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Generations of music

Foggy Mountain owner ready to sell business her mom helped start


Andrew Wedgbury

Nevada City Advocate 

For over 40 years, musicians of all ages and abilities have relied on Foggy Mountain Music in Grass Valley for a variety of instruments, supplies and lessons. Housed in a building built in 1867, the store is jam-packed with everything from guitars and drums to violas and electronics. Lessons are available in an assortment of instruments, including harp, and repairs can be had on amps, speakers, woodwinds, guitars and all manner of stringed instruments. 

But now, after four decades of serving the musical community, owner Mary Ellen Sorci has decided to retire and put the business up for sale.

“After 44 years of owning Foggy Mountain Music and being the sole proprietor, I really should probably think about getting off my feet, be able to sleep in in the morning, and not have to call the shop every day I’m not here,” she said. 

Presently there is no time frame for the sale because finding the right buyer is important to Sorci. “You have to find the right person, because I want it to be a success. I want it to continue.”

Foggy Mountain opened in 1974 with the help of Mary Ellen’s mother, Marilyn Doty-Sorci, who bought the building and worked in the store for many years. Doty-Sorci was a renowned violin player and child prodigy from San Francisco, who made her debut at age five at the San Francisco Opera House, and eventually played before President Franklin Roosevelt.

“She was a hard-working musician herself, and played all over the world,” said Mary Ellen. 

Nevada County residents remember Marilyn Doty from her many years of playing locally, whether jamming with others in an assortment of styles or playing with Celtic harpist Lisa Stine in a violin-harp duo. Mary Ellen’s father was also a musician and played with Tommy Dorsey, amongst others.

The 19th-century building that the store inhabits has gone through many changes and modernizations but retains the historical feel of old Grass Valley. In fact, the roof of the building still has an 1800s fire-prevention design. 

“You have the roof rafters, then you have bricks on top of that, and then there’s dirt on top of that, because of the fire problem back in the 1800s. If there was a fire, the fire would burn the rafters, and the brick and dirt would fall and put the fire out. And it’s still up there,” Mary Ellen said. 

Over the years the music business hasn’t really changed, but the gear has, Sorci said. For example, digital equipment has taken over analog and requires different support.

“It’s not like getting a guitar and amp and just plugging it in. You have to have digital interfacing, which leads to other gear. We don’t get into software that much because you can download that on the internet, and it changes so quickly. But we do sell all the hardware.”

As far as the internet is concerned, it has influenced independent music stores, and Foggy Mountain has taken the competition in stride with matching pricing. But more importantly, the store continues to offer the hands-on experience that internet suppliers of instruments cannot.

“If it’s raining or snowing outside, it’s a lot easier to sit there and just click to order some strings or something like that,” she said. “But when it comes down to buying a musical instrument, whether it’s a guitar or drum or fiddle, you want to play it. It’s really important that somebody gets something that fits them,” she said.

People visit and support the store because they know they will get answers to their questions and be shown an assortment of options, she noted. “After being in the music business for so long and being founded with my family and musical instruments, I have a pretty good scope on what I think it’s like for each individual.” 

Mary Ellen debated her retirement for quite a while, discussing it with just friends and employees, before the time had come. Managing inventory, employees, customers and all the hundreds of details that come up had taken a toll on her.

“I’m past retirement age, and I kept finding my feet hurt and I just don’t have the youth and vitality I once had,” she said. “But you know, I have good employees, and I would probably stick around if somebody wanted me to work part time, maybe for another year, to make a smooth transition.”

She emphasized that she still loves what she does at the store, it is one of her passions, and enjoys interacting with generations of musicians that have come to Foggy Mountain. 

“The best part of this job is talking to the musicians that come passing through here. We get all the people from the Center of the Arts, all the famous and non-famous, and they’re all really fun to talk to. And they all have a story to tell you. We get people from all over the world. It’s really a great place to work, and I’m really fortunate I have that.”

Following a tradition that started 40 years ago, Foggy threw a parking lot party Sunday, June 3, to celebrate Mary Ellen’s dad’s birthday who was also a fine musician. “We’ve done 40 of them,” she said with a laugh. “Forty parties in 40 years!” 

On an already hot day it was a rockin’ affair with Student Driver, the Dave Roscon Band, and special guests sitting in. Besides hotdogs, soda, and ice cream, there was a raffle of a ukulele and a Fender acoustic, as well as many other fun musical items for players of all ages. A good time was had by all, and after 44 years there surely were many stories being told behind the old building on West Main Street.

About the photo:   

Foggy Mountain Music owner Mary Ellen Sorci stands with Jona Richardson, the winner of a new Fender acoustic guitar at the store’s parking lot party on Sunday, June 3.

Photo by Andrew Wedgbury