In Person at Intermountain
By Bill Graham - Special for the Mandolin Cafe
February 7, 2008 - 9:00 pm
Bill Graham is a freelance outdoor writer, photographer, bluegrass musician and singer-songwriter.
Leo Coulson reached into a glass case and pulled out a Gibson 1904 three-point F2 mandolin with carved back and pearl fingerboard inlays as intricate as ice crystals on a winter window pane.
So old fashioned they seemed, Leo and the mandolin, and all the old wooden instruments and overflowing parts bins at the Intermountain Guitar and Banjo shop in Salt Lake City.
But nothing escapes this world's new currents for long.
Musty smelling instruments beloved by acoustic musicians and the people who peddle them are swept up in the Internet, now.
"It's made it wonderful," Leo said. "I don't have to talk to people coming through the door. Now we're selling stuff all over the country and all over the world."
My presence in his shop on a snowy Friday afternoon was proof.
I knew about Intermountain's existence because, like thousands of other gals and guys, I wile away time reading online chatter about music and instruments. Or, there's always the savored lust of gazing at photos of mandolins and guitars beyond my financial means.
"I've got a 1945 D-18 coming in this week from Intermountain," someone might write on a guitar forum. "I'm wondering what kind of strings might make it bark best."
I don't care what kind of strings he puts on it. But talk like that gets my curiosity up about what kind of vintage stash he's found. So I do a Google search and, well, most of you know the rest.
Now when I see the word Intermountain, images of open back banjos and slothead guitars run through my mind.
I told Leo his store is internationally famous among those addicted to escaping responsibilities by coast-to-coast online instrument discussions.
"That's flattering," he said. "But I thought I was one of the last of the small-time operators."
Well, he's not quite that innocent.
I was in Salt Lake City recently on writing business and part of it took place at a trade show downtown. I left a wee bit early because I had asked directions to Intermountain and was told it was six blocks away.
It was nine blocks, long Utah blocks that made it a two-mile or so walk on an ever-increasing uphill grade.
Leo was shoveling snow out front and had just ducked back inside and locked the door when I came puffing up.
In the new scheme of things, his shop is open to visitors only by appointment during the week. Browsers are allowed inside only on Saturday.
"I've got a ton of guys to send pictures to and respond to emails," Leo said. "That's why the door is locked."
But, luckily one of my best buddies searched the net for a very early 1900s Fairbanks, pre-fire, Whyte Ladyie banjo. He found one at Intermountain, so I had an honest reason besides gawking to make an appointment.
I was making some awful noise on the banjo, an instrument I don't play, when violin and mandolin maker Bevan Wulfenstein of Provo, Utah, began knocking on the front door. He was looking for old Gibson mandolins.
"Come in for a few minutes and look around," Leo told him.
Soon we were examining the carved back on the 1904 F2 and drooling over a minty 1917 F4, just like the old days when musicians visited shops in person to buy stuff.
Bevan builds and sells intricately inlaid Norwegian violins with drone strings, the hardanger style, so he knows a thing or two about handiwork.
But he wasn't buying on this day and Leo quickly vanished back into another room with his computer, while I tried out a Martin guitar. I'd talked Bevan into giving me a ride back downtown, so he waited.
"All right you guys, I've got to get some work done, you've got to clear out of here," Leo said after my 28th noodle riff.
When you're in an old building with mandolins, open-back banjos, harp guitars and cowboy guitars lining the walls floor to ceiling, it's tough to leave.
But I don't blame Leo.
He's been repairing antique banjos and playing in old-time string bands since the early '60s. The Intermountain shop is decades old.
Tire kickers try his patience. And vintage instruments are a magnet for the curious who have no intention of being paying customers.
Vintage is his main love and almost the only thing he and business partner Kennard Machol deal in.
"I like the old stuff and the good stuff," Leo said. "I don't want to waste my time selling things that don't interest me."
Also, the money the last 20 years has been in the old stuff, he said, not in strings and picks and beginners seeking music lessons.
I like Leo and Intermountain, very much.
It's a refreshing approach and an honest store. Check them out at www.guitarandbanjo.com.
Yeah, I'm still a sucker for a shop that will let me play a wall full of stuff just because I enjoy different tones, and I like to see how the old ones were made or how the new ones are evolving.
I like to get my hands on the good stuff, too. (Leo, I really wish I could have played your partner's F4).
But at least there's an island with buried treasure preserved by the same stubborn individuality that spurs so much of our music.
As long as the cyber cents keeping paying the bills.