Wisconsin’s Parrish Music Opens New Store

Denyce Neilson • FeaturesMarch 2019 • March 14, 2019

Wisconsin’s Parrish Music has opened a second location, The Harmony Shop, which features gifts, fair trade items, and home goods. Over the past year, their 2,250 square-foot space was becoming a bit cramped, with the addition of a new stage and a museum space currently featuring tamburica instruments from Croatia, Serbia, and Slovenia and traditional Indian stringed instruments. It was their ever-expanding gift department, however, that was taking up most of the space.

As owner Catherine Parrish explains, “The gift department grew so big. We wanted to give it a dedicated store to see what it can do. Our new Harmony Shop is mostly run by our daughter Jaali, who is also our partner in the new gift store. Her store, Jaali’s Dollies, occupies one half and the Harmony Shop is the other half.”

In 2007, husband and wife, Catherine and Ted Parrish opened Parrish Music, located on Main Street, in the small, four-block town of Viroqua, Wisconsin. Parrish is an all-acoustic shop, but that certainly doesn’t mean that their inventory is limited.

Parrish Music offers ukuleles, banjos, mandolins, violins, violas, cellos, basses, djembes, cajons, gongs, ethnic percussion, accessories, books, acoustic amplification, dulcimers, ouds, bouzoukis, sitars, and much more. As Ted explains, “We both have a lifelong interest in unusual instruments. Catherine plays the dulcimer, guitar, fiddle, flute, and ukulele and uses other instruments like the hurdy-gurdy for inspiration. She studied North Indian flute with G.S. Satchdev and plays bansuri and has a harmonium and tampura.” Ted is also a musician and plays guitar, mandolin, banjo, and ukulele. He says, “We both are world instrument explorers. It’s very gratifying when folks come in and experience these instruments, often commenting that they had heard about them but had never seen them. Now they get to try them.”

So Long, Electrics…

When Catherine and Ted opened Parrish Music, they carried electric guitars, basses, amps, drums, and cymbals, but decided they could better use their limited space to sell the instruments they love and are most knowledgeable about. Catherine explains, “When we cleared out the electrics we were able to really expand the acoustics the way we wanted to. In fact, since we don’t have a huge store, we specialize even more. We only carry smaller guitars – travel, parlor, and concert. Ukuleles are a major focus. Ted learned the ukulele 30 years ago, long before you could even find one on the mainland. He played in a Hawaiian band in Chicago for 20 years and has since written a best-selling ukulele instruction book, Ukulele for the Complete Ignoramus. People appreciate our selection and knowledge.”

Going up the Country

Before the couple set up shop in Wisconsin, they lived in Chicago where Ted managed two retail stores for 15 years. In Chicago, both Ted and Catherine were working musicians and still are.

Explaining the move to Wisconsin, Catherine says, “We chose to move to a small town for many reasons. We moved from Chicago to escape the pressures of the city. We have adopted a lifestyle that is based less on making lots of money and more on having a great, sustainable life. Our kids are both successful artists. Our goals are to continue to support our community just as the community supports us and enjoy living and playing with our friends and neighbors. We made the move to rural Wisconsin for a simpler life with the kids.”

With a population of 5,000, Viroqua, Wisconsin really does offer a simpler life. Both Parrish Music and The Harmony Shop are situated in the middle of the town’s four-block business district. It’s a rural area, and on some days, you may spot Amish horse-drawn carriages riding up and down Main Street. Even with its simplicity, Catherine says, “There are all sorts of folks in Viroqua, and it has continued to change over time. Overall, it’s a progressive town.

In terms of their customers, Catherine says, “We plan our stock very carefully. Because this is not a wealthy area, we carry lines that are more affordable and attainable for our neighbors, but of the highest quality. Because of our varied clientele we keep our selection very interesting, somewhat eclectic. We are kind of remote, so there are no stores until you get to Lacrosse, about 40 miles away. There are several good stores up there with different specialties, and I’m glad to say that we all support each other and recommend each other.”

New Expansion

When Ted and Catherine created a gift section in the back of the Parrish Music store, they wanted to bring different types of goods to the community. They wanted to offer items that they would buy for themselves. “We wanted to sell gifts that we couldn’t source in our little town,” she explains. “When we travelled, we would always enjoy stores that had Buddha statues, incense, and candles. Since that type of store didn’t exist in our town, we decided we would be it. Folks shopping in Viroqua appreciate having a different kind of store, and we have regular customers who enjoy our selection of reading glasses, incense, and fair-trade goods.”

The Harmony Shop of course needs more time to be established and have a sales history to review, but since the opening in July of 2018 reactions have been positive. Catherine looks at the gift shop as more seasonal than the music store, so she was prepared for a busy holiday season. They haven’t done any print advertising, but they do use social media to promote both stores.

They also have an active Chamber of Commerce that promotes community events and supports downtown business. For example, Catherine says, “There is a wine walk in town, where we, along with most of the other storefronts on Main Street, sample wines and food during the evening. We get about 300 people through the door, have a lot of fun, and we definitely see them coming back. The Harmony Shop is right across the street from the weekly farmer’s market, and we had a lot of those folks coming in and checking us out over the summer.”

Having the new store has impacted the way they run the music store. They’ve had to balance and juggle teaching and work schedules to make it work. Ted teaches private and group classes on guitar, mandolin, banjo, and ukulele. Catherine teaches private lessons on guitar, ukulele, and vocal yoga. They also offer group lessons for beginning adult guitar, beginning kid’s guitar, advanced guitar, old-time ensemble, and Celtic ensemble. As challenging as the balancing act has been, Ted and Catherine have been pleased with the change. “We were able to reconfigure the music store, and we regularly get comments on how beautiful both stores are,” Catherine says. “We’ve had positive reactions on both ends. Folks love the retooled look of the music store and are happy to see expanded gift and household items at the new store.”

Community Engagement and the Meaning of ‘Success’

The Parrishes have had a positive impact on the community in other ways too. This past summer, Wisconsin experienced historic flooding. Ted and Catherine donated goods from both stores to a fundraiser and played at the benefit concert. “We donate to a lot of benefits and support functions at our local school,” Catherine says. “As for the local musicians, we of course stock what folks need and help promote shows and sell tickets when possible. We also maintain good relationships with local teachers, making sure we are supporting their programs and their students have what they need.”

There are many definitions of success, and Ted and Catherine have their own. As Catherine puts it, “Those who are successful are very passionate and really into what they do. I think kids are very much into music and learning more when they have a support system in place. If you have great teachers and a strong music program, kids will get into that culture, whether it’s in school, an after-school program, a music store, or at home.”

As for their business model and successfully moving forward with Parrish Music and The Harmony Shop, Catherine says, “Like many small music stores, we have a three-legged stool of success: sales, rentals, and lessons, with repairs in there as well. We pay attention to and tweak all of those areas as we go along.”

Last, but not least, Catherine and Ted continue to play music and perform together and have a new CD of original work coming out soon. Following his previous instruction books, one for ukulele and one for guitar, Ted is working on releasing his third.

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