Musicians can find the latest rock band equipment at almost any guitar-hawking establishment. By contrast, the Mountain Music Shoppe stocks items that can't be found anywhere else, let alone at other local merchants. Rows of pamphlets with titles such as "Fun With the Fife," "Learn the Tabla" and "Bodhrín Tutor" tempt browsers to try their hands at exotic instruments. Tutorials are available on hundreds of instructional videos like Flatpicking Through the Holidays and Slap Bass: The Ungentle Art. Novelty stickers with slogans such as "Warning: Beware of Autoharpist" disappear quickly from the impulse-buy boxes near the counter. Few of these finds even elicit a single hit from eBay, let alone from active retailers.
A scythe-shaped, stringed spear called a Treholipee hangs on the wall like a trophy swordfish. A framed article below explains that this was one of the rare inventions that targeted ukulele-playing surfers, who would strum on the beach, then impale the sand with the sharp ends of their instruments when it was time to ride waves. They'd be bummed to return and find their Treholipees gone, which is why this line was promptly discontinued. Somehow, Shoppe owner Jim Curley tracked one down. He also has collected a gold-plated saw with rhinestones in its handle and an exceptionally unusual 1930s bassoguitar, both of which are on display. But what's really rare about the Mountain Music Shoppe has little to do with such artifacts.
The Shoppe's most unique selling point is its unfathomably friendly environment. Curley and his mother, Betty, greet each visitor with sincere interest and engaging conversation. They pride themselves on learning the names and hometowns of their customers, half of whom hail from outside of the Kansas City area. They're quick with complimentary cups of their always-brewing coffee, and they're considerate enough to provide a TV and VCR on which shoppers can preview the store's largely obscure VHS selections.
The Curleys' largesse extends beyond uncommon courtesy. Jim refuses to stock any instrument that doesn't meet his personal standards -- and given that he's a champion-level player of the mountain dulcimer, clawhammer banjo, musical saw and spoons, that's an extremely high mark to meet. "I don't care how much money it would make me to sell some of these cheap imports and tourist-level models," he says. "I stock my store as if I were the customer."
Back when he was a customer, Curley became frustrated with his inability to locate traditional Appalachian folk instruments. He played in several bands that packed local venues -- the Chevelles, Why Think -- but it was his stint in Just Friends, a Grateful Dead cover band, that sparked his interest in underappreciated acoustic fare. Curley became fascinated with Old & in the Way, the Dead's bluegrass side-project. His desire to construct a haven for other followers and practitioners of traditional music, combined with his longing to return home to his family, weighed on Curley, even as he racked up acclaim and frequent-flier miles alongside members of Mickey Gilley's Urban Cowboy Band. So Curley quit his touring gig, purchased a 400-square-foot storefront in Shawnee and started building his Mountain.
At the time, he didn't have much to offer. Curley points to a picture of the then-newly born Shoppe taken six and a half years ago, back when it looked like a recently robbed jewelry store, its inventory consisting of a near-empty glass case dotted with cassette tapes and a single-digit supply of instruments. However, word spread quickly, and within two years Mountain Music moved across the street to an 1,100-square-foot space.