Operating accordion to tradition, O’Brien’s Music for 84 years

Posted on March 03, 2023 | By Alexander Chafe | 0 Comments


Roy O’Brien, founder of O’Brien’s Music in 1939 (photo credit: Dave Rowe)


Folks have been visiting O’Brien’s on Water Street for their musical needs since long before Newfoundland and Labrador joined Confederation. Although some things have been modernized after 84 years in operation, the family-owned business maintains its charm and commitment to local music and culture.

Musical passion

The building that’s now home to O’Brien’s Music has been in the family for over a century. Roy O’Brien inherited the property from his aunt who ran a hotel on the premises, along with a confectionery and tea room on the ground floor since 1906. Having played his first instrument at four or five years of age, Roy decided to follow his long-time passion and opened O’Brien’s Music on 278 Water Street in St. John’s, N.L. in 1939.

In-store, visitors could find a variety of N.L. music, folk instruments and accessories; accordions, banjos, mandolins and more. Repairs of a variety of musical instruments were also offered by O’Brien’s experienced technicians.


A view inside O’Brien’s Music (photo credit: O’Brien’s Music)


Growing business & family

Initially, Roy operated O’Brien’s from a single room on the first floor and lived behind the store. As his family grew, Roy and his wife Nellie moved to the second floor of the building, where they raised six children while operating the business below.

In the 1970s, two of Roy’s sons, Gord and Roy Jr., began working at the store and eventually took over ownership.


O’Brien’s Music’s delivery truck. O’Brien’s began offering local delivery service during the pandemic and continues making deliveries to St. John’s and surrounding areas today (photo credit: O’Brien’s Music)


Still in the family

Flash forward to 2015, Dave Rowe became the third-generation owner and operator of the family business. Growing up working in the store, Dave was familiar with the old-school ways of tracking inventory through memory and handwritten lists. So, his first task was to digitize O’Brien’s inventory and point-of-sale system. Dave says that “it’s made it much easier to keep track of things. Before, you didn’t you know had something until you put your hands on it in the store.”

Dave also expanded O’Brien’s to the entire first floor of the building, modernized product inventory to include electric instruments and launched an eCommerce website. According to Dave, the website has been especially helpful for listing vintage instruments for sale and expanding business across Canada and the U.S.

While some operations have been modernized, Dave still maintains O’Brien’s commitment to local music and N.L. culture. Dave commented: “My grandfather was proud of local music and had a mandate of promoting it as much as possible. We are good ambassadors for N.L. and try to keep that going by supporting local artists when and how we can.”

As a resident of 278 Water Street himself, Dave also lives above the business, just like his grandparents and mother before him.


Dave Rowe outside of O’Brien’s Music in 2015 when he took over as third-generation owner of the family business founded by his grandfather in 1939 (photo credit: O’Brien’s Music)


Playing strong

Today, O’Brien’s Music remains at 278 Water Street, managed by Dave with help from his brothers, nephew and uncle. O’Brien’s is still the place for folks to find a selection of N.L. music, vintage instruments, instrument repairs, music accessories and new instruments for purchase.

Looking to the future, Dave says he hopes to expand beyond the ground floor to accommodate additional product selection or to use the space to teach music lessons (a popular request from customers).

84 years later and still playing with passion.

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