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Dusty Strings Turns Forty!

May 16, 2019
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Dusty Strings booth at a street fair, with guitar and hammered dulcimer players

On January 1st, 2019, Dusty Strings officially reached 40 years in business! We’re pretty excited, and have wanted to share that excitement with all of you, but here we are at nearly 40 and a half years, and we’re just getting around to it. When you’re a small business with a million things going on every day and a to-do list longer than a harp string, where do you find the time to celebrate the important milestones?

Starting way back last summer, I (Dusty employee and daughter of owners Ray and Sue Mooers) began secretly contacting people who had been involved with Dusty Strings in some way over the past 40 years. I asked them to consider writing a few lines of congratulations to Ray and Sue, sharing a treasured memory, or attempting to convey what Dusty Strings has meant to them. I’m quite sure I didn’t reach even a quarter of the people who would have liked to contribute; spreading the word secretly was tricky, and Dusty Strings has touched a lot of lives! But the response from the people I did manage to reach was staggering.

As the notes, cards, letters, and photographs poured in, I set about compiling them into a scrapbook. I had vague ideas about organizing the book into sections by categorizing the contributors: Current & Former Dusties (here I mean employees, though we also use the word Dusties to refer to our instruments), Colleagues & Instrument Builders, Dusty Strings Dealers, Harp & Dulcimer Players, and Friends & Family. But as I wrestled with trying to sort the submissions into piles, I realized that the lines between family members and employees, friends and colleagues, dealers and players are delightfully blurry. What is clear is that everyone has a strong sense of belonging to the Dusty family.

So the book came together in random order, and was presented on New Year’s Eve to the unsuspecting recipients – privately, because I didn’t want to embarrass them with such an overwhelming display of appreciation in public. Sue and Ray prefer to give credit for the success of Dusty Strings to the countless dedicated employees, advisors, and customers who have helped us get to where we are. But I have been a witness to about three-quarters of my parents’ crazy adventure, and I can confirm that they have worked harder and cared more deeply than anyone else. Their vision is the reason why the words “integrity” and “camaraderie” appear in so many of these letters.

I tried to be up-front with all the contributors about the potentially public nature of this project, but even so, some of the letters feel a little too personal to publish, and a few of the more hilarious and treasured memories are better suited for those who know the backstory. Also, I’ve been told that blog posts should be short (hahaha!). Still, when you’ve contributed to something like this, it’s much more fun if you can see what other people contributed as well, so I’ve pulled out a smattering of excerpts to share with you.

If you don’t see yourself represented below, be assured that it’s entirely due to lack of space, not any reflection on your importance to Dusty Strings!

If we have invaded your comfort zone by publishing your words, please let us know and we will remove them.

If you didn’t get a chance to send something in before, but would like to now, feel free to send us an email or a letter, or post a comment below. We would still love to hear from you!

And finally, we received a few longer stories that we hope to post separately, so keep an eye out for those in the coming weeks.

All the best,
Christy Mooers

Note from Ray and Sue:

We received this book New Year’s Eve 2018 and were overwhelmed by what people had written, and by what Christy had secretly tackled. It took weeks to make our way through it. Each time we sat down to read, the words would swim in tears and laughter and memories, and we’d have to stop and let it sink in. Then start over. It’s a big book. And so many people. It makes it more believable that we’ve been doing this for 40 years!

The desire to write a heartfelt response to every single person and tell them how much it means to hear what their Dusty connection meant to them – is, again, overwhelming. But, as usual, we instead spend our time making more harps and dulcimers to send out into the world to do all the good that they do.

So, please know that we treasure your words, and we know that all this would not have happened without all of you.

Sue and Ray

The Excerpts

Dusty Strings' Finish Team

“Gee it seems like just yesterday that I was zipping up my spray suit and tightening my mask. Was it really more than ten years ago? Those years at Dusty are like gems that I hold deep in my heart. . . .

I remember the taste of the coffee . . . I usually stuck to one cup a day, which put me significantly behind the guys. I’m pretty sure that their mugs never really got washed, just refilled.

I remember morning huddles, where Rich was always prepared, Bret sipped his coffee, and Frank was antsy to get to work. . . .

