Tucked away in a Gulton strip center, between Dr. Gleem Car Wash and La Concha Grocery, is Southpaw Guitars.
It is said to be the largest and oldest left-handed guitar store in the world.
Southpaw Guitars has earned this distinction, and an international clientele, after 43 years in business.
And like a guitar for left-handed players, the shop is not the easiest thing to find. But it does have a towering sign on the street and ‘Southpaw Guitars’ spelled out on a wall mural next to the parking lot.
The shop stays locked behind a fortress-like, steel-reinforced door; walk-in customers must be buzzed in.
Part of Southpaw’s lore is the time its owner looked out and saw what he thought was a derelict person pressing the buzzer for entry. Turned out it was Andreas von Holst of the German punk band Die Toten Hosen. Since then, the left-handed punk rocker has bought 25 guitars from the shop.
Once inside the 4,000 sq. ft. store, customers are treated to a dazzling, row upon row display of shiny, multi-colored left-handed guitars hanging from the walls.
Southpaw carries about a thousand guitars, including such popular lines as Gibson, Martin and Taylor as well as other acoustic, electric and bass instruments like Airline, Boulder Creek, Eastman, Guild, Heritage, Hefner, Ibenez, Jackson, Music Man, Nash and Schecter. The left-handed models range in price from about $200 to $7,000.
A local musician once commented that he loved going to see those guitars in the store — and he wasn’t even left-handed.
(“Southpaw” is a term that originated in baseball to mean left-handed pitchers).
Owner Jim Duncan and longtime friend Bill Townsend were in their 20s and working together in Houston when they decided to pool a few thousand dollars, quit their day jobs as carpenters and open a business together. They were hobbyist guitar players and avid fans of the local music scene.
So in 1980, they opened a storefront on Fondren called Trader’s Corner that sold second-hand musical instruments. Soon after, they began selling classical instruments and changed their name to Gold’n Guitars.
In 1982, they moved to the present location at 5813 Bellaire Blvd. in Gulfton and changed their name to Southpaw Guitars.
After 10 years together, Townsend moved to Austin, and Duncan – a southpaw guitar player himself — remained to run the business, focusing solely on left-handed guitar sales.
Asked why he thought starting a left-handed guitar store was a good idea for a business, the look on Duncan’s face reflected that of someone who has just been asked a dumb question.
“I was left-handed,” he said.
Among the challenges at the start was the 10 percent mark-up by manufacturers on the cost of left-handed guitars versus their right-handed models. For his first 15 years in the business, Duncan lobbied the manufacturers to get them to level the price playing field.
At 78 and approaching 45 years in the business, Duncan not only has made a living selling left-handed guitars, but he has established the Gulfton shop as the world’s best source of these instruments for the novice to the most skilled and famous customers.
Over the years Southpaw’s customers have included such international luminaries as Justin Bieber and Sir Paul McCartney’s tour players (McCartney played left-handed since his early days with the Beatles) as well as Elliott Easton of The Cars, Cesar Rosas of Los Lobos, Ted Sablay of The Killers and David Crook of American Idol.
A few right-handed guitars can be found in the store. They are mainly used for guitar classes. Southpaw Guitars also partners with local guitar-teaching studios, providing their left-handed students with guitars and accessories at discounted rates.
The business also is responsive to the large Hispanic-American population in the Gulfton area, stocking a host of Mexican musical instruments including guitarras, acordeones, bajo sextos, guiros and requintos.
“Mexican instruments became our second specialty and we are one of the few places that stock them in the U.S.,” Duncan said. “Almost all the Hispanic churches come in here to get their instruments.”
Duncan admits that he didn’t know at the start whether there would be a demand for left-handed guitars.
“Selling nothing but left-handed guitars, you’d think it’s hard to make a living and it pretty much has been,” he said. “But we have had a constant supply of customers and referrals.”
Duncan and his wife have two daughters, three sons, nine grandkids and five great-grandkids. Two of their daughters are teachers at Houston public schools, two of their sons are scientists at NASA and one of their sons is a Houston police officer.
Duncan does business every day knowing that less than 10 percent of the world population is left-handed and only a small percentage of those play guitar. But they can all rest easy knowing they will always have a home at Southpaw Guitars.
— by Phil Shook