In a nearly hidden sliver in a row of restaurants and shops lies the hidden jewel of Knoxville's music scene.
The Parlor, an eclectic music store on Gay Street, possesses a flair for the interesting, rare and antique.
Specializing in vintage instruments, patrons can find anything from a 1920s banjo to 1960 Gibson electric guitar. This attention to hand-selected, interesting and often rare instruments helped establish The Parlor not just in Knoxville, but throughout the world.
"We ship all over the world on a regular basis; the stuff we carry is not easy to find," Josh Sidman, owner of The Parlor, said. "Our product is not easy to find, and we can't reorder new stuff. The search is a big part."
Sidman buys the store's vintage instruments himself often through eBay and Craigslist. People also walk into The Parlor to sell. While he has experience with vintage instruments, Sidman admits it's been a learning process in buying instruments outside of his own favorites: the mandolin and bass. However, he admitted he sees his knowledge of mandolin as a strong appeal of the store.
"In the beginning, I focused on mandolins because that's what I knew well, and there's definitely a niche market there," Sidman said. "I thought that was a way to establish a position for this shop that would appeal not just in the local area but all over since there's only about five shops that have a really good mandolin selection. And it's worked."
The idea of The Parlor formed five years ago with a slightly unusual idea: to combine a café with a music shop. However, after obtaining a space in north Knoxville and beginning the process of putting the idea together, the city shut the operation down.
It was then that Sidman heard of an opportunity with the Knoxville Visitors Center. With WUOT's Blue Plate Special every day, they were also looking to introduce a café for the concert series. After putting their name in, The Parlor was selected for this opportunity.
"We did that for about a year and a half," Sidman said. "The Blue Plate Special is in that space, and given the focus on food and music, it was an ideal spot to establish an identity in Knoxville."
However, space difficulties prompted Sidman to give up the job. At the visitors center, there is no kitchen, which resulted in The Parlor leasing another space, preparing the food there and transporting it to the center. After leaving, Sidman learned of another opportunity.
Shortly after giving up the Knoxville Visitors Center, the shop that was originally Morelock music became available.
"Matt Morelock had started that shop at similar time when we were starting ours," Sidman said. "But, he moved halfway around the world to Hawaii and found that running a store from that far away made business not really work. Then, we started discussing the idea of The Parlor. We obtained that space in December 2012 and have been rebranding from Morelock since."
Beyond traditional music store offerings, The Parlor also sells a selection of vintage clothing and collectables. With items such as vintage cowboy boots, jackets, leather vests, dresses, hats, flasks and lighters, this section was revived during the switchover from Morelock Music.
"That was actually a part of what Morelock did, but by the time I took the place over, that had more or less stopped going on, but a lot people I talked to mentioned missing that aspect of the store," Sidman said. "I thought it would fit in well with what we do. It fit in nicely with the overall vibe while helping appeal to general traffic. With our location on Gay Street, we get a lot of walk-ins, so that aspect has helped."
In addition to being a music store, lessons are also available. Five instructors share three studio rooms where they each teach anywhere from two to 20 students a week on various string and percussive instruments and voice.The Parlor also does more than just sell music. Every Monday night at 7 p.m. right next door at Suttree's High Gravity Tavern, The Parlor hosts free jam sessions where Sidman plays with whoever is willing to join. Afterwards, a guest musician also plays for free at 9 p.m. This Monday will present the Drowsy Cowpokes who play old-time, folk music with a fiddle and guitar.
Lately, Sidman has noticed a growth in UT students who have joined the weekly jams and has even invited some of their bands to perform."A couple students play this type of music and started showing up," Sidman said. "I've only known them for a few months through this, but I think they've started bringing their friends. There's a community of players here with acoustic roots. Some of them have bands, and I've even had some of them play. There's a home for it here."
Sidman sees The Parlor's vintage fare in both musical and non-musical aspects as helpful in establishing the shop's spot in the Knoxville community. Coming from New York and having lived in larger cities, Sidman said he believes Knoxville's music scene appreciates The Parlor in a way that fits it in with the community.
"For two reasons this business very much belongs here," Sidman said. "First, the music scene here is second to none. ... I think our music scene is bigger, deeper, (and) richer than larger cities. Everyone goes to New York thinking it's this great creative hub, and I found life too harsh. ... Knoxville has a world-class music scene, and I knew The Parlor would thrive here.
"Second, the community is very oriented toward vintage and reusing, recycling stuff of all kinds. With a cool vintage article of clothing, you'll never show up to a party and be embarrassed, unlike a party because someone else is wearing the same thing. But, if you buy a $200 Giorgio Armani shirt, then you will, and that's what happens in New York City.
"There's something very cool about vintage," Sidman added. "A piece becomes unique as it gets older and gets rarer. I think that's something in this community that people really like."