New owner of acoustic hub plans to keep pulling Denver’s heartstrings

Ian Dehmel sees the future of folk music every time someone walks through his door and gazes up at the wall of acoustic instruments that includes shiny new guitars but also a 120-year-old ukulele.

“We’ve sold guitars to people in Norway, mandolins to Italy and banjos in Japan — where the bluegrass scene is huge,” said Dehmel, 38, owner of the Denver Folklore Center at 1893 S. Pearl St.. “But in terms of relevance, I find that there are still people of all ages coming into the actual store. I just had a 6-year-old in here buying her next-step mandolin.”

Dehmel competed his $500,000 purchase of the Denver Folklore Center in May from co-owners Claude Brachfeld and Saul Rosenthal. Prior to that, Brachfeld and Rosenthal — both longtime customers — had bought the acoustic-instrument store and custom repair shop from founder Harry Tuft, who welcomed legends such as Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie and Bill Monroe to his folk-music hub in the mid-to-late 20th century.

It’s significant that the Denver Folklore Center has only changed hands twice in its 62-year history, and that both of those sales have occurred in the last 7 years (Brachfeld and Rosenthal bought it in 2016). That’s not a sign of its instability, but rather the loyalty of the store’s customers and employees as the generational wheels continue to spin. Dehmel, who formerly worked in the Denver Office of Economic Development, decided to leave the public-finance world for Denver Folklore Center one week before the COVID pandemic was declared in March 2020.

“I took a massive pay cut to come and sell guitars, and it was the best possible choice,” said Dehmel, who grew up on the Western Slope and managed a music shop in Grand Junction. “But I only got one week of training before we shut down for about 3 months. Even when we reopened, we could only have three people in the store and had to keep the doors locked at all times.”

Despite its celebrated history, there was no guarantee Denver Folklore Center would survive the pandemic-prompted retail apocalypse, in which online sales accelerated and brick-and-mortar sellers despaired over non-existent revenue. It would have been a tragedy, Denver musicians said at the time, given that Tuft also founded the Swallow Hill Music Association in 1979; losing half of his legacy would have been a blow to the supportive musical community he fostered over decades.

Fortunately Dehmel retains the institutional knowledge and culture that the store has become known for, whether that’s talking about the African roots of the banjo or the new guard of folk players, such as 16-year-old, Brooklyn-based picker Nora Brown — Dehmel’s favorite banjo player at the moment. He records instrument demos with local musicians and posts them to social media. And he’s in close touch with Swallow Hill, which teaches, books shows and otherwise keeps the working-musician flame alive.

While Dehmel said he’s feeling overwhelmed these first few weeks of ownership, he hopes to bolster the store’s nonprofit partnerships and community-outreach programs. To start, at least.

“There are things I’d like to do differently and things I’ll never change,” he said. “Like our repairman John Rumley, who plays in Slim Cessna’s Auto Club and has been with us for almost 30 years. He’s a big reason people come to the Folklore Center, and I can’t imagine doing this job without him.”

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