I remember Rich’s grounding, unwavering optimism and patience. He was like the rock in the stream for all of us, ready with an answer or a hand or a kind word. When the fur was flying, Rich would be in the middle sanding away. I looked forward to his smile every morning, and let his confidence in me soak in. To this day, when I finish a job just right, I think of Rich and smile.

I remember Frank’s gluesicle, which when I left was about the size of a Labrador Retriever. In all of our gleaming new building, that gluesicle was our connection to the funk. . . .

I remember Bret keeping an eye on me in that subtle way he had. I’d look up from my assembly work to see him with his eyebrows raised, lips puckered up a little. That was my cue to wave him over, since he clearly saw something I hadn’t. Then came the quiet, gentle suggestion that I might want to glue the soundboard onto the front of the harp, or some such wisdom. When it looked great he’d nod. That nod was enough to make me grow an inch and walk around proud for the rest of the day. When I sanded through my one and only soundboard, Bret made a little magnet for me out of a remnant. That magnet still lives on my fridge, reminding me that mistakes happen and that the best people are the ones who still love you after. . . .

When my grandma was near death, I sat with her in the hospital. Late on her last evening, a woman came in to play the harp. The harp was a stave back Dusty. Holding my grandma’s hand I wept at the beauty of the music, and let it flow through me. It was not just the music that centered me, but the many hands and hearts that had worked towards making that harp. I felt all of you there in the room with me. I didn’t take the time to see whether my name was one of those on the inside… whether this was one of the harps that I had helped to shape. For me it was enough to know that it had come through the shop, and that it had found me there.

Being a part of the beautiful work at Dusty is one of the great honors of my life. The little jobs of gluing, sanding, carving and finishing felt so small, but the opportunity to bring craft and music into the world is beyond description. In this vast, spinning world, art and beauty are what keep us together. The way that Ray and Sue have made space for this, day in and day out and year after year, is deep soul work. I feel grateful beyond grateful that my life is woven in with this place, and will always have a place in my heart for every part of it.”

Emily Stephens (Peterson), former Dusty

Two people looking through harp strings, with a suction-cupo arrow stuck to the soundaboard

“In 1985, Ray brought one of his first 26-string harps down to Glendale to show me. I gave him a few pointers: the string spacing needs to be even; the lowest note must be a C, not a D, etc. A little while later he was back again with his revised model, and he had fixed everything I mentioned! Right then and there, I knew that we could work together. . . .

The main reason I exhibited at harp conventions every summer was so I could hang out with Ray and Sue, and Dave and Deb Kolacny. I remember one year when we were all having dinner together at Somerset, and people kept trying to join us. I realized that, for the first time in my life, I was sitting at the ‘cool kids table.’ It was so exciting!”

Sylvia Woods, harp player and Sylvia Woods Harp Center

Dusty Strings' Mill Team

“I’m ever thankful and happy to have been a part of such an awesome team of folks, and will always be a proud member of the Dusty family. You fostered such a sense of camaraderie and pride among the Dusty clan, and brought out the best in us all through your caring leadership and vision. Dusty Strings was one of the best places I’ve ever worked, and with the finest people. Some memories that stuck: . . . Working together to design and build our new shop and the excitement at the magical dust collector. . . . Tape ball fights at the new shop. . . . Bret messing up his finger in the Bubble Wrap Incident. All-staff and family holiday parties at Ray and Sue’s house. I hope you know how many lives you’ve touched and memories you helped create with your “little” Dusty Strings dream.”

Vicki Rosenzweig, former Dusty

“As a competitor, I especially have appreciated your openness in sharing custom-designed parts with other instrument makers. You have helped the industry to make broad improvements with better tuning pins, highest quality nylon for harp strings, and little bonus products like lever caps and colored rings to make harp playing more user-friendly.”

Jerry Brown, Musicmakers

Dusty Strings employees

“I thought I’d do it for a year, just for the delight of it, but it was such a special group of people, doing a wonderful thing – sending beautiful instruments out into the world! The fridge was covered in heartfelt letters from people around the country, addressed to us all by name who signed the instrument tags! Sue and Ray led with such enthusiasm and kindness, we all felt like a valued part of the Dusty Clan, and we knew we were helping to create the best quality instruments, beautiful to the eye and ear. What better thing to invest yourself in? Music became my new calling, and the rest is history! Even though I walked through that dulcimer-strumming door nearly 35 years ago in 1984, and live hundreds of miles away now, the magnetic pull is strong. We Dusties are drawn back again and again! It’s magic I think, and it’s in every instrument, and in the sparkle of each Dusty too.

A few memorable moments:

Stringing dulcimers in the wind tunnel by the spray booth. Singing in tune with the band saws (Bb). . . .  Two pregnant ladies at the tuning bench getting farther and farther away from the dulcimers. Kartiki and the Christmas snowflake earplugs we made for everyone on bolo ties, made from dulcimer bridges. The new space opening up and our glitter ball dance party to celebrate!”

Connie Celustka, former Dusty

Dusty Strings' chromatic dulcimer team

“Happy 40th Anniversary of Dusty Strings! Congratulations on all you’ve accomplished and on keeping Dusty Strings alive and thriving. Most of all, heaps of praise for providing the musical tools that help so many people to express their creativity and enjoy music in their lives. There should be a Peace Prize for that!

I remember long ago John McCutcheon suggesting I get together with Dusty Strings and help design a dulcimer he could endorse. My thought at the time was, “how can that possibly work?” But here we are after many years of collaboration with many beautiful dulcimer designs still rolling out the Dusty Strings doors and on to happy and far flung players and performers.”

Sam Rizzetta, hammered dulcimer maker and designer

“I am thrilled with the development of the D670 and the D570 and all the changes that have been incorporated. The improvements in this instrument (better balance, improved tuning stability, and of course the super bass on both the right and left) are emblematic of Dusty Strings’ commitment to listen to your customers and to folks like me who are out there meeting players and hearing what folks want. (That was a long sentence, but you get the idea!) . . . When your instruments go out of the shop and into those UPS boxes, I am sure you often have no idea where they end up. But I can attest to the immense joy your instruments have given to many thousands of people.”

Ken Kolodner, hammered dulcimer player and dealer

Folding hammered dulcimer stand

“When I had those brain tumor surgeries years ago and Jo Morrison just showed up to play harp for me in the hospital, I started to see what Dusty Strings was in a bigger way. Jo played for me, but what was so apparent and touching to me was her gratitude for what her harp meant to her, and for all of us who had made it. So she played not just for me, but for all of us who created something that she loved, and she in turn created with. She wanted to return the gift. It was really about being part of a community that I didn’t really understand the scope of until then. I feel proud to have been a part of all that.

This is the thing that you’ve created that isn’t perhaps so obvious to all – this community and the company itself, and what that’s meant in the lives of the people who have been fortunate to be a part of that. I always felt so cared for as a person as well as an employee. It mattered who we were, how we treated each other, and what the company was to all of us, not just what we made. We came together to do something we believed in. We are a company in the truest sort.”

Marc Rerucha-Borges, former Dusty

“Forty years! Thinking back on all the decades I’ve known you, Dusty Strings has been such an integral part of my career that it’s hard to imagine one without the other. It’s impossible to measure the impact you’ve had on my life or the gratitude I feel for your kindness to me through the years. So this is simply to say THANK YOU . . . for demonstrating that mixing business and friendship can work if a company is run with integrity and heart.”

Kim Robertson, harp player

Dusty Strings crew 1980

“It’s hard to recognize your partners’ sacrifice until you look back and realize that you actually lived in their home for an extended period while using their basement for a shop, their kitchen for the lunch room, their dining room for finish work, and their living room for a showroom.”

Randy Hudson, founding partner

“One of the great beauties of our association these many years is that there was never a feeling of competition in the sense of the ‘dog-eat-dog’ business world – there was always a sense of congeniality and a free sharing of ideas.”

Philip Boulding, Magical Strings

“I am writing this from Shedick, New Brunswick, having just travelled across Canada by train in exchange for playing a Dusty Strings Ravenna 26 aboard. The harp sleeps on the top bunk of my cabin while I sleep below and we navigate the 23 cars with their narrow corridors, jiggly vestibules, heavy doors and out-jutting window rails without mishap or major bruising.

