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.
Curley started collecting publicity photos of the professional players who made the pilgrimage -- Bootsy Collins, Lee Rocker, Alison Krauss -- and now they line the Shoppe like celebrity-autographed wallpaper. He began giving lessons and hosting seminars for artists aspiring to play some of the twenty instruments he's mastered, and he's already produced some success stories. One of his former students, Erin Rogers, a fourteen-year-old banjo player from Concordia, Kansas, recently won a mountain-dulcimer competition. Betty is busy addressing a card to Rogers; its message reads "How's it feel to be on Cloud 9?"
That's a question Curley could ask himself daily. He's thrilled to meet new people and to promote the music he loves; but to uncover the true secret to his happiness, you have to delve deeper into his history.
Twenty-five years ago, his family welcomed members of the multicultural musical organization Up With People into its home each December. Curley, then thirteen, shared the basement with that brazenly optimistic outfit, whose members taught him his first guitar chords.
Ten years later, Curley became a born-again Christian. His pastor spent the first dollar that the Mountain Music Shoppe earned; the two then prayed over it and attached it to the wall. Various Bible verses line the counter, but they're facing the Curleys rather than the customers. That's typical of the family's approach, which involves keeping religion in mind at all times without, as Curley says, "shoving it down people's throats."
The Curleys pray each morning, petitioning for the strength to resist becoming corporate and competitive. Almost every day, Jim receives offers from chain stores that either want to purchase the Shoppe or lure him away from it. He smiles, recalling how, when he started the store, representatives from many of the same outlets laughed at him for selling only what was their slowest-moving stock. He declines such proposals categorically.
Four words pasted behind the counter -- spiritual, traditional, historical and educational -- guide the Curleys' approach. Three of the components are self-explanatory, but the spiritual aspect seems to evade easy explanation. Jim interprets it in simple secular terms: It means never ripping anyone off. To fulfill this part of his mission, he'll replace and repair instruments beyond the expected call of duty.
"I don't care what the manufacturer's warranty says," he'll tell a customer. "You bought that here." This policy also extends to fair assessments of pawned instruments, even from clueless sellers who have no idea they're asking $500 for a $40,000 antique. "That happens all the time," Jim says.
Jim even buys from sellers he suspects are pushing hot equipment, though in this case he's creating a trail of evidence. He stalls with his usual cheerful chit-chat until he's recorded vital serial numbers and captured the con on the store's camera, then he reports directly to the authorities. "We ship them up the river," Jim says proudly about his policy of dealing with those who break the eighth commandment.
Jim Curley, a devout Ned Flanders in hippie-Homer disguise, certainly doesn't exude the rebellious charisma of, say, Johnny Cash, with whom he shares membership in the Old-Time Country Music Hall of Fame in Avoca, Iowa. And even given the still-simmering O Brother craze, the Mountain Music Shoppe isn't trendy by any stretch of the imagination. That's what makes it so important. There's something to be said for artists who push societal and musical boundaries, but there's also room for folks who aim to preserve small-town civility and anachronistic acoustic sounds. As Betty says, summarizing the Shoppe's appeal, "We're so corny we're cool."