Blame it on the Banjo(s): A Brief History of the Homestead Pickin’ Parlor©*
Banjo #1: It was June, 1979, and Marv and Dawn Menzel were enjoying “such a nice life.” Marv and a partner had a small manufacturing business, and Dawn was holding down the home front and taking care of their three children. Marv saw a newspaper ad announcing an intensive eight-week class for 5-string banjos. Eight weeks later, Marv was spending most of his free time in the basement playing rolls, until the neighbor across the street asked whether he was ever going to do anything but play the banjo. Yep. Within a matter of weeks, Marv had sold his share of the business to his partner and begun filling the basement with instruments, music, and recordings for resale. Having had a difficult time finding the materials he needed to support his banjo habit, he decided to fill this commercial void. Marv and Dawn had planned to run it as a mail-order business, so Dawn was surprised when Marv came home one day with the news that he had just rented a storefront at 6625 Penn Avenue South in Minneapolis. That was November. At this point in the interview, Marv smiled sheepishly and said, “I’m rather an impulsive guy.”
So, where was Dawn in all of this? As Marv said, “Dawn is a very tolerant lady.” In addition, like Marv, she had grown up surrounded by and loving music, but had expressed her love of music through her feet, rather than her hands, learning to dance from her father, and later adding rock, Cajun, and clogging to her father’s waltzes. Their kids, 6, 11, and 13 at the time, also were tolerant, at least until they were asked to help at the store. (Dana, their youngest, once was asked by her teacher how she liked having “counter-culture” parents. Dawn says she still doesn’t know what the teacher meant.)
Banjo #2: It was April, 1981. 15-year-old Bruce Johnson saw Steve Martin and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band on Saturday Night Live. The next day, he saw a newspaper ad announcing an intensive eight-week class for 5-string banjos: “Learn to play the 5-string banjo in 8 weeks! Only $24.95 for lessons and banjo rental! Apply it to the purchase price of your banjo!” His first lesson was 7:00 p.m., Tuesday, April 28. One year later, he was biking from his home in South St. Paul to Inver Grove Heights to see his girlfriend, when the sound of bluegrass music blasting from a shopping-center parking lot stopped him in his tracks. He cornered the band leader, Dave Crosby, and peppered him with a multitude of questions about where he could find music, recordings, supplies, and information. In self-defense, Crosby pulled out his business card, wrote “Homestead Pickin’ Parlor” on it, and handed it to Bruce, saying, “Go here.” Bruce found a ride to Minneapolis the next week and started hanging out at the HPP whenever he could. By this time, he’d dropped out of all his sports activities for more quality time with his banjo. Jump ahead 12 years. Marv and Dawn decided that it was time to hire some help, it having become clear that the kids were on different career paths. Dawn suggested that, since he seemed to be a permanent fixture anyway, they might as well hire Bruce. At 20 years and counting, Bruce is their most senior staff member, and his music career has expanded to include numerous stringed instruments, teaching, and playing professionally. The store has since added two other multi-talented employees, Paul Hatch (guitarist/cyclist/baker) and Holle Brian (bass player/artist/graphic designer).
Banjo #3: Some years ago, Don Venne dragged the HPP – with only a minimum of kicking and screaming – into the 20th Century. He built, then maintained its first website for many years as “a labor of love, borne out of affection for HPP’s role as center of an acoustic music community in the Twin Cities.” The store finally agreed to unchain him from the store’s computer so he would have two hands free to play his own music. In January, 2012, Anthony Ihrig, a local musician, songwriter, and webmaster, posted a blog (http://anthonyihrig.com/blog/page/3/) entitled “Brick and Mortar Music Community (the future of music stores?)” calling the HPP one of his “all-time favorite places on earth.” So, he was a natural pick to be the next website v
ictimolunteer. (Author note: I wonder if he ever saw a newspaper ad announcing an intensive eight-week class for 5-string banjos.) Anthony put down his banjo and picked up the laptop. (The new website just went live at homesteadpickinparlor.com. Anthony and the HPP hope you enjoy it!)
So why do they do it? Their motto says it all: “At Homestead Pickin’ Parlor, meeting the musical needs of acoustic music fans has never been an afterthought. It has always been our only thought.” The HPP promotes acoustic music, particularly folk, bluegrass, blues, and Celtic, by providing everything that the musicians and music lovers need – instruments, instruction, repairs, music, recordings, and accessories. Over the years, it has expanded its inventory based on feedback from its customers, teaching staff, and the nationally known musicians it brings in for concerts and workshops.
As important as the goods the store offers, however, is the musical community it creates and supports. As its name suggests, the Homestead Pickin’ Parlor provides a warm, friendly, physical space for folks to gather, socialize, and even shop. Some of the most popular attractions are the 18 to 20 folk and bluegrass jams it hosts each month, offering sessions for musicians at all levels of expertise.
Anthony’s question about the future of brick-&-mortar stores identifies a serious challenge faced by the HPP, however. By providing face-to-face customer service as well as what amounts to a clubhouse (with open “membership,” of course), the HPP has a difficult time competing with the low prices available on-line through suppliers with lower overhead. One of the biggest threats to the survival of small, locally-owned businesses is the practice of “showrooming,” where customers visit the brick-&-mortar stores to examine products and get advice from the staff, then buy the products from an on-line supplier.
Marv says that he doesn’t have a crystal ball to show him the future, but “as long as we can pay the rent by meeting the needs of our customers and introducing new customers to the joy of being involved in this wonderful world of the music we all love, the Homestead Pickin’ Parlor will remain a presence on the scene.”
*Originally published in the April issue of Minnesota Bluegrass, a monthly publication of the Minnesota Bluegrass and Old-Time Music Association – MBOTMA. Used with permission.