Meet your merchant: Grass Valley’s Foggy Mountain Music
May 27, 2014
Families come in all forms, and in Mary Ellen Sorci's case, it's inside the doors of her 40-year-old store, Foggy Mountain Music. Step into the 2,200-square-foot 1800s' building on any given day, and it's clear why the business is fondly referred to as "the crossroads of the music community."
On Wednesday, a father and son were perusing electric guitars, an older gentleman was carefully picking his way through a tune on a banjo and a teenager was examining the row of mandolins. Singing lessons could be heard upstairs and Sorci was on one of the busy store's three telephone lines.
"Yes, we do have jaw harps," she said. "I'm looking at four different kinds right now. Come on in."
Steve Sprinz squeezed by customers on his way upstairs to teach a guitar lesson to one of his many students, who range in age from 4 to 78. He also teaches bass, ukulele and the recorder out of the five small studios upstairs, one of which has a piano.
"Making music is good for the brain," said Sorci. "You really have to think through what you're doing, and it's really fulfilling to create a sound you love. There are 5-year-old kids here who would blow your mind. These days they find music online — just enough to whet their appetite — then they want lessons."
Sorci, now 61, grew up on the peninsula of the San Francisco Bay. She learned retail skills early at her mother's Menlo Park pet shop and discovered that she enjoyed working with the public. Her appreciation for music came early, as well, as her parents were both professional musicians.
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"My mother, Marilyn Doty Sorci, was a child prodigy in San Francisco; she played the violin for 45 years," she said. "My father, Joseph Sorci, was into the woodwinds; especially the sax and flute. He toured with Tommy Dorsey and other folks."
While she was still in elementary school, Sorci's parents divorced, and each went on to marry other musicians, thereby expanding her exposure to yet more musical genres. In her teens and early 20s, Sorci studied music and began singing and playing guitar in a variety of bands, primarily classic rock 'n' roll.
"I grew up during a lively time for music in the Bay Area," she said. "We used to go to the Fillmore in San Francisco for $1.75 on Thursday nights."
Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead — Sorci saw them all. She vividly remembers "The Last Waltz" in 1976, the last rock concert at Winterland Ballroom. With professional musicians all around her, she witnessed early on the toll taken on those who were constantly on tour and decided it wasn't the life for her.
Sorci moved to Nevada County in the 1970s, partly due to the thriving music scene. But she instantly recognized the need for a music store that included modern instruments, such as the electric guitar.
"I had lots of mentors in the Bay Area who helped me set up the store," she said. "Over the years, the changes in the music industry keep things interesting, but much of the stuff created in the 1960s is still the backbone of instruments and amplifiers used today. That's good for me, because I'm an expert."
In addition to the more than 200 instruments, the shop offers lessons, instrument appraisals, refurbishing, rentals and repairs. It also rents and sells sound and lighting equipment. Sorci says her nephew, Christopher Chapman, is "the master" when it comes to equipment for electronic dance music (also known as EDM), which is now popular in local clubs and bars.
Sorci also travels to large conventions to search for the latest products and oversees their eBay store.
Customers need to make their way past the harps, conga sets, tambourines, harmonicas, instrument cables, song books, posters, drum sticks, guitar straps, song books, capos, tuners, picks, amps, egg shakers, humidifiers, a stand-up bass and more to get to the trap door that leads to a basement stacked to the ceiling with instrument cases.
Despite not having the massive inventory fully computerized, Sorci claims she knows where everything is, and few would doubt her.
While she once could play music until 4 a.m. and open the shop at 10 a.m., Sorci says she now enjoys a slower pace.
"I've got a parrot, turtles, horses and a garden at home," she said. "But I have to say that my love is here in this store — I don't think I'll every fully retire."
What's the most rewarding part of running a music store for four decades? That's an easy answer, said Sorci.
"I love seeing the grandkids of original customers in here," she said, dabbing her eyes with her sleeve.
"I have no kids of my own. This is my family, and these are my kids. I'm passionate about that."
To contact staff writer Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@theunion.com or call 530-477-4203.