Next year will be the 160th anniversary of Millers, so currently I’m trying to collect as much material as I can to put together a timeline. We’ve got old newspaper cuttings, photos...”
Owner Simon Pollard is showing me around the lower ground floor of Millers Music, where black & white family photographs and yellowing newspaper clippings line the walls. The shop, situated on the corner of Sussex Street, is likely the oldest in Cambridge and in its lifetime has weathered world wars, recessions and dramatic changes in the way we shop to continue delivering a quality and necessary service.
Simon took over the business in 2012 from Barry Robinson – great-great- grandson of founder Albert Tubelcain Miller, whose whiskery face looks down from the wall next to old pictures of the shop. But Millers didn’t start life selling music. In the 1850s, Cambridge would have looked to Millers for a nice new bonnet. “The story goes,” says Simon, “that the family bonnet shop was running into difficulties and to save it the Millers sold their piano. The sale was so successful that they bought and sold more pianos, and so Miller’s evolved into a piano store.”
Subsequently, it embraced new technology in home entertainment, from gramophones to radios, later displaying the first TV ever to be seen in Cambridge. “We were one of HMV’s first customers, buying gramophones from them at the turn of the last century,” says Simon. “Somewhere, we’ve actually got an invoice marked ‘customer No.1’. We also supplied trench gramophones to the troops in the First World War.”
Simon continues: “We’re the oldest recorded music store in the country, though we only have a small selection of CDs now. When the shop was on Sidney Street, it had a massive record department. When a big release came out, Barry, who is still involved with the running of Millers, used to go around all the other record stores in town and buy them up, so that he was the only place in town that had them. Or so I hear!”
Today, pianos are still the mainstay of the business and the bright, welcoming shop is filled with them, sleek like killer whales, by top names like Yamaha and Bechstein.
“Millers is known for its pianos, but we have an all-new guitar department which brings together the acoustic and electric instruments,” Simon says. It’s where Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, Roger Waters and Syd Barrett bought their first guitars, and when I visit, the team have taken one down to demonstrate – all very inviting and friendly. There’s also a large range of colourful ukuleles, which look like fun.
“Ukuleles are really popular,” says Simon. “The folk scene is really strong in Cambridge, and across East Anglia, some of which can obviously be attributed to the Folk Festival. And at just £35 each for a ukulele - they're available to rent as well - they’re really accessible.”
One large part of the business is Millers instrument rental schemes. Simon explains: “We want to make music available to everyone, so you can rent an instrument from us for as little as £8. This way, you can give an instrument a try and don’t have to invest hundreds of pounds in something that might not turn out to be right for you. But if you do take to it, you’ve the option to buy it later.”
'We want to make music available to everyone'
Millers, who also run events, are keen for shoppers to try their instruments in store. “I’ve been to lots of music stores across the country and often if you ask to try an instrument the response is very frosty. Our ethos is the opposite; all our instruments are available to try. If people want to buy something that’s great, but if not, that’s just part of running a music store.”
Is this engagement with customers, and their constant innovation (you can find Miller’s on Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest), the key to their success?
“I think so,” agrees Simon. “For us it’s far more than just putting instruments out on display, it’s about engaging with people and providing additional services that you can’t get elsewhere. You can go online and buy a book, but in the shop you can get advice – and there’s nothing like playing, feeling and listening to an instrument and seeing what works for you.
“The history and heritage are something people trust. Millers is known in Cambridge, it’s been here over 150 years and we have a team of experts who are friendly, approachable and knowledgeable. Our finance and rental schemes are crucial, and we encourage everyone who comes in to play – whether it’s chopsticks, Chopin or the Pirates of the Caribbean theme. Just come in and have a play.”
Miller’s Music, Sussex Street, Cambridge; 01223 354452
Feeling inspired? Watch Meghan Trainor play All About That Bass on the ukulele - we're pretty impressed: