A Brief History of TOMS

The Only Music Shop, or TOMS as it is more affectionately known by its thousands of loyal patrons, has been a part of the Joburg music landscape for over four decades. Since its inception in the late seventies, it has grown to six stores nationwide, spending every day upholding the core values of its founding members. This is our story.

TOMS, That Other Music Shop, opened its doors in 1978 on Bree Street in Johannesburg. (Hold on, is it called The Only Music Shop or That Other Music Shop? We’ll get to this a little later, promise). It was born out of a simple premise, supply the active and aspiring musician with the latest and best gear available.

"Music started to become a realistic career prospect and muso’s wanted new cutting edge, trending instruments, more than just the stock standard acoustic or government issue electric"

As we know during the 60’s and 70’s, rock and roll music was gaining almost unstoppable popularity and momentum and as it reached our shores, young and aspiring musicians wanted to rock out and rock out hard but the problem with this was even though there was plenty of demand, hardly anyone was meeting it. Music started to become a realistic career prospect and muso’s wanted new cutting edge, trending instruments, more than just the stock standard acoustic or government issue electric.

What we must remember at this point, is that during this period musical instrument retail was relegated to an ancillary component of the furniture business. Organs and pianos were considered living room furniture and as such were available for sale in these stores, this business model naturally extended itself to some guitars and hi-fi’s but for the most part, if you were an artisan, you’d have difficulties getting your hands on the latest Ibanez Roadstar or Gibson Flying V. This set the stage TOMS’ founding father and one of the pioneers in the South African musical instrument retail space, take a bow, Mr Benny Schleissner.

Before Benny started TOMS, he worked as an electric engineer at Philips and because of his superior technical ability to repair guitar and hi-fi amps, quickly made a name for himself as a reputable repair agent in the Johannesburg area. A true rock and roll businessman, when the opportunity presented itself, Benny together with his then partner Lionel Roth, an excellent local salesman opened the first TOMS store specifically focusing on musical instruments and their repair. Their vision was as simple as it was brilliant, supply the best and latest rock and roll gear to the ever-increasing market of rock and roll musicians. Remember what we said about musical instruments being the stepchild of the furniture industry? With Benny opening the first TOMS he helped cement what was already a developing trend, a retail store dedicated solely to the aspiring musician.

During the early years, a couple of satellite stores existed, one a little further down the road from the Bree Street store and one in Bedfordview but the fate of these two is somewhat steeped in obscurity, all we know is they’re not there anymore. Of course, this was way before the days of the internet and with information only available through hard publication and word of mouth, all of Benny’s sales staff were expected to have a near-encyclopaedic knowledge of instruments. He ensured that he had the most up to date and current stock and his somewhat military-style approach to product knowledge, paved the way for TOMS becoming the hangout spot of choice for the local music scene. It had all the latest and coolest instruments, and the salespeople could dump info for days on you, which muso wouldn’t want that?

"Thanks to Benny’s business acumen in both the retail and distribution space, TOMS grew to the point where it became necessary to split the retail and distribution businesses..."

It didn’t take long for TOMS to become a recognised player in the area and when a company called Pollieacks who held the distribution rights in South Africa for Ibanez, TAMA and Roland decided to close operations, TOMS was a natural fit to take over local distribution. Along with two other players in the industry, Benny acquired agency of these brands, two of which a division of TOMS still distribute to this day.

During the 80’s with the rise of hard and glam rock being driven by bands like Kiss and Van Halen, Benny further noticed trends in the various musical instrument brands and started to expand his import portfolio to more cutting-edge alternative brands such as Charvel & Jackson. This meant he could supply the local market with an alternative to the Les Paul’s and Fender Strats prevalent at the time. As we know, the 80's was also the heyday of synthpop and though predominantly known as a rock and roll store, TOMS adapted and evolved to incorporate this trend by supplying the growing market with the various Roland and Yamaha synthesizers popular at the time. Thanks to Benny’s business acumen in both the retail and distribution space, TOMS grew to the point where it became necessary to split the retail and distribution businesses so that dedicated focus could be placed on each and so MIDI Music was born in 1991, dedicated solely to imports and distribution.

1994 wasn’t just a great year for our country, it was also a year in which Benny pivoted. By this point, he’d managed to grow the retail and imports business to the extent that they had to relocate to Braamfontein in Juta street where TOMS Braamfontein, the largest of the TOMS stores, can still be found today.

