by Danny Craig
photography by Tom Galaraga
illustration by Isela Peña
Deep within the heart of an uppity Claremont Village, which is typecast by its chic gift shops and trendy coffeehouses, lies a simplistic Mecca for the artists of melody and rhyme.
Musicians, poets and lovers of the arts pass by the high priced venues with clashing dress codes to make their way into the simplistic entrance of the Folk Music Center. The shop’s only distinguishing marks are its two-toned mural of Native American-style emblems and the large piece of poster board that sits above the door bearing the establishment’s address, 220 Yale Ave.
Patrons make their way through the frugal entrance to see a museum quality collection of musical instruments that are brought from all over the globe for show and sale. Congo drums consume a good portion of the store’s floor, as do the eclectic array of guitars and ukuleles that cover the right wall. Tribal drums with leather faces and hand-painted rainsticks from South America contribute to the cultural swirl that envelops the environment of the music center.
Sitting behind the counter is an elderly gentleman, whose long white beard and hair in the accompaniment of a thin pair of wire glasses seems to coincide with the establishment’s storied and thoughtful ambiance. His frail hands show the work of 30 years as a farmer and then soldier, while his eyes reflect the knowledge of a teacher and poet. His life is a series of connected stories that evoke emotion and intrigue from even the most passive audience. His humble appearance is reflective of the store’s niche amongst the glamour of the avenue. For those entering the store, the aged face of 87-year-old shop owner Charles Chase is synonymous with the colorful 43-year history held by the Folk Music Center.
“We have a reputation. It seems to me that’s what you’ve got to have to carry on a business,” says Chase, as he relaxes in the back room of the center. Chase remembers helping a particular musician many years ago. “The guy had kind of a cheapo guitar, and I put new rollers on it because the plastic had cracked,” recalls Chase. “He came back 12 years later to tell me that the rollers had cracked, so I changed them for him. When he asked me, ‘What’s the charge?,’ I told him it’s part of the guarantee.”
But Chase and his music did not gain their reputation from his customer service, but rather from the passion and love for the arts by his family. The support of the establishment is carried by a wife who gained notoriety as a local musician, daughter who returns with pride to operate the store, and trio of grandsons who have expressed themselves through writing, sculpting and creating music that have pleased the nation’s ears. All pronouncing themselves in different manners, Chase’s offspring have been instilled with one common value–to challenge that which is traditional.
Being raised on a farm in New Hampshire, where he remembers little place for music, Chase acquired a desire to work with his hands. More than a third of his life was devoted to fixing farm equipment, some of which he was familiar with, some not.
“If there was anything that needed fixing, I would fix it,” says Chase. As he is recollecting his past, the sounds of a G-chord dipping above and below its appropriate tone fill the background to bring an aged guitar to a finely tuned stage. “A lot of it’s your attitude. You have to have the attitude [that says] ‘Hell, I can fix it.’ If you don’t have the attitude, it’s technically impossible.”
Growing up, Chase never learned how to play an instrument or how to read music. His father felt there was little need for such frivolities in his agrarian lifestyle. However, Chase found an opportunity to break that barrier when a local church was faced with two pump organs that the pastor had deemed useless. With the knowledge that the instruments were hours from being dropped at the city dump, Chase asked the parishioner whether he could salvage the organs. With the consent of the clergyman, the organs were left on the Chase household lawn for just a short time before Charles detected their flaws. Approaching the matter with an optimistic attitude, he re-fitted the cloth over the bellows and toyed with the mechanics of the unfamiliar object, until the gears operated smoothly. Reflecting on the scenario, Chase chuckles at his first experience working with musical instruments as he looks over the eclectic repair workshop that consumes the back of the store. “Working in the store is a lot like working on the farm,” he says. “The work is never done.”
However, the work ethic for Chase and his family does not originate solely from life on the farm. After finishing a tenure in the Army in World War II, Chase brought a change in employment from the fields to the classroom in Weymouth, Mass.
A teacher of English, Chase remembers the educational system in America during the mid-50s. Although the nation was at its infancy in many stages, it was opening a darker chapter in its history, the Red Scare. Prompted by the congressional hearings of Senator Joseph McCarthy, a nation-wide fear grew that sub-patriotic views were a sign of communism. “I don’t know whether you know of the McCarthy times. There has been an awful lot of bigotry in this country. If you were in any way critical of the administration, they let you go,” says Chase, “because if you weren’t satisfied, you must be a damn commie.” Unfortunately, for Chase, being an outspoken schoolteacher not afraid to criticize the system of his deeply conservative New England community was not a characteristic working in his favor. Chase was blacklisted. He was relieved of his position as a teacher with a wife and four daughters to support. Chase decided that a move to California would benefit his family.
As he sits in thought of his family’s past, the busybodies of a full staff continue to operate the store. Perhaps the busiest of them is his daughter Ellen Harper-Verdies, who now oversees the bookkeeping for the Folk Music Center. Although her return to the store is recent, her experience at the Music Center dates back to the near entirety of her life. Ellen remembers the hardships faced by her family in Weymouth. “It was a very small town with a lot of politics,” remembers Harper-Verdies. Although an unforgettable part of her father’s past, having to leave Weymouth has long-since passed as a topic of conversation or a source of anger in their family. “He will usually tell people he got tired of shoveling snow, which is an equally powerful message,” says Harper-Verdies with a thoughtful smile.
Her father shares a like sentiment. “My personal feeling is that anger is poison,” says Chase. “I wouldn’t change any of it [the past]. You have to go through the hard times because if you never go through the hard times, how the hell are you supposed to recognize the good times?”
