Bill Gretsch, on a trip to Europe to visit the Gretsch office in Paris and, of course, the town of Markneukirchen in Germany. It is here that they begin grooming their son and teaching him the intricacies of the musical instruments business.
Meanwhile that very same summer, in the village of Nässjö, Sweden, another musical instruments family business begins to take shape as Östen Johannesson opens Smålands Musikvaruhuset, originally a purveyor of brass and woodwinds. Ninety-two years on, the company has long since expanded its range of instruments and is now run by the founder’s son Östen and his wife Maaret Johannesson.
Given today’s fast-paced business environment in which music instrument retailers struggle to compete against online giants and the internet’s daunting price transparency, theirs is a remarkable success story. I wanted to learn more about how this could be done in this day and age, and who the special people behind it were.
You can’t compare a visit to Smålands Musikvaruhuset with a visit to an online, virtual shop. It’s a completely different experience entirely. Entering the store is a bit like entering a time machine back to a pre-digital era. The store is filled with drums, guitars, mandolins, accordions, and brass instruments. There is no software or high-tech recording gear, and that’s very much intentional. “I think my father sold recording software at one point, but that didn’t really last. His heart just wasn’t in it” says the owner’s son Sebastian Johannesson, who also works in the industry as an account manager for GEWA Music International.
Second-generation owner Östen Johannesson is a soft spoken man who exudes a downright contagious love and passion for the instruments which he sells. Whether he is describing the details of a specific trumpet repair or the history of the Hagstrom Guitar Company, his enthusiasm immediately draws you in so that you begin to understand the instrument on a deeper, more emotional level.
On September 26, I personally attended Smålands Musikvaruhuset’s Gretsch Drum Event. There I had the opportunity to meet the family matriarch Ulla Johannesson, who worked for many years in the store alongside her husband, the store’s founder. It was really special to see her interact with her son and grandson in their family’s store. It was also great to talk to their customers about the Gretsch history. We had wonderful discussions about Gretsch-Gladstone snares and Gretsch Drum Night at Birdland. The Gretsch kits were right at home there among so many other vintage instruments, in an environment created by and for musicians and avid music-lovers.
Current owner Östen Johannesson expanded on this by saying “It’s a perfect fit in many ways. Smålands Musikvaruhus is a family run business full of tradition, very much like the Gretsch Company, where family works together and shares a passion for musical instruments with the customers.”
A perfect fit indeed, and encouraging to see such a business thriving in this digital age. Be sure to visit this special shop if you are near Nässjö, Sweden. The antique musical instruments museum in the basement is alone worth the visit and a special treat for music connoisseurs of all ages.
Visit www.smalandsmusik.se for more information.
— Lucas O’Connor