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Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2011

Rock the Haus

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Big-box retailers have been stomping out mom-and-pop stores everywhere, but Milwaukee's Rockhaus is bucking the trend by finding a niche selling and servicing musical instruments. Not that Rockhaus' owner truly was looking to create a niche; that is just the way low-key Rusty Olson does business—"More heart, less flow chart," as he puts it. Opened in 1990 by Greg Kurczewski, Olson took over Rockhaus in 2003. In 2009 a fire claimed nearly everything but the walls.

What is it like for a business basically going back to ground zero?

In January of 2009, a fire destroyed everything. In April that year we started from scratch. Looking at a big empty storefront and thinking where to start first was a daunting experience I never want to have to think about again. I would scribble out some ideas in my notebook in the evening and figure out how to get things done the next day. If you were to see the drawings of the display cabinets, sales counter, lesson rooms and work area, you would see things are exactly as planned. Very little of what you see can be found in a catalog, and most were built by hand. After the fire we added a drum showroom and workshop, ukulele room and two new lesson rooms to expand our lesson program—lots more space to fill and plenty of room to grow. It has been great fun seeing people start up with lessons, stick with them and become very good players. We have had students take lessons for years and move on to teaching in other shops.

What sets Rockhaus apart from other stores selling musical gear?


You will find popular, common name brands at our store, but we have always been fond of instruments and accessories found in the "other" category of most stock lists. Many are made by hand, like our shop-made, chrome-plated, aluminum-body short scale basses and guitars. Most of what you will find here you will never find in the chain stores. I really enjoy doing business with other small companies thinking outside of the box; it keeps things interesting. We even have a local glassblower that makes our glass bottleneck slides and locally designed synth modules by Grant Richter of the Wiard Synthesizer Co.

Where does Rockhaus fit in with Milwaukee's music community?

We support the local music community with sponsorship of local events like the WMSE Summer Camp or festival stages like the Uptowner Stage at Center Street Daze. We also have done underwriting for WMSE. Also, as a record label, we released CDs from Madison's Appliances-SFB on the Rockhaus label. We also are talking with the band Venison about doing a project.