Abergavenny Music



Twenty seven years ago my friend James opened his music shop in Abergavenny. I designed and painted the lettering on the board above the window and on the hanging sign that led shoppers along the street to it, together with the shop’s logo of two wyverns, their tails entwined with a lyre. The signs have been repainted many times since those early days, but though the livery evolved from gold lettering on a turquoise ground to what you see now, the typography and the wyverns have remained unchanged.

For the several years James had a satellite music shop in Castle Arcade, Cardiff, at his generous invitation I set up my studio in the cellar beneath it, a shared space that was also the shop’s staff and stock room. No windows and bitterly cold in the winter, nevertheless in memory it remains the studio I was happiest in. I painted the entire series of ‘The Temptations of Solitude’ in James’ cellar, and my first Annunciation, with pianist Semra Kurutac, who worked part-time in the shop, modelling for the Virgin in her lunch and coffee breaks.

The Castle Arcade shop closed many years ago, before Peter and I moved from Cardiff to west Wales. Now Abergavenny Music, too, has closed its doors. It’s been on the cards for quite a while, though James’ sudden illness has precipitated what had been planned anyway. Life will not be the same in Abergavenny without my friend’s shop, his wonderful staff and his deep knowledge of music, so generously shared.

Peter has written below about the closure of Abergavenny Music.

Abergavenny’s specialist classical music shop, Abergavenny Music, will close on 29 July owing to the illness of the owner and founder, James Joseph. For more than quarter of a century it has been a big part of the lives of Abergavenny and a world-wide community of music enthusiasts.

James established Abergavenny Music 27 years ago. As a talented musician who had worked in production across the UK and Europe, James wanted to create his own perfect music shop, characterised by wonderful stock and expert service. He and his wife, the artist Sarah Thwaites, chose Abergavenny as the place where they wanted to settle down and have a family.

He took premises at 23 Cross Street and made them into a stylish and airy space that became a treasure house of music. The shop sold recordings, videos, sheet music and books, and customers came from far and wide. One of its qualities from the start, set by James’s own quiet and unassuming style, was as a place where people felt welcome to browse for as long as they liked, listening to current recommendations playing through the sound system. The shop felt like a creative space – a focus of chance meetings and a place to make new friendships.

The excellent staff over 27 years have included bright youngsters given their first job opportunities and many professional musicians who were able to supplement their incomes knowing that James would change schedules at short notice if performing opportunities came up. Customers came to expect a service very different from any they would get from HMV or Amazon thanks to the eagerness of James and his colleagues to find answers to obscure questions, research just the right recording or locate scarce scores.

For several years James expanded the operation with a sister shop in Castle Arcade in Cardiff and after that a stand in Ross-on-Wye but the changing landscape of multinational online retailers and downloading has challenged the survival of in-person music retailing everywhere. He kept Abergavenny Music open long after most people would have closed the doors because he loved to be in that calm, music-rich environment and to provide a service.

James has received many messages from people who have been grateful for everything the shop has been over the years. Angela, Kaye, Rosie and Lindsey continue there until the doors close for the last time on 29 July.

Peter Wakelin


8 thoughts on “Abergavenny Music

  1. In recent years I bought many CDs and DVDs from James at Aberganenny Music, and though I have never been to the town or visited the shop, I feel that I have become disconnected from a real and breathing part of my life. Of course I continue to buy my music from other sources, but I no longer feel part of a very special place and process. The suddenness of the illness and the closure made the breach feel like the end of a relationship and of a special part of my life. Get well soon James and return to your piano.

  2. Strains of an old song come into my head, thought it was Cole Porter but it’s the Gershwin’s, and it’s from the final verse: ‘The way you’ve changed my life
    No, no, they can’t take that away from me
    No, they can’t take that away from me.’
    With love to you and music lovers everywhere
    B xxx

    • Hello Diana.

      Yes, I designed the font, though at this remove I can’t quite imagine why. It’s not as though there’s a shortage of good ones already out there. Perhaps it was just that I wanted to include the linked A and V, and found the more elegant solution by starting from scratch. Of course I ended up making only the letters needed for the purpose, so it’s an unfinished alphabet. Looking again now and thinking about it, I probably designed the font to perfectly fit the proportions of the board.

      I envy you being there on the day. I would have been present myself had I not been away in Cambridge speaking at an ‘illustration’ symposium.

  3. I never went to Abergavenny, so I never visited the Shop, and I never knew your friend James. But with your text and photos , with Peter’s text, I am crying my eyes out with nostalgia and longing for a time that is dissappearing fast…
    Thank you.

    • Sorry to be a bit late in replying to this. Please don’t be sad, Maria. The shop has served the community beautifully for twenty-seven years, and that must now be celebrated. On the last day there was cake and happy recollection of all the good times.

      Everything in this world ends, and the closure of Abergavenny Music was on the cards long before James became ill. He had talked of closing the business and exploring other possibilities, including spending more time with his family and at his piano. The unexpected changed status in his health, merely precipitated what he’d been planning.

      James is not a lover of parties or being the centre of attention, and so in a way his absence on the last day of business was as he might have preferred, though not for reasons he or anyone would choose. But he had ample reports on how it all went, and many messages of good will.

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