The next phase of the TOMS expansion came in the form of Coastal Music. Towards the mid to end 90’s, a music shop in Durban called Coastal Music was running into a little trouble so it was the perfect opportunity for TOMS to step in, help out and expand reach into KZN. After TOMS acquired Coastal Music, the store moved location a couple of times and finally settled in Brownsdrift Road where it is still located today, however it kept operating as Coastal Music until it officially became a TOMS in 2007.

"...imagine that level of service, custom coding for hardware, all in an afternoon’s work and at no extra cost!"

During the late 90’s and early 00’s although the vast majority of TOMS retail business still came from ‘traditional’ musical instruments, thanks to the boom in information technology, the market started to shift to include the increasingly popular 'musical instrument digital interface protocol', or midi for short. Again, being the evergreen pioneer he was, Benny ensured he serviced the market with both the product and the knowledge it required. Some ‘golden’ members of staff were employed during this time, we say golden because they’re still with TOMS to this day. Most of them have since moved on from sales associates and are now serving the company at senior managerial and directorate level, but the value they brought at the time was one of the key ingredients to TOMS’ success in transitioning to the digital. What do we mean by this? Well, let us set the scene, it’s sometime during 2002, M-Audio as we know it today was still called Midi Man and personal computing at least in SA was still embryonic in terms of mass-market penetration. You just bought yourself the latest expansion card for your hard disk recorder but the two won’t communicate.

For the young’uns amongst us there was a period before plugin and play, it was called torture. Let’s back up a bit, what do we hear, you ask, is a hard disk recorder, well it was a device much like a mixer allowing you to record your music onto it and edit it too. And an expansion card? Well, your hard disk recorder had slots for expansion cards so you could buy drum sounds or keyboard sounds on an expansion card, slot it into your recorder and voila, you now have custom sounds, only one issue, often the software and hardware couldn’t talk to each other so what you would do in those days, is bring your card to TOMS and the staff would code it for you! We know, imagine that level of service, custom coding for hardware, all in an afternoon’s work and at no extra cost. The guys became so well versed in this technique that often times, as soon as a new expansion card was released, even before customers came to request assistance, they’d have the code ready for application. Just one example of the type of culture Benny instilled at the TOMS stores.

The 90’s also saw some, shall we say questionable pro-audio brands, one of which was TOMS’s own ‘in house brand’, Tomcat. As a result of the previous political regime, companies were forced to adopt alternative business strategies to supply the local market since big brands wouldn’t do business with our country pre-1994. This led to the creation of brands like Tomcat and others. Companies bought spares from the countries that would do business with SA and manufacture and assemble their own speaker cabinets etc. Luckily for us with liberation, came international investment and established international pro-audio brands wanted to get a piece of the local market action and importers started to distribute much more reputable brands at a fraction of the previous cost of building and assembling cabinets locally. Thankfully this killed the locally produced Tomcats and others because we have it on good authority that they were quote-unquote, rubbish!

The 90’s and 00’s saw the golden ages of TOMS, the building block for the stores we know and love today. Remember how we said it was the hangout spot of choice? Well, we’re not saying that for effect, with regulars such as Sipho Hotstix Mabuse, Benda Fassie, Lucky Dube, Just Ginger, Doctor Victor and Springbok Nude Girls to name but a few, TOMS attracted both the aspiring musician as well as the established artists. It gave Joe public the chance to rub shoulders with celebrity, it allowed our sales staff to work with the cream of the industry and in return, they were able to share ‘insider’ knowledge and techniques with the regulars. Interesting fact, during his filming of Hotel Rwanda, Joaquin Phoenix visited the Braamfontein store and during one of their tours, the drummer of Toto Simon Phillips presented a drum clinic at the same store.

Benny left, Simon Phillips (TOTO) second left, Sikky Jooma (MIDI Music MD) second right, JP Oesch (former Braam store manager) right

 

As is the trajectory of all good things, after more than two decades of unbridled success in the industry it was finally time for Benny to enjoy the fruits of his labour and in 2004, he sold the two retail stores and the ever-expanding distribution businesses to CJ Petrow, the current parent company of TOMS.

We did promise to update you on the state of the name of TOMS so here it is. When Benny opened the first store, though not the absolute first-ever music store, he was one of the firsts and so with a couple of competitors around the Joburg CBD area, he simply opted for ‘That Other Music Shop’ aka TOMS. With the sale of the business to its new owner, management didn’t want to part with the TOMS brand since it had already been thoroughly established in the market however Benny kept control of the company in name only which meant an opportunity for the marketing department to prove their worth. It didn’t take long for the acronym to find its way to TOMS The Only Music Shop and we have since spent a lot of money on advertising to push this name so henceforth, anyone referring to TOMS as that other music shop shall forever be cast in Harry Potter hell, that’s where Voldemort went right?

