Colfax Avenue – one of Denver’s main thoroughfares – once was lined with local shops and businesses during the glory days when everything was family-owned and quality was important. Colfax is now lined with pawnshops, used car lots and other establishments that have ushered in a new era to the Colfax corridor, but a few originals, like Rockley Music Center, have survived.
“There’s not many of us left,” says the music store’s owner, Tobin Rockley.
A family-owned West Colfax Avenue business since 1946, the shop has developed into a successful and eclectic music destination, offering not only instruments – from guitars and pianos to orchestra – but sheet music, music lessons, instrument repair and community events on its Bechstein piano stage.
Melvin and Mildred Rockley opened the original store as a music and appliance business at West Colfax Avenue and Wadsworth Boulevard, a combination that wasn’t uncommon for the time, says their grandson, Tobin.
The ‘50s swept in, and the Rockleys moved the store to its current location at West Colfax Avenue and Dover Street. The store began joining in on the booming record and TV industry.
The business became a family affair in the 1960s when Tobin’s parents, Robert and Nina Rockley, became part of the team, bringing with them new ideas that would help the store expand and develop.
“The appliances eventually got replaced. We brought in guitars around my dad’s time,” Tobin says. “My mom brought the print music up significantly, and [they] eventually got rid of the records.”
When Tobin and his brother, Robin, stepped into the business, the store continued to grow. Music lessons, which were offered in the store, moved into their own building behind the store. Many changes came about in the 1990s and 2000s. The Rockleys purchased an adjacent business to double the store’s space, and the technology and piano departments were born. Also, the first generation of owners, who had retired, passed away, while Robin left to start his own music company and Tobin’s wife, Liane, joined the family and the business.
Through it all, the family’s knack for changing and adapting with the music industry has helped the store survive and thrive.
“I think our willingness to change even things that have been around for a long time is one of the things that allows us to still be here,” Tobin says. “When I started 20-some years ago, there were 15 music stores within five miles. We’re it now.”
As an independent store, Rockley’s has to compete with what the crew calls “box stores.” They do this by becoming a destination store, Tobin says, meaning they can offer the full package, from instrument selection to better quality service that compels customers to come to Rockley Music Center for their music needs.
“We have to outwork box stores to make sure we’re the ones who are still here,” Tobin says.
Many of the Rockley staff have been there 18-plus years and are musicians themselves, so have intimate knowledge of the equipment and the customers.
“Rather than go to the box stores where every couple of months employees turn over… you see the same people here year after year. They remember you, you remember them, and that’s a good situation,” says Chris Thomas, who does repairs.
Each of the staff has a musician’s knowledge and a musician’s touch, making life-long customers out of the serious musicians who come to Rockley’s for their equipment.
“We know the instruments… a real musician would want to talk to another real musician,” Thomas says as he takes a newly repaired bass to an amp, plugs in and strums out a rhythm. “We’re all musicians here and play in bands still.”
Dana Tracy, a piano teacher from Evergreen, is one such musician who joined the team in 2010 as Tobin’s assistant for the Rockley Family Foundation.
Tobin started the foundation in the 2000s. The store had previously been working with manufacturers to provide universities with instruments for their music departments, which, due to a lack of funding, often desperately needed to replace old and worn-out equipment. The effort moved to the non-profit arena as the Rockley Music Foundation, and now it provides instruments to more than 20 universities.
The foundation is only a piece of the music center’s involvement in the community, which includes opening a Bechstein stage and piano in 2003 for free community events. During piano recitals, students and teachers have access to the genuine German Bechstein grand piano – a high-end instrument costing $250,000.
“It gives people the opportunity to play something they would never really have the chance to play… so we do dozens and dozens of recitals in the course of the year,” Tobin says. “We feel we have a certain responsibility to try to perpetuate music in the community.”
The Rockley family has also been local music’s representatives, attending civic meetings and being active in the music scene, especially for music and arts programs, which are on the decline across the nation. As musicians, the Rockley team understands the importance of these programs surviving.
“We’re trying to make sure we do our part, we meet with our congressmen, we meet with our senators,” Tobin says. “We do a lot of this extra stuff that’s not directly money related, but hopefully it benefits us as part of the music community as a whole.”
It is this love for music that has powered the Rockley Music Center through three generations. Although Tobin’s parents have retired, he and Liane hold true to the family business and its values that have maintained the center’s status as the community music store.
“I don’t think we’ve lost our touch as a big family music store,” Tobin says. “One of the things my wife and I can take most pride about is that we’re still trying to continue making sure that we understand our purpose in the music community for Colorado and now somewhat nationally.”
If You Go
Rockley Music Center
8555 W. Colfax Ave.
Lakewood, Colorado 80215