From the Winter 2014 issue of Ukulele | BY GREG OLWELL | PHOTOS BY BILL MAHON
A strip mall about 20 miles northeast of Sacramento, California, may seem like the unlikely epicenter of the Golden State’s ukulele scene, but thanks to owners Stu Herreid and Dan Elliot, the Strum Shop in Roseville has become just that.
[Editor’s note: The Strum Shop moved to a new location in Roseville in July 2016. Stu Herreid, co-founder of The Strum Shop, died September 9, 2016.]
The animated and amiable Herreid barely takes a moment to inhale as he recounts how he and Elliott built up their shop. Sitting inside the store’s compact office—which is lined with more cigar-box, vintage, and banjo-ukuleles than anyone could call reasonable—he tells how they amassed a huge selection of ukuleles and started a burgeoning uke club, as well as a nonprofit wing that works to get kids playing the instrument in schools. The Strum Shop has also become an essential performance stop for touring ukulele players like Herb Ohta Jr, Kimo Hussey, Sarah Maisel, and Craig Chee.
“The premise of the store is community involvement first,” says Herreid, who, when not plucking away on his favorite banjo-uke, can be found teaching, running a workshop or club meeting, or booking acts for the store’s stage. The man’s life revolves around strumming four strings and serving a dedicated and expansive population hungry for music-making merriment. That wholesale uke identification all started thanks to the popularity of a local ukulele club.
While working as a banjo and mandolin teacher at another store—where Elliott worked on the retail side—Herreid noticed that the shop was selling several ukuleles a day, but had no one teaching the increasingly popular instrument. He quickly assigned himself the role and dove into learning the uke, a decision that would soon change the course of his life. His own interest in the ukulele was growing, as was the number of students signing up for lessons, and Herreid soon realized it was time to seek out other ways to meet the demand. “We started a once-a-month ukulele club,” he says.
“It began with six people, then it went to 13, 20, 40, and 60—pretty soon I had 80 people meeting once a month.”
Despite the community’s growing interest and sales, however, the store’s owner wasn’t turning his attention to the ukulele’s allure, so Herreid and Elliott hatched a plan to open their own uke-focused venture. Within months, they had a business plan and were looking for a space to house a diverse assortment of ukuleles and uke-centric products, which could serve as a meeting space for the Uke University and River City Uke clubs, and provide rooms for lessons, as well as a small performance stage.
While there’s some space at the Strum Shop for other stringed instruments—including guitars, mandolins and banjos—the ukulele reigns supreme. From the front of the 1,900-square-foot store to the back, the walls are lined with ukuleles of all shapes and sizes, from fanciful sub-$100 Kala Makala Ukadelics to dozens of midrange ukes to custom hand-built ukuleles from California luthiers, like Mike Pereira and Dave Iriguchi. Plus there’s several Tahitian ukuleles, the fun and loud cousin of the ukulele that’s heard on the theme song of the cult television show Arrested Development. Many of the items on display on the shop’s floor are on wheels so that they can be rolled out of the way for the store’s frequent club meetings and concerts.
Central to the store’s business philosophy is what Herreid calls the ukulele’s “aloha spirit,” which promotes unity and sharing among the uke community. The inclusive vibe really comes to light at the club meetings, where players help each other as often as the leader does.
“We’re going to do one thing at the club—play ukulele and unite our spirits,” Herreid says. “If you’ve having trouble at the ukulele club, the people on both sides of you will be like, ‘Here, let me show you how to do it.’ I love the spirit of it.”
The engagement and involvement that runs deep in the store’s bones also extends into the local community, thanks to an initiative that grew out of one of the store’s affiliated clubs, the River City Ukulele Orchestra. One of the group’s activities is to raise money for the nonprofit Ukes for Schools, a program that works with teachers, parents, and students to get ukuleles into the schools and to help sustain music programs that have withered in the face of recession-era budget cuts.
Ukes for Schools is more than just an effort to nurture new musicians, it’s become a way for some teachers—using the club as bait—to motivate their students to improve academically. “A teacher told the kids that if they wanted to be in the ukulele club the next year, each of them would have to raise their reading level by one full grade over the summer,” says a visibly proud Herreid. Of the kids in the club, “out of 32, 31 of them raised their reading level one grade. She told them ‘Playing ukulele is a privilege, you’ve got to work for this.’”
Demanding a commitment to the program is central to the success of Ukes for Schools. For each school, it either helps to raise money to purchase ukuleles, or it loans them out if the school has a supportive principal and a teacher with a passion for the instrument. “We don’t give them ukuleles, we loan them ukuleles,” says Herreid. “As long as they have an active program, we never want to see those ukuleles again. If the program stops, we want those ukuleles back so that we can loan them to somebody else.”
Herreid is also quick to point out that their program got a big leg up thanks to the generosity of Kala Brand Music, the company’s founder, Mike Upton, and its director of sales and marketing, Rick Carlson, who have donated hundreds of ukuleles to the program: “They gave us 50 ukes to get started. Then Rick called one day and said, ‘Could you use a pallet of ukes?’ I didn’t know what a pallet was, but I said sure.”
When the shipment arrived, it turned out to contain almost 250 ukes—some “maybe weren’t pristine for retail purposes, but were still perfectly fine for institutional purposes, like schools. That really got the program off the ground,” says Herreid.
Elliott, a 40-something, music-industry veteran, who keeps his eyes on the retail side of the shop, doesn’t see the “third wave” of ukulele popularity slowing down, especially given the number of people who have gotten hooked on playing in recent years.
“People keep thinking that the ukulele thing is just a passing fad, but it keeps get-ting bigger every year,” Elliot says, standing in front of a wall display containing every imaginable brand of ukulele strings. “It’s a very collectible instrument, and very few of our ukulele club members have just one instrument—most have two, three, four, or more. You have to get one with a low-G, a high-G, a soprano, a banjo-uke.
“I’m scrambling to keep instruments on the wall.”
The Strum Shop
209 Vernon St.
Roseville, CA 95678