The Great Divide: Where music matters
Walking into the Great Divide is like peering through layers of Aspen’s musical history.The store, owned by musician Sandy Munro, is tucked away in the brick building on the corner of Main and Monarch streets.Munro has lived the last 30 years in Aspen’s music scene. An accomplished mandolin, guitar, banjo and fiddle player and teacher, he has been in more local bluegrass bands than he can count. His shop is decorated with concert posters, photos of his past and present bands, and, of course, new and used instruments.And while the aging, funky building speaks of pre-Gucci Aspen, Munro has changed with the times. The Great Divide now sells high-end instruments and vintage instruments from a well-known collector, it offers music lessons and, most recently, stocks a large compact disc selection.Twists of fateAs skiing enthusiasts, Munro and his wife, Mary Lynn, moved to Aspen in 1969 after a friend of theirs convinced them that if they were thinking of moving to Colorado – they had considered Denver – they might as well move to Aspen.
What happened next is the sort thing that could only be beneficial in a town like Aspen: A real estate agent who promised to build the Munros a home disappeared with their down payment.After some prodding by friends, the Munros decided to build their own home, finishing it in five years for $22,000. Living in the stone house in Brush Creek village, which Munro refers to as “artsy-fartsy-looking,” meant never having to pay a mortgage. Thus, Munro could afford to buy the Great Divide and keep it running.Rick Barlow opened the Great Divide on Hyman Avenue in 1970 and owned it until 1977, occasionally employing Munro. Munro’s steady job was teaching at Aspen High School. When Barlow offered to sell Munro the shop for $10,000, he jumped at the offer.”As soon as I bought the store I moved it over here,” Munro said of the store’s current location. He quickly discovered – as had the building’s other tenants – that the Moore family, his landlords, had a philosophy of keeping the space affordable for “local working folks’ shops.””The first thing we did differently [from Barlow’s Great Divide] was make it a full-on guitar shop with electric guitars, amplifiers, acoustic guitars and also became dealers for quality instruments,” he said. “We got upscale dealerships we had never gotten before like Martin Guitars, Collings Guitars – it took me 10 years before Martin would agree to make me a Martin dealer.”At the time, Aspen’s nightlife was cranking with live-music venues and local bands, who all bought their electronic equipment at the Great Divide. Business was so good, in fact, that Munro expanded the shop in the early ’90s. He even created a recording studio, complete with soundproof room and mixing boards, on the north side of the building. Local singer/songwriters like Dan Sheridan and the band Treehouse cut their albums there.”Sandy sold something to every musician in this town, and usually at a pretty darn good price,” said Dan Sadowsky, a longtime Aspen resident and supporter of the local music scene. “He was able to do that probably partly because of the lawyers and doctors who come through town and buy Martin Guitars from him when they’re not hanging out with their wives.”
Just a few years ago, Jamie Rosenberg, a recording engineer who was working at the store, moved the recording studio into his home. But it didn’t exactly leave Munro with an empty store. It just changed his bent. A man named Michael Jones had moved to town. Jones, who made money years ago in the stock market, was a well-known collector of vintage instruments. It wasn’t long before Munro and Jones became good friends.”Of all the people in the United States who could have moved to Aspen, for me he’s the best guy,” Monro said with a laugh. “Plus, he’s very philosophically oriented, he likes to read good books, he’s a politico like I am. We’re great friends and he’s very generous. He’s community-spirited.”The pair made a gentlemen’s agreement whereby Jones would bring his latest acquisition to the Great Divide, and if Munro could sell the instrument to a local or visiting collector, Munro got a percentage of the proceeds. Every now and then, though, Jones picks up his entire collection from the shop, takes it to guitar shows and sells it to dealers.But he always comes back with a new (almost) priceless acquisition. And since the Great Divide doesn’t exactly have a retirement plan, as Munro puts it, the shop owner occasionally buys an instrument from his friend.
“First of all, they’re great investments,” Munro said. “All the standard collectible type of instruments are increasing at a rate of between 10 and 30 percent in value every year. This year’s retail is next year’s wholesale.”The agreement between Munro and Jones recently became formal. Munro now represents Michael Jones Vintage Guitars as Jones has no storefront. The Great Divide’s website features a complete list of the guitars in Munro’s shop, including Jones’ vintage collection – from banjos from the 1920s to guitars from the ’30s and ’40s.The shop also employs Kory Krahl as a full-time instrument-repair technician, and Munro keeps himself busy playing with the Flying Dog Bluegrass Band in the summers and teaching bluegrass classes at Colorado Mountain College.”My biggest joy is seeing people discover that they want to be musicians for life,” he said.Sadowsky said Munro’s lessons have churned out many an accomplished musician, including some who are playing professionally in Nashville.”Sandy has been an active musician, playing in a band since he moved here, which means he can talk the musician musician’s talk – he’s like a clearinghouse for all of the musician jokes,” Sadowsky said. “I always have to check what’s on his wall, because there are so many good vintage instruments anymore.”
An unexpected moneymakerMunro has seen music stores in Aspen come and go, victims of a small-town market and high rents. Most recently, Aspen’s branch of Sam Goody went out of business in 2003 after 10 years in town; Zélé Music Cafe, in the same location, closed after just more than a year in business.Munro began expanding the Great Divide’s CD collection when Sam Goody closed. It is a strategy that has paid off.The shop now has about 3,000 CDs of all musical genres, except for electronica or trance, Munro said. The store beefs up its classical collection in the summertime, when the Aspen Music Festival and School is in full swing, and does a brisk business selling pop, bluegrass, country and even some hip-hop music the rest of the time. Thanks to a good distributor, if the Great Divide doesn’t have what the customer wants, they can order it to be delivered the next day.Paul Buechler handles this task. Buechler first worked for Sam Goody, and then Zélé Music Cafe. When Zélé went out of business, Munro asked Buechler if he’d come to the store to order CDs. Buechler also teaches classes at the Great Divide in jazz, classical and rock guitar.Buechler said the shop probably sells around $500 to $600 worth of CDs every day. To promote the Great Divide as a place to buy CDs, Munro has created a “music club” that offers a buy-10, get-one-free discount. So far, the club has 700 members.”All of a sudden, the CD thing is a major component of this music store,” Munro said. “It’s made the store a whole lot busier and active.”This article was originally published in the Aspen Times Weekly on March 27, 2005. Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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