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From THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT, April 26, 1995
Copyright (c) 1995, Landmark Communications, Inc.

Another Lost Chord As Ramblin' Conrad's Closes

Folk Music Store Falls Silent, Victim To Money

By Dave Addis

Ramblin' Conrad's, an idiosyncratic little shop in Ghent that served as a folk music mecca for 23 years, will ramble into obscurity by the end of this week, a victim of mega-marketing trends that make it too difficult for a small merchant to compete.

Bob Zentz, the musician who started the shop in the folk-music boom of the early '70s, was overseeing its deconstruction Monday. The displays of 12-string guitars, dobros and the odd bagpipe or zither were thinning on the walls, and packing boxes were beginning to clog the small performance area at the back of the store.

They'll be open intermittently for the next few days, Zentz said, but it is likely to be all over by the weekend.

``Yeah, we've been something of an institution,'' Zentz said with a sardonic chuckle, ``but I'm getting out before they put me in an institution.''

It was a good line, and he used it repeatedly to offset the expressions of shock from longtime customers who wandered in, or phoned, only to learn that Ramblin' Conrad's was going south.

``Basically,'' he said, ``it's an economic situation: It's really difficult for little stores to tap into, to challenge these all-purpose music stores that have it all.

``It was easier in the beginning, when we first opened. It was a different time, I guess.''

The store was named for the late William Conrad Buhler, a hard-drinking guitar troubador Zentz first met on a rainy night some 30 years ago on Hampton Boulevard. When Zentz returned to the city from a stint in the Army, he learned that Conrad had died, alone and broke, at a veteran's hospital. He bought Conrad's guitar for $3 at an auction of the vets' belongings, and it hung on a wall in the store ever after. That space on the wall is empty now.

``Conrad's guitar? It's in my living room now,'' Zentz said.

Zentz plays some 20 instruments - ``mostly due to this place,'' he said. ``If things got slow I'd pull something off the wall and figure out how it worked.''

He plans to go back to playing music instead of selling it.

``That's why I got into all this to begin with. But, y'know, business and art can tug at each other sometimes, and I'm getting out before my art gets tugged too far.''

Maybe his art has been tugged, but Zentz admits that taking the store apart tugs at his heart, too. The 21st Street shop is the third location for Ramblin' Conrad's. It started as a hole-in-the-wall across from Old Dominion University, moved to more modern quarters near Military Circle Mall, then returned to Ghent a few years ago.

``My best memories? Gosh, there are so many. I guess it would be the parties after the ODU folk festivals, we'd all come back across the street and sing all night long. Those were wonderful sessions, sitting there with someone like Tom Paxton or John Hartford, playing music and learning. There was great affirmation in that.

``The people who play this kind of music, they're all teachers in a way.''

Zentz plans to continue teaching, and presenting programs on folk music and its history. He and his wife, Kay, will continue their Sunday night folk-music show on WHRV-FM radio.

The only thing missing will be the little music store that was so funky that it was a stop on the Norfolk Tour. On occasion, busloads of senior citizens would offload out front, unannounced, and wander through the marvels that packed the walls and sheet-music bins. The last in-store concert - a staple for local talent and traveling professionals with an open date on their tour - was Saturday night.

Monday, as puzzled customers banged on the locked front door, as the phone rang incessantly, and as unsold consignments of instruments were being hustled out the back, Zentz took it all in relatively good humor. Twenty-three years in the folk-music business, and he had learned a thing or two. One lesson struck him as particularly telling.

``If I'd known back then what I know now,'' he said, ``I'd have set it up as a nonprofit organization, 'cause it certainly has turned out to be that.''

The tourists will have to stop elsewhere to soothe their achin' hearts.


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