Kitchens of Leeds
Dealer of the Century
The pride of the North, Kitchens are celebrating their centennial.
Britain has every right to be proud of Leeds. It's a city that has managed to superimpose a twentieth century metropolis on a nineteenth century substructure and build a city that is good to live in and pleasant to work in. In its turn, Leeds has every reason to be proud of Kitchens — a music store that has mirrored the development of Yorkshire's West Riding by building ultra-modern musical retail stores on foundations that were laid when Leeds was building the Victorian equivalent of an urban shopping centre.
Kitchens epitomises the long established business that has managed to keep up to date without sacrificing the traditions of service and workmanship built up over 100 years. This year is the centenary year for Kitchens. In 1875, a young Yorkshire man took over a small drum and bugle business in Leeds — re-named it Kitchens — and started an empire that today includes shops throughout Yorkshire. Kitchens is the place to go to get your Marshall serviced, it's also the place to go if your forty year old cornet is getting a bit wheezy.
With Edith, his wife, Bob Kitchen built up a business that specialised in brass instruments and the repairs thereof and he evidenced his solidarity with the profession he served by playing bugle with the Leeds Artillery Band and leading the R.A.M.C. Military Band in the 1914-18 war.
At the end of the last century Bob Kitchen saw the potential of the new Leeds shopping arcade, then in the planning stages. He took over 29 Queen Victoria Street and then later 27 and 31 to form the large shop that is still the main Kitchen shop.
There is a break in the Kitchen lineage, however. Bob and Edith built a flourishing business that was known throughout the North as a musical centre, but they didn't produce a son to keep the name going. Their two daughters both married and their husbands, Frank Watson and George Britton, both joined the company. In 1929, a young apprentice, Ron Cooper, joined the company to undertake instrument repairs — 20 years later he was to become Managing Director.
The 'thirties was a period of major expansion for Kitchens. Branches were opened at Ipswich, Norwich, Hull, Newcastle, Carlisle, Manchester, Chester and Sheffield. In 1935 Ron Cooper, having displayed his many talents, was appointed manager of the Leeds shop.
World War II nearly finished Kitchens. Most of the fit men went to war and the company persevered, trying to keep things turning over on a second-hand instrument basis. Some of the men returned after the war and found that even heroes find it hard to earn a living. By 1950, the empire was on the verge of collapse. The founders had died and the son-in-laws were on or near retirement, but Ron Cooper was in his prime. He fought to keep the business alive and accepting a 12 month survival limit, became Managing Director and dragged Kitchens into a delayed start of the twentieth century.
Through sheer hard work, Ron Cooper breathed life back into Kitchens. With immense personal energy and determination, he built up Kitchens stock and good will and by the middle 'fifties Kitchens were all set to handle the boom that rock was to bring in the late 'fifties.
The guitar era exploded, and with it Kitchens re-expanded and picked up all the trading strength and diversity the company had enjoyed before the war.
"Those were incredible days," recalls present-day joint Managing Director Mike Cooper Ron's son. "I remember the early sixties, when on a single Saturday afternoon, we sold 19 Fender Stratocasters."
Kitchens went big, but Ron Cooper kept a firm hold on the traditional side of the business that supplied brass and woodwind instruments, sheet music, and undertook instrument repairs. In 1963, Mike Cooper joined the business and rapidly learnt all the aspects of the trade. Today he and his father are joint Managing Directors — they acquired total control of the company in 1971 and the Cooper family is today the proud owners of the most successful provincial musical retail operation in Britain.
Plans are well under way for a giant new retail shop in Leeds, opposite the Queen Victoria shop which will specialise in group amplification and equipment alone. Obviously, the company has been deeply involved in this trade since its inception but now they are opening a highly specialised department store for this section of their business.
At the same time, the master-craftsmen of a lost generation still apply themselves diligently in the upstairs rooms of Kitchens, where repairs on double basses, flugelhorns, violins, guitars and amplifiers are done. Roy Wadman is in charge of all repair operations. In his fifties, he joined the company straight from school and learned his trade the hard way. Many of the brass instruments that come in for repair are obsolete and he has to actually manufacture the part required for the repair. Under him is a large team who are all specialists in a particular repair area.
Enter Kitchens main shop in Leeds today — Queen Victoria Street has recently become a pedestrian only precinct — and you'll be able to find a Peavey mixer, a Fender Stratocaster and a Boosey and Hawkes clarinet under the same roof. Stock is something Kitchens are proud of. In an era when lesser retailers are desperately trying to keep stock down to a minimum, Kitchens will make a point of having scores of saxophones, dozens of clarinets, hundreds of guitars, bundles of bugles and sheaves of sheet music in stock. The upper floors creak and groan under the weight on instruments and accessories worth hundreds of thousands of pounds. Drums of all make lie about in wild abandon and almost every conceivable musical instrument is available over the counter.
Round the corner there's a small amplification shop — the seed from which the giant new group shop will grow. Around another corner is the organ showroom — three floors, which house a prestigious range of Hammond organs and many others, as well as group tuition classes in organ and guitar.
At the other end of the scale, Kitchens are finding fabulous success in the more orthodox "education" side of the industry. The introduction of a rental scheme for instruments such as clarinets allows parents to let little Johnny try his talent, and then if he's OK, purchase the item. A staggering 93 per cent of rentals become sales. On a Saturday last month, 17 clarinets went out on this scheme. They are around £70 a time.
But only part of Kitchens business takes place in Leeds. Today Kitchens dominate the musical scenes of Bradford, Newcastle-on-Tyne and Barnsley.
The range of equipment available through Kitchens shops includes almost every big (and most small) name(s) in instruments and amplification.
Group amps to be found in the Kitchen chain include Laney, Ampeg, Selmer, Gibson, Yamaha, Marshall, Kitchen-Marshall, Hohner, Shure, Simms-Watts, Leslie, Fender, Wem, Peavey, Colorsound and August. Guitars include Fender, Gibson, Yamaha, Barnes and Mullins, Saxon, Di Giorgio, Antoria, Columbus, Kimbara, Zenta, Kasuga, Palma, Terada, Suzuki, Eko, Shaftesbury, Epiphone, Tatra, Eros, Ibanez, Rickenbacker, Guild — the list is almost endless.
Drum names include Pearl, Rogers, Beverley, Premier, Sonor and Ludwig. Keyboards are led by exclusive Hammond agencies in all branches and other makes available include Diamond, Crumar, Kemble-Yamaha, Gem and Lowrey. On the brass and woodwind side, most famous names are represented by Scott, Champion, Dolmetsch, Regent, Lafleur, Sovereign, Selmer-Paris, Olds, and Buffet Crampion being brand leaders. The same variety of stock applies to all the other instruments available.
The sheet music department in Queen Victoria Street is particularly worth a visit. Something of an experiment, the department was opened comparatively recently on the premise that the maximum stock should be carried and displayed (one of the fastest selling items here is undoubtedly International Musician). The experiment has proved a tremendous success and an incredibly wide range of sheet music, tutors, musical publications of all sorts are available.
Business has changed out of all recognition in 100 years, especially the music business. But Kitchens have performed the miracle — principally through the efforts of the Cooper family — of keeping the best of the old and blending it with the best of the new.
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