I have enjoyed our 12-year relationship immensely and look forward to it continuing for as long as I can balance the books and drive a car down from BC to pick up harps! I always look forward to arriving at Dusty Strings and receiving a welcome hug and an update on news. Despite difficult current politics and xenophobia, our friendship and business relationship remains firm as it is built on integrity, quality of service and clear communication. Thank you!”

Alison Vardy, West Coast Harps, Nanaimo, BC

Dusty Strings crew 1989

“I remember sitting down with Ray and Denny Keogh and Bob Korrow and being handed harp and dulcimer parts and being asked how I thought they’d been made. It was one of the only interviews I’ve ever had that truly tested my knowledge and perception, and I really appreciated it.”

Jamie Hascall, former Dusty

“Each day I find it truly inspiring to observe the positive impact that this thing, Dusty Strings—that you started 40 years ago—has on people’s lives. The sharing of your passion, creativity, hard work, integrity, and perseverance, in a real way, helps spread the gift of music through our local community and far beyond and has provided support and employment for a long list of Dusty employees over the years.”

Gary Davidson, current Dusty (21 years)

“Thank you guys so much for welcoming us with open arms into the harps world and for always being so kind and loving. We love you guys so much and we are so blessed to not only have you as friends but also part of our harp family.”

Garen Rees and Melissa Irwin, Rees Harps

“January 1985: Stumbling around the NAMM show, Frank Ford, KC Wait and I made our way to the Dusty Strings booth hoping to spend some time with Ray and hear about the new products. Instead, we encountered Sue, his wonderful counterpart, whose warm smile and clear mastery of the company’s production processes immediately drew us in. Ray who? Score one for Sue. Can’t remember what we talked about or what we ordered, but do recall feeling that this was a couple whose integrity was foremost in their business plan, such a refreshing difference in an industry far too often defined by hucksterism.”

Richard Jones-Bamman, formerly of Gryphon Stringed Instruments

Dusty Strings harp in the snow

“I’ve always appreciated that you often listen . . . to new ideas, suggestions for design modifications, and such. You’ve always sought input from players, and implemented suggestions we’ve made; that’s one reason your harps are so popular – they are player-friendly.”

Laurie Riley, harp player

“Ray and Sue have managed to create and persevere with a pretty big, pretty happy shop that does good work, and they still remain good human beings.”

Nick and Joanie Blanton, Nicholas Blanton Instruments

Dusty Strings employees in Fremont

“Once upon a time---1979 specifically---there were no cash machines. Entering a bank and speaking with a teller was required to deposit a check. As I handed my end of the year paycheck to the clerk, she looked at it and said “Congratulations!” I looked at her blankly and she pointed to the memo line of the check. Unbeknownst to me, Sue had written, “Employee of the Year.” The clerk seemed so overjoyed for me that I hated to burst her bubble, but having been raised to be honest, I told her there wasn’t a lot of competition for that accolade, as I was the one and only employee!”

Gayle French, Sue’s sister and Employee #1

“A note of thanks for being such a great company, great people with really great instruments and service. It has been our pleasure to sell Dusty Strings products for the 40 years you’ve been building.”

The staff of Cripple Creek Music Co., Ashland, OR

Dusty Strings crew 1996

“Ray and Sue, this is a great place to work because everything starts with the importance you two put on treating people the right way. . . . You encourage us to be ourselves at work and let us live our lives outside of work. You keep our health and happiness in the front of your minds. You helped my family move, for crying out loud!”

Doug Pierson, current Dusty (19 years)

“Do you know about the door harp instructional manual that John Peekstok put together for u? A customer of ours was making a visit to Seattle, so he stopped in to visit DS. We, ahem, “coached” him to ask about instructional books, recordings of door harp music and the like. A very sincere DS staff member tried to answer his requests. When our customer finally got to the script where he says, “my music store back in Madison, Wisconsin assured me that you’d have these materials,” the staff member figured out what was going on and called John P. out to come up with a suitable response. We got a door harp instructional book in the mail a couple of weeks later. We still have a copy.”

Julie and Wil, Spruce Tree Music, Madison, WI

“I’ve met people of all ages, from all walks of life, brought together by a shared love of the universal language of music; these experiences have been made possible by the little corner of the world you’ve carved out here for us at Dusty. You’ve created a community that spread its roots deep into the lives of countless people both here in Seattle and in the world at large. It’s so amazing to see, and even more incredible to have been a part of it.”

