By Mandolin Cafe
May 30, 2010 - 4:45 pm
Brighton, England, is home to The Acoustic Music Company (TAMCO), owned and operated by Trevor Moyle who has created the ultimate destination outside of the United States for finely crafted U.S. built mandolins.
For mandolin players, what makes TAMCO interesting among stringed instrument retailers is their stunning inventory made up almost entirely of mandolins built by names familiar to most of us: Bussman, Kemnitzer, Gerhardt, Mowry, Kimble, Brock, Clark, Langdell, Brentrup, Triggs, and many more.
That fastidious attention and drive to fill a store in southern England with finely crafted American made mandolins suggested an interesting story and personality worth sharing with our readers.
But be warned.
In addition to one of the finest inventories of mandolins found anywhere, Moyle also knows his way around a camera. For those prone to spending large amounts of time browsing through beautifully photographed world-class instruments, be prepared to spend some serious time with the eye candy on his web site.
And then there's that other problem: they're for sale.
Mandolin Cafe: Your inventory of American made mandolins has increased dramatically the past few years. You must be the carrying more fine American-made mandolins than any single retailer outside of the U.S. What makes you focus so strongly on instruments from the United States?
Trevor Moyle: My main motivation is to have a store full of mandolins (and guitars) that I like. My decisions of what to carry are based more on my personal preferences than commercial priority. I am a frustrated craftsman and musician. I used to be a mediocre leather craftsman and I still strive to be a mediocre musician. I have a long connection with the US (I first visited in 1972) and have always liked American music.
I have a lifelong distrust of big business and love of small business and in particular the work of craftsmen. Having failed to become a great craftsman myself but having had modest success at running small businesses for thirty-five years I take great pleasure in being able to facilitate the business side of things for craftsmen who would rather get on with their work than deal with the commercial side of things.
It is also great to offer British and European players the opportunity to play some great North American instruments. Not only instruments that they may not have had the opportunity to see or play, but the chance to compare them in the same place at the same time.
Mandolin Cafe: What was the catalyst that drew you into the mandolin world?
In the 90s I tried to learn to sing. This was no more successful than my attempts at being a craftsman but I wrote some songs and became interested in larger members of the mandolin family that I could sing with. This lead to me commissioning a 10-string from Bill Bussmann after seeing his work at the Mandolin Brothers.
I had first taken up the mandolin in 1972 (and also saw Bill Monroe around then) and soon became aware of the "American" mandolin. When I started this business in 2001 I was in awe of hand-made American mandolins. Over time I was able to increase my stock of them and (with some help from the Mandolin Cafe) become aware of fine individual luthiers. During this time as I had more mandolins in the shop both carved top and back American and flat-top types I realized two things. First; I prefer American mandolins to flat top/folk mandolins. Second; I would rather keep my business small and stop selling entry level instruments. This allows me to build up close relationships with individual luthiers and small workshops and avoid distributors. With not sending out lots of beginner mandolins and not spending time selling related items (and doing the related administrative work) I have also had time to work on my photography. I hope that – as my photography improves – I can add some skillful input to that of the luthiers. I also have time to spend with my customers, a typical visit is four to five hours.
Mandolin Cafe: As an "evangelist" for American made mandolins in the UK and Europe, what are the challenges for you as a business?
Trevor Moyle: I see it as more of a case of doing something that I love doing. I was fortunate enough to have paid off my mortgage before I started this business and I have a very inexpensive lifestyle. My only extravagances are fine mandolins and guitars. The idea behind it all is to earn enough to get by doing something that I am passionate about. This seems to be the approach of most of the luthiers I work with so it makes a good fit.
While some luthiers can be challenging on occasion, most are a joy to work with. The challenges are mostly cash flow, largely because like the child in the sweet shop (candy store) I buy too many instruments (the size of my inventory is not justified by the level of sales), and dealing with delivery companies and importation. The latter can be very hard work and frustrating at times.
Mandolin Cafe: What are you views on what makes a great mandolin?
Trevor Moyle: Unfortunately, there isn't a simple answer to this.
There are so many variables such as wood choice, bracing patterns and the skill of the luthier. In my experience the latter is by far the most important, adding to this the fact that the ideal sound is different for different people means that there isn't a formula to predict your ideal mandolin sound. You cannot take your chosen wood, add your bracing and other preferences, send the specs to your favorite luthier and get the mandolin that sounds just right. That is why I stock so many, the only way to be sure of the sound you want is to play it first.
I often get asked the question 'which is the best?' There is a short answer, 'whichever you like best.' While I have personal preferences, mandolins I really don't like don't get into my store. Everybody has different tastes and needs. I see it as my mission to find a customer the mandolin that suits them.
Mandolin Cafe: How important is the visual aspect of an instrument to you?
Trevor Moyle: Most folks are embarrassed to admit that the look of their mandolin is at least as important as its sound. I am not. For me part of the thrill is to have an instrument that is a work of art. If the F5 is the pinnacle of aesthetic achievement for you then go for it. People say that a good instrument doesn't make you play better. It does! But only because a fantastic instrument that you can't put down makes you play more. Unfortunately, this is the only proven way of getting better. Of course a good instrument will make what you play sound better, but playing Bill's or Chris' mandolin won't make you sound like Bill or Chris.
