We’re just down from the corner of Crown and Oxford streets inside The Salt Mine Instrument Repairs. It’s a one-man workshop the exudes well-worn-Levis cool with exposed timber, white walls and a Link Wray soundtrack, but “guitar mechanic” Matt Bulluss happily admits it took some imagination to sign the lease. One year ago, this was a halfway house, riddled with used needles, a permeating dog smell and replete with a kicked-in door, walls pocked with holes and carpeting covered in black mould.
“There’s nothing more rock ’n’ roll than how it was before – full of mould, piss and nicotine. That was a little too rock ’n’ roll,” smiles Bulluss.
You get an idea of just how diverse his client list must be from his bar fridge, the shelves of which are stocked with Tim-Tams, Whale Ale, bottled water and various soft drinks. Alongside various bands and performers like Bears With Guns and Craig Calhoun, it’s mostly high school students that make up his current client list. Creating an inviting space was always a priority for Bulluss, who explains the typical repair shop staffed by failed rockers as an “over-lit deli counter”. Sure, he’s a consummate fingerpicker who has flirted with performance, but it’s Paul Bigsby, Leo Fender and Gibson blueprints that cover these walls, not rock stars.
Bulluss’s first after-school job found him in woodwind repair, because no guitar shop would have him. But the determination to become his own boss was never a backup plan. “I’m standing on the shoulders of some pretty serious giants here,” says Bulluss with an air of humility. “Your boss becomes your customer directly [when you open a small business]. If you’ve got the right vibe, unless you’re selling wheelchairs or coffins, everyone is happy to see you.”
Sole trading has also led to an explosion in the variety of his workload. Among the expected array of guitars in his workshop sits a fibreglass sitar case that he fashioned for a musician who suffers from a bad back. The job appealed to Bulluss’s problem-solving bent and although he had no prior experience with fibreglass or sitars, he now waxes lyrical about how this material can withstand a death roll from a moving vehicle, despite being only marginally heavier than polystyrene. One of the more common repairs he sees is the “girlfriend smash”, but guitars are resilient beasts.
As is Bulluss. You would have to be to commit to repurposing what was a fetid corner of Oxford Street. After three months and $5000 of investment, the walls were patched, primed and painted; the window repaired (twice); the carpet removed; and the electrical circuits rewired. “My friends joke that I’m the only one who can use a screwdriver,” says Bulluss, who performed all repairs, save the electrical work, himself. Google’s SketchUp even allowed him to design the workbenches. He then passed on the dimensions to a local timber yard to carve the pieces and bolted them together himself.
According to Bulluss, a major lesson in starting your own business and opening your own space is to take full advantage of the digital age. Indeed, his workshop is full of items from Etsy, Gumtree and eBay, including Edison light fixtures, while government websites (ATO and smallbiz.nsw.gov.au provide a ‘how-to’ for unsure entrepreneurs. Salt Mine broke even after its first year of trading – a rare feat. But Bulluss concedes that his failure to get a website functioning is still costing him. “Even primary school kids know that these days,” he laughs.
It’s a lot of hard work and long hours, but in the game of job satisfaction Bulluss might just have an edge. “[I am] even happier than my dad,” he says. “And he’s retired.”