With new management firmly in place and operating for a couple of years, they set their eyes on expansion and 2009 was the year in which this would happen. In August we opened our third store in Sandton located in Katherine Street and operating out of the former Audi showroom TOMS Sandton proved to be a roaring success however Sandton’s home would only be a temporary one. Three years into its stay, Growthpoint bought the entire centre, part of which TOMS Sandton called home, to develop the new Discovery Building and so TOMS had to up sticks. Luckily the search was quick, and we found a spot at Rivonia Crossing, which has been home to the new and improved TOMS Rivonia ever since. Later that same year it was decided to spread the TOMS joy to Bloemfontein. The Music Shoppe in Bloemfontein had been operating for a number of years and when it became time for the owners to retire, TOMS happily stepped in to meet the musical needs of the beautiful people of the city of roses.

Clockwise starting top left, Braamfontein, Bloemfontein, Rivonia, Durban

 

"Some say the sign can be seen from the great wall of China..."

Cut to 2016 and we find ourselves in the midst of the much-needed revamp of the Braamfontein store. With a brand-new store in both Rivonia and Bloemfontein, it was time to give Braamfontein the facelift it so desperately deserved. Renovations started in 2015 and though a lot of work went into the revamp of the building the most notable differences came in the way of the replacement of the old rickety staircase inside the shop and the massive 12-foot TOMS sign on the roof. ‘Some say it can be seen from the great wall of China and that at its majestic unveiling, sightings of the ghost of the king of rock ‘n roll himself were reported’. All we know is, it was called TOMS, and it was great!

Disclaimer: though sightings of the ghost of Elvis can neither be proved nor disproved, we believe it to be true and therefore we can claim it as fact.

An interesting fact about the Braamfontein store, it comprises of two separate buildings constructed ten years apart, the first in 1944 and the second in 1954. Some speculation exists around what it was used for before TOMS moved in, but the boring conclusion seems to be office space. However, the entire building is so big and has many little nooks and crannies, a lot of them containing vault-like walk-in safe rooms. These were most likely record rooms for the safekeeping of important documents back in the day, but an air of mystery always surrounded them since one of these ‘vault’ rooms remained locked and couldn’t be opened for years. Urban legend had it that Benny stashed his Kruger Rands in it, but this myth was finally debunked during the revamp when it was prised open only to discover, you guessed it, boring documents!

"...home to amongst others a wagon repair shop, a blacksmith and a tobacco warehouse..."

In 2019 TOMS set its sights on Cape Town, it was time to flex the musical muscle to the south. On the 1st of November 2019, TOMS Heritage Square opened its doors on Buitengracht street in place of the music store formerly known as MARS Music and one month later TOMS Bellville opened its doors in Edward Street to the north. TOMS Heritage Square has a bit of a special place in all our hearts since it’s located on Heritage Square, one of the city’s oldest remaining ‘intact’ squares. A beautiful building in the classic Cape-Dutch style, completed in 1774, many of the building’s original features like the yellowwood floors on the first floor and the original exposed stone wall in the high-end Gibson area are still visible.

As the building is nearly 250 years old it has been the home of many businesses other than a musical instrument retail store. Though some of the detail has unfortunately been lost through the ages we know it housed the Atwell Bakery circa 1884 and before it became a music store it stood empty for many years, its last occupant being a restaurant come dance club dining hall. Though it cannot be confirmed, various locals have filled-in some of the blanks over the years claiming it to be home to amongst others a wagon repair shop, a blacksmith and a tobacco warehouse.

Should you pay a visit to this beautiful store, and you appreciate history, you’d want to nip around the corner to the back of the store where you will find Heritage Square courtyard, home to the oldest known fruit-bearing grapevine in the country, possibly even the southern hemisphere! Planted in 1771, this majestic vine has grown to the height of a mid-sized tree and produces 20 litres of wine a year. A must-see should you find yourself in the neighbourhood.

And that folks, is a brief history of TOMS The Only Music Shop. We’d like to extend our gratitude to you, our loyal and supportive customers without whom the past 40 years would not have been possible. Here’s to the next 40 and all of those, past and present, customer and employee pivotal in their contribution to the TOMS we know and love today. Ciao.

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