Mandolin Cafe: We've seen some interesting instruments on your site over the years, a K4 mandocello, a mandobass, many 10-string instruments. Your interest obviously covers a wide range. What are some of the interesting vintage and used instruments you've stocked or currently stock?
Trevor Moyle: It's back to the child in the candy store for this one! The mandobass has been the TAMCO mascot for years now. I have had an enormous amount of fun over the years exploring the breadth and depth of the mandolin world (with some notable exceptions such as bowl backs and the more expensive vintage stuff). When I started I had been wanting a K4 and a mando bass for years. I have had several Vega cylinder backs (including a ten-string), at the beginning I bought all sorts of interesting mandolins: Bruno, Harmony, Ibanez, Stelling, Kalamazoo, Clifford Essex, Hoyer, La Foley, Martin and many more. These days I tend not to buy used and vintage mandolins, just take what comes as trade-ins. I make exceptions for Rigel, Bob Givens, Vega and vintage Gibsons and whatever else takes my fancy (read just gotta try out) such as a Giacomel. I don't do any restoration work or seek out interesting vintage instruments.
As I mentioned above, my serious interest escalated with a search for a mandolin that I could sing with and I have long had an interest in things that are versatile, hence mandolin and mandola in one. I am embarrassed to admit that when I first started working on the 10-string mandolin/mandola I thought it was – more or less – a new idea until I got that 10-string Vega (last seen with Dan Beimborn). I had them made by six or seven makers (Capek, Rigel, Moon, Old Wave) and had a great time but like many things my interest moved along over time. I've been waiting a while for my Lawrence Smart fan fret 10 string (soon to be started). If it works as well as the fan fret guitars I have in stock it may be the end of my M/MAS (10 string mandolin/mandola acquisition syndrome), or not, it might just fire it up again!
Mandolin Cafe: You also had some interesting new mandolins.
Trevor Moyle: I am fascinated by the interaction of old and new and have long had a bizarre personal need not to be "one of the crowd," so alternatives building on accumulated knowledge and innovation attract me. As they say "standing on the shoulders of giants" (that's the luthiers not me). At one time I was building a collection of mandolins with different designs but I had to let most of them go. Pete Langdell (Rigel) was an inspiration in this direction, as were Hans Brentrup and Bill Bussmann.
It is fascinating how Hans can be both traditional and radical, I very reluctantly passed on his beautiful Stealth and still have an Eclipse in stock. When Hans retired he graciously agreed to complete my ordered V6 Eclipse. I am really looking forward to it and will be keeping that one. When I first saw photos of Bill Bussman's melondolin (that's with a body looking like a slice of watermelon) I thought it was going too far, until I played Bill's. He refused to sell it to me or make another, until one day he said he owed me a favor. It is one of a few that I will never part with, because it demonstrates that a great luthier can break a few rules and get great sound.
The day that I was at Bill's house I also discovered the GOM (guitar-bodied octave mandolin). This time he did agree to sell me his. I don't understand how a small jazz guitar body can produce so much deep but well defined bass. I've had some in from Bill and Austin Clark, so far they have all sold within days.
I have just taken delivery of a single, comma soundhole A from Lawrence Smart (photos posted on the Cafe) and have a Weber Elite A on order with some design details of my own. I have also been enjoying working with Andrew Mowry.
Mandolin Cafe: If someone traveling from the U.S. visited your store and makes a purchase, what are they up against in bringing it back to the U.S. in terms of declaring the purchase. What about the same for visitors from European Union countries?
Trevor Moyle: It is very simple. For European Union countries it is the just the same as UK customers, nothing to do or pay. For US visitors (or anyone else outside EU) its nearly as simple. I charge the full amount and fill in a form, when leaving the country the customer visits customs with the form and instrument, customs stamps the form and the customer returns it to me, I refund the tax (currently 17.5% on, which equals about 15% off for new instruments... about to change). For orders to be shipped outside the EU I charge and send without the tax.
Mandolin Cafe: How many mandolins do you own that are either part of your private collection or those for sale?
Trevor Moyle: I have over 100 mandolins in the store. At home it varies. They tend to build up and when it gets over ten I start to feel a bit guilty but usually manage to convince myself that I should keep them all until cash flow gets tight again. I will always find a way to pay luthiers that I have ordered from so if the only way to do it is to sell off some of my mandolins then it has to be. Currently, after a recent sell-off, I am down to five but four more on the way.
Mandolin Cafe: Do you have any plans for expansion?
Trevor Moyle: No. I just got smaller. There is just me here now with a technician two days a week doing set-ups and some repairs. I have stopped doing almost all accessories so that I can concentrate on the hand-made mandolins and guitars. It can take up to two hours to photograph an instrument and get it on my website and I spend hours with customers. I can't do this if I am distracted selling other things. Small stuff also requires a lot of administrative work. Customers often comment on how calm and relaxed the atmosphere is. This is what I have been aiming for.
I am still open regular hours 6 days a week but may move to appointment only in a few years. I don't really want passing trade for small items and don't have the staff to do them mail order so I have been looking for an upstairs premises.
NOTE: We intended to have one final question for this interview. Upon sending it we received a quick reply back that seemed a fitting way to end the conversation:
"Sorry, just received a shipment of four fantastic Weber Mandolins so I won't be working on this for a few days."
Take your time, Trevor. We understand.
The Acoustic Music Company mandolin page
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