Sound man, impresario and owner of Takoma Park's venerable House of Musical Traditions, David Eisner is hunched over his portable soundboard in the upper meeting room of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Silver Spring. Like most Monday nights, it's time for a folk music concert, courtesy of the Institute of Musical Traditions, a nonprofit offshoot of Mr. Eisner's store, itself for many years a mainstay of Washington's acoustic music community.
Home Brew, a Takoma Park acoustic band opening for featured folk balladeer Sally Rogers, is tuning up onstage, and the mix is not quite right. Fiddler Liberty Rucker, a former employee of Mr. Eisner's, can't hear the rest of the band on the monitors.
"How's that?" Mr. Eisner asks.
The musicians play a few bars.
"That's fine," Miss Rucker says. "I can hear it now."
The female band launches into a few more riffs, and with a little back and forth banter, the final settings are determined. The band breaks to await the audience's arrival, and Mr. Eisner leans back to relax - for a minute or two.
His intense face framed by a thick, black beard, the burly Mr. Eisner, 47, is looking a little weary this evening. In addition to operating the store, he has been sponsoring this venerable concert series for 15 years, and this season marks a turning point. No longer able to supply the $10,000 to $15,000 a year that the series needs to keep going, he's looking to make the concerts more self-supporting, and that's a tough order in today's lean times.
"We'll need to raise at least that much, probably more, and increase our audience size, or we'll have to close our doors," he says.
With arts funding cut back on the federal and local levels, there are more arts groups pursuing leaner companies with less of a desire to give than ever before. And support is particularly critical for IMT and devotees of acoustic music. Along with Alexandria's landmark Birchmere and the lesser-known Folk Club of Reston-Herndon, the smoke-free IMT is one of few places around that features a mix of top international Celtic and folk artists in an acoustically excellent hall where serious listening, rather than serious drinking, is the order of the day.
Over the years, the series has featured many of the acoustic "greats" in their earlier days - among them Mary Chapin Carpenter, who has agreed to be an honorary board member of IMT, according to Busy Graham, current director of the institute.
While many of these artists got their start elsewhere, the IMT series helped gain them valuable early recognition. "I'm approaching a number of other big names who've played here in the past because their support can attract interest from the corporate community," Mrs. Graham says.
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The House of Musical Traditions actually got its start in Greenwich Village in 1967. First housed in a loft above the St. Mark's Theater, the shop catered to traditional and acoustic musicians and specialized in building lap dulcimers. At about the same time, Mr. Eisner was majoring in psychology at the University of Maryland, moving on to establish Maggie's Farm, an alternative boutique in Takoma Park.
"I liked to call it `a unique craftsperson's place,' he says, "but some might have called it a head shop."
A fan of acoustic music and already familiar with the House of Musical Traditions, the entrepreneurial Mr. Eisner learned that the owners were interested in selling and decamping to California. So he purchased the store's inventory and name and reopened it in Takoma Park at the site of the former Maggie's Farm, eventually moving the store to its current location at 7040 Carroll Ave.
Right at home in funky, downtown Takoma Park, the shop prospered. Selling traditional, often handmade instruments to a sophisticated and demanding clientele specializing in folk, bluegrass and Celtic music, the store expanded to include sheet music, books and recordings by well-known and local artists. …