Eric Schripsema, former Dusty

Harp player

“Back in 2013, at the Somerset Folk Harp Festival, I was strolling through the exhibit hall, just looking and listening, not planning on buying anything. I walked past the Dusty Strings booth and glanced in. Seeing that Ray and Sue were busy with other people, I didn’t plan to stop right then to say hello.

As I started to pass the end of the booth, however, something stopped me in my tracks. I turned back and walked – really – as if drawn by a magnet to one of the most beautiful harps I have ever seen. I sat down, played a few notes, and felt gobsmacked. One of my friends walked by and commented that I looked like I had fallen in love. I had, with one of the “Orphan” harps—that featured bubinga in its construction! Sue came over and just kept laughing because of how happy I looked, playing that harp (Sue took this photo). I left the exhibit hall to call my husband, who also started laughing at how excited I was. He told me to go ahead and buy her (thanks, Brad!).

And so I did. . . . She has become my new musical partner, especially when it comes to composing. Something about working with her – maybe because she is made of several types of wood – seems to trigger my creativity.”

Debbie Brewin-Wilson, harp player

Dusty Strings crew, with the office dogs

“Something I have noticed in my entire time with Ray and Sue is that they treat the people who work at Dusty Strings like their family. That is a special thing. It comes from a place of caring. It is a genuine thing. There is no way to fake it. It is comforting to know that one is significant in the eyes of the company’s owners. It is reassuring to know that you matter.”

Aaron Chang, current Dusty (12 years)

“My Grandfather talked often about the early days of the music business. He loved the fact that the industry was small enough that he knew the people that made the instruments, the people that published the music and the best players.

That is certainly a big part of the reason that we love the harp business. And an even bigger reason why we cherish our friendship with Ray and Sue. I can’t imagine running a business like ours without Dusty Strings. We have been dealers since very close to the beginning. I can’t count the number of terrific letters, phone calls and eventually emails we have shared. . . .

For me the best times happened at Harp Conferences. They became a combination of trade show and family reunion. . . . Best of all may be sitting in the exhibit room after the show is over, the boxes are packed and the trucks loaded. We share something that is part satisfaction in a job finished and a bit of melancholy. I start looking forward to the next time right away.”

David and Debbie Kolacny, Kolacny Music, Denver, CO

25th Anniversary party

“Wow, between the three of us we have 100 years at Dusty Strings. If you add in Bob, Rich, Dan, and Frank it’s 200 years. Bret, Gary, John S, Maggie, and Doug take it to 300. It looks like all the cool kids think Dusty Strings is a great place to spend one’s life. For someone like me who always ends up in management roles, it has been heavenly. I feel very fortunate to have found employment that encourages me to treat employees the way I think they ought to be treated, with respect, compassion, understanding, and fairness. The above list of names indicates that we’ve been successful. Thank you for making a place where this is possible.”

John Peekstok, current Dusty (30 years)

“When the shop was still at Ravenna house, instead of knocking or ringing a doorbell, one would stomp on the porch. That’s how the production crew downstairs could hear someone was at the door.

A favorite memory: looking around the production shop in Fremont, noting a row of neatly labeled bins of parts, and seeing one marked “rubber vermin.” Sure enough, there was a lifelike rat and maybe a snake within.”

Robin Kessler, sister-in-law

Dusty Strings crew at 40th anniversary party

“It’s difficult to put into words what Dusty Strings has meant to me over the years. I was proud and nervous to walk through the doors for the first time in 1998 and even more proud to walk through for the second time as an employee.

Employees may have come and gone in varying degrees of length, but I feel somehow that I never really left. Not only has Dusty changed my life while I was physically there, but the experience has shaped my career to this day. When I am working on my own instruments to send to the Fremont shop, the skills I learned from you all just pour out.

Perhaps more importantly than the work, career, manufacturing, no, certainly more important are the lifelong friendships that have been created through what you started so many years ago. Expand this note 10 times of explanation to get a feel for what Dusty Strings has meant to me.”

Jim Wilson, former Dusty, now Red Valley Mandolins

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