The Folk Mote Music & Harp Store has been in Santa Barbara for more than 30 years, but the owners couldn’t have survived without a little help from their friends.
The music store offers an array of string, percussion and woodwind instruments that mostly cater to beginning and intermediate players. Harps, guitars, cajónes, dulcimers, ethnic flutes and psalteries make up just a portion of the selection, and co-owner Cherie Chako knows how to play and repair each one of them.
“A lot of people don’t know what they want to play,” Chako said. “When you go and play them, then at that point you can help them show them how. All it takes is a little motivation.”
Chako handles the instruments and co-owner Nadine Bunn keeps the books. The two met in the dorms at UCSB, where they studied social sciences. Chako played so much music that she almost got thrown out of school.
“Cherie is a genius; she is the best musician I know,” Bunn said. “She taught all of us in the dorm to play whatever music we asked.”
Chako said she is self-taught. Her mother and uncle threw a lot of different instruments at her, and all of them stuck.
“It’s no age-based thing, just as long as you have the faculty,” Chako said as she was stringing an acoustic guitar. “It fills your whole body and develops your brain; it makes everyone happy. It’s my whole life, it’s the only thing I truly relate to. There’s no politics, it’s just pure fun.”
The city of Santa Barbara Redevelopment Agency spent about $42 million buying the land, compensating businesses that were forced out and constructing the mall, which was built in 1990.
One building was literally picked up and moved to the corner of Figueroa and Santa Barbara streets — and Folk Mote Music & Harp Store has been there ever since.
“Moving the building was the biggest gamble of our life,” Bunn said. “If something would’ve fallen off the truck, we would’ve lost everything.”
But their biggest scare came in the 2005 La Conchita landslide, when their lives were at stake.
“The house collapsed on us,” said Bunn, whose leg was shattered as she laid under the rubble for about two hours. “My life flashed before my eyes. I was pinned for an hour or two with barely any breathing air space. I could hear Cherie say, ‘Nadine, I won’t let them stop looking for you if they find me first.’”
During their rehabilitation time, friends stepped up to run the business, Bunn said. They also set up a benefit concert with more than 15 acts, and distributors sent instruments to auction off. Their friends and supporters not only saved their lives, but their vocation as well.
“They took care of us and ran the store,” Bunn said. “We tried to pay them back, but they won’t let us.”
“They brought us back to life,” Chako said.
But many customers don’t know how close the music store was to closing its doors. UCSB students and music aficionados stroll into the store and experiment the instruments throughout the day. One customer picked up a donkey jaw bone or quijada de burro. It’s played by running a long cylindrical piece of bone up and down the teeth.
“It’s a joy to come to work everyday,” Bunn said. “Cherie takes care of them with such a personal approach that they keep coming back.”
It’s their approach to customer satisfaction that has developed a loyal customer base, she said. But Internet sales are having quite an impact on business despite the impersonal model. What people don’t understand, Chako said, is that she personally inspects and tweaks every instrument that’s sold at the store so it meets her standards.
“It’s harder now than I can ever remember,” she said. “There’s so much pressure from the Internet. If you don’t come close to a price they can find online, we don’t make the sale. Many of the instruments don’t come ready to play, so you have to work for nothing basically.”
Bunn said they just have to try harder and work longer hours. Bunn remains hopeful that small music stores will always be around, but Chako disagreed.
“I think they are going through obsolescence,” she said. “Look what happened to TVs. Things are happening so fast I can’t keep track of it.”
Above the time-tested music store is Santa Barbara Sheet Music, and Laurie Rassmussen teaches harp lessons in the back of the Folk Mote Music & Harp Store.
Chako says a local music store has a way of keeping a community together.
“It offers them a total joy and a sense of community when you play with other people,” she said. “The joy of playing together provides purpose in life.”
Chako and Bunn said they couldn’t imagine doing anything else, and they thanked their friends for letting them do so.
“We love what we do,” Chako said. “We never know what’s going to walk through that door on any given day.”