After leaving the snow and the hard times of the East Coast in 1957, he and his family found a home in east Los Angeles, which led to their permanent settlement in Claremont a year later. Chase found a house for $8,000 within the city’s limits and appreciated the proximity of the Claremont Colleges where he attended graduate school under the GI Bill. Slowly, they began to build a niche in their new surroundings. His wife Dorothy taught guitar lessons for the city of Claremont while he found a position as a teacher of freshman English in the Baldwin Park District.
Aside from all of their projects, Chase and his wife had a business proposition that seemingly presented itself. His ability to fix instruments, and his wife’s talented musical background presented the idea to open a music store in the downtown area. A vacant room behind a real estate office on Harvard Avenue became the site of what was once a simple vision. Chase remembers talking to the neighboring realtor. “The woman said, ‘Sure you can have that back room; no one will come and see you anyway,'” says Chase with a chuckle. Much to the contrary of their neighbor, the store became a progressively growing business ever since its doors opened Aug. 12, 1958.
“Back then, a music store wouldn’t buy an old banjo or an old ukulele. They didn’t want any of that junk. Because I could fix them up and make them usable, it helped us get off the ground,” says Chase. In addition to his ability to fix virtually any instrument, locals were attracted to the growing number of unique and different instruments that were displayed in the store. Chase enjoyed what was becoming a globally diverse collection of instruments as it compensated for the many international trips he had wished to take, but could never afford.
Just as his collection of instruments grew disparate, so did Chase’s niche in his new school district. Although many miles from the unfavorable views of Weymouth, he often found himself in disagreement with the structure of the district’s curriculum.
Enveloping himself in the nostalgic thoughts of his local experience as a teacher, Chase slowly tugs his white beard to reveal a smirk that bears a resemblance to a grammar school class-misfit. He remembers sitting-in on an English department meeting being led by a supervisor with whom his views clashed. “It came to the time of year to teach the parsing of sentences, and I asked her, ‘What’s the sense in teaching them how to parse a sentence when they can’t even write one,'” cackles Chase. “So she transferred me to the math department.”
His tenure ended after six years in the district, bringing a conclusion to his niche in the educational community. With two experiences from districts in which his role was not welcomed, Chase gained perspectives on education that he has bestowed on his children.
Harper-Verdies, having recently left her position as a professor of behavior science at California State University, San Bernardino, returns with feelings of angst toward the educational system that mirror those of her father. “I didn’t find it to be very student centered. I don’t think students always got what they needed,” she says. “I think it’s the same frustration that’s been there for a hundred years.” A change in venue proved just as beneficial for Harper-Verdies as it did for her father when she decided to focus on the development of the store and not the Baldwin Park curriculum.
As the collection of artifacts and music makers grew, so did the popularity of the store and the need for more space. The craftsman moved the business to a nearby cottage and then to a clothing store. In 1970, the store had grown so much that it required yet another location. Dorothy and Charles made the final move on April 5 to 220 Yale Ave. The cost was $28,000 for the building; the Folk Music Center has remained there for the last 31 years.
As Chase concludes his story, his grandson Joel Harper helps a small child play a leather drum near the front of the establishment. Like his mother Ellen, Harper grew up in the store along with his two brothers Peter and Ben. “The Folk Music Center is definitely the cornerstone of our family. Growing up with a single mother, [to us,] the store was our foundation. It was definitely our second home after school,” says Harper. Their father, Leonard Harper, a University of La Verne alumnus, was later employed as minority student counselor, student employment adviser and student center coordinator at ULV in the early 1980s.
With their father passing away early in their lives, the brothers grew up amidst instruments and musicians instead of the basketball court or playground. After the three graduated from Claremont High School, Joel later received a bachelor’s degree in organizational studies from Pitzer College in 1995. Peter pursued a career as a gifted sculptor and Ben made a lucrative career as a musician.
Whichever endeavor pursued, the brothers all made time to contribute to the Folk Music Center. For Joel, the store was a refuge. He remembers a characteristic that set him and his brothers apart from many of his friends-his interracial ethnicity. His experiences growing up in a predominately white community with a father who was African American, prompted the writing of his novel “Restless Spirit: The Eyes of a Child.” “There’s a poem in my book called ‘Claremont.’ It reads, ‘Claremont – it’s a blessing and a curse.’ Growing up, walking home by myself and not worrying about my life playing hide-and-go-seek until midnight in the streets, safe. A curse, when I’d look in the mirror at my curly hair and try to brush it straight like my friends. My mom would tell me, ‘Joel, your hair is beautiful. Do you know how many women would love to have hair like you,” remembers Joel Harper. Though he remembers the words providing minimal comfort at the time, he says that his upbringing in Claremont allowed for a life perspective that he would never forfeit.
Whether having the feel of a red carpet in a new environment or not, Chase and his family have learned to find sanctuary in their surroundings. “I think Claremont is good a town as any for a radical to grow up in. There are plenty of narrow-minded people here,” speculates Chase. He has watched the town evolve politically and socially through the front window of his store, yet remained unaltered in his critical views of the administration. His family has accustomed itself to a like viewpoint. His daughter values a father who always listened, learned and spoke freely. “[The store] has always been a little left of center politically and socially,” says his daughter. “I think that’s made a huge impact on all of us. But my father always spent just as much time speaking to his Republican neighbors [as anyone else]. He always felt like he could learn something from everybody. I think that’s something I’ve inherited as well. Even if you think you’re right, you always have to be open to different ideas. Once you stop listening, you stagnate.”
As the buzz of a dozen instruments fill the store until its closing, the influences and politics of a surrounding society swirl around the structure without penetrating its doors or walls. A family of artists continue a life of learning and expression through the appreciation of music and the understanding of an elder perspective.