Appalachian Bluegrass Shoppe's popularity stretches far beyond Catonsville

A package was recently delivered to the Appalachian Bluegrass Shoppe in Catonsville containing only a guitar. The fact that a guitar arrived at the store is not unusual as people often send instruments to the retail acoustic music store on Frederick Road for repair work, but this one came from New Jersey with no instructions on what the owner wanted.

That left Emory and Charlene Knode, the husband and wife who run the shop, with a bit of a mystery to solve.

They eventually decided to contact the company that manufactured the guitar and find the original owner to see if it still belonged to him or her—they viewed it as their only option. That move paid off, as the owner of the guitar in New Jersey figured out that the company shipping the instrument forgot to insert into the package the list of needed repairs.

Problem solved.

“That’s what we’ve [always] done,” Charlene Knode said. “The extra step on everything, all the time.”

Maybe that’s why the company has remained a fixture at the corner of Frederick Road and Ingleside Avenue for so long. Emory’s father opened the Nelson Knode Music Center in 1960. Then, in 1980, the son changed the name of the store to the Appalachian Bluegrass Shoppe and shifted the focus to acoustic music.

The move paid off.

“The bluegrass community is what I was targeting because they were the ones playing guitars,” Emory Knode said. “Then, the unplugged fad happened in the mid-’80s. People wanted guitars, and acoustic music became really cool.”

The store sells guitars, ukuleles, mandolins, banjos, upright basses and much more. It also offers lessons and services the instruments, and the clientele just keeps returning.

“It’s still a family business,” Knode said. “We’ve always done an honest job [and run] a straightforward business.”

Emory and Charlene Knode said the store routinely attracts customers from throughout the mid-Atlantic region. Musicians will drive a few hours to take care of their needs. In addition, the store fixes instruments regardless of where they were purchased.

The first time Josh Ungar came to the store, he drove about an hour and 40 minutes from Virginia. He loved how he was treated, and now that he lives in Columbia, his drive is a lot easier.

Ungar has a full-time job at Social Security but plays in three bluegrass bands. He has bought basses and fiddles from the store, and Emory Knode has worked on his various instruments while earning Ungar’s trust over the past decade.

“It’s hard to find someone that’s this good,” Ungar said. “It’s tough to find someone who’s as honest with you and as reasonable. I’m so happy to spend my money at that shop.”

Many of their customers appear to have similar feelings. Charlene Knode said the staff knows probably 80-90 percent of their customers by sight and first name.

“They’ve been coming in since Emory’s dad owned the store; now [we] have third-generation customers that are bringing in babies,” she said. “We have a large, loyal customer [base]. We have many people who were coming in here in the ’60s and are still coming in.”

Part of that loyalty might stem from the fact that the Knodes love bluegrass music themselves. Charlene said they listen to it “seven days a week.” While Charlene doesn’t play an instrument, Emory plays a bit of guitar and trumpet; the late Louis Armstrong is one of his favorite musicians.

Alex Cox has been finding his way to the store for about 40 years. A retired geologist who lives in Pasadena, Cox first went to the Appalachian Bluegrass Shoppe in 1978 looking for a certain type of guitar.

He now owns about 30 guitars, still plays around town at times and stops in every few weeks to look around. Or, Cox said, store staff will simply call him if they obtain something they know he’d like.

But they also helped in a bad situation a few years back. A pipe burst in the room where Cox kept his musical equipment and damaged everything. To make matters worse, the ceiling fell, creating more problems.

The Knodes helped Cox repair the instruments and find new cases. In the end, everything eventually was fixed or replaced.

“They’ve been very good to me,” Cox said. “They’re almost like family. If I need anything, they’ll order it for me. They’re my one-stop shopping place.”

The Appalachian Bluegrass Shoppe, in fact, has a reputation outside the region. Paul Schiminger, executive director of the Nashville, Tenn.-based International Bluegrass Music Association and a Baltimore native, said in an email that Emory is a “great guy who has worked exceptionally hard over the decades to provide musicians personal service and a wide range of high-quality instruments and materials.”

As for the popularity of bluegrass, Schiminger says the most recent Simmons Research survey from a few years ago showed that 18 million people in the U.S. self-identified that bluegrass was their primary music or they had purchased bluegrass music in the previous 12 months. Also, he said, attendance at the recent International Bluegrass Music Association “World of Bluegrass Week” in Raleigh, N.C., drew 223,000 people, up from 140,000 in 2013.

“During that week we typically have people attending from 12 to 15 different countries and most of the states,” Schiminger said. “While bluegrass originated largely in the southeastern U.S. over 70 years ago, there are festivals and bands now located all over the world.”

Steve Bocian, who lives in Towson, is retired after a long career working for state government. Two guitar stores sit within about 2 miles of his house, but the Catonsville shop is his preferred — and has been for about 30 years.

Bocian used to play rock-and-roll music but now is into contra dance, a type of folk dancing, and said he has bought a number of instruments from the store. They also have taken care of a lot of repair work for him, and Bocian said he just likes the atmosphere of the store with its 2,500-square-foot showroom plus two floors upstairs for repairs and storage.

“I have never seen them pressure anybody,” Bocian said. “They answer your questions; they don’t rush. It’s always a real relaxed environment.”

That’s what Knode and those at the Appalachian Bluegrass Shoppe want. Even more than their products, their service seems to resonate with customers.

“[Customers] know what to expect, and we know what we provide and how to go about that and what it takes to provide a good experience,” said Tyler Wheeler, who has been with the store for six and a half years, working mostly in sales. “It’s very relaxed and personal, and people like that.”

Emory and Charlene Knode, both 60 years old and Catonsville residents, still enjoy coming to work each day. When his father was running the business, Emory began helping out at age 14, handling tasks like cleaning and stringing guitars, running errands or whatever else was needed.

Charlene said they often wind up working on predicaments such as figuring out the owner of that mystery guitar from New Jersey. They’re simply trying to do what their customers need, which is what this store has done since 1960.

“We sleuth things all the time,” she said with a smile. “We make decisions like, ‘If I was the customer, would that make me angry or happy?’ We’ve had to morph and twist how we deal with things. We always try to help the customers.”

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