Staying power

Published 6:35 am Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Donald Brown celebrates 20 years of ‘Flatops and Fiddles’

Donald Brown has several thoughts on how his business, Flattops and Fiddles in downtown Troy, has stuck around like “a hair in a biscuit.”

The music “store” is celebrating its 20th year this month, making it the longest “playing” music store in the history of the city. “Flattops and Fiddles” opened in March 1992 and has stuck around while other music stores “came and went.”

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“We’ve been able to stay in business, mainly, because we’ve not tried to get too big,” Brown said. “Flattops and Fiddles started as a hobby and turned into a fulltime hobby. But our focus has always been string and folk instruments. That’s what people around here play and that’s our business. And, we only sell quality instruments.”

Flattops and Fiddles features Martin guitars, which are top-of-the-line, handmade acoustic instruments.

“We got to handle Martin guitars because the representative knew we were in the middle of bluegrass and Southern gospel country,” Brown said. “He thought we could sell a few Martins. My first Martin order was for three guitars that cost $4,000 each. The representative kind of questioned the order until I told him I already had the money in hand.”

For 12 to 15 years, Brown said he sold more Martin guitars than the music stores in Montgomery and Dothan.

“We still sell a lot of Martins because people around here want the best,” he said. “About 90 percent of our customers are return customers. They come to get a second instrument or better quality one. We’ve got guitars that start at $105 and go on up in the thousands. The most expensive guitar that we’ve sold was $17,000.”

Brown speaks of his business in the plural because his wife, Jan, is “the brain behind the business.”

Jan Brown works fulltime with the Troy Police Department and usually makes fast tracks to Flattops and Fiddles as soon as she gets off to “help out.”

Brown said the music store has been a joint venture since the beginning.

“I never had been interested in string instruments until we opened the store,” he said. “I was a brass lead in the Sound of the South when I was at Troy (University) majoring in criminal justice. I was the band director at Pike County High School for three years before going into law enforcement in 1973.”

When he worked at the Troy Police Department, Brown decided opening a music store would be a fun and challenging hobby.

He retired from the TPD as a detective captain in 1998 and went to “work” teaching criminal justice courses at Troy University.

“Since my classes ended by noon, I could enjoy my hobby fulltime,” Brown said, laughing.

Flattops and Fiddles is more than a music store. It’s a gathering place for those who enjoy the music played on string and folk instruments and a backroom classroom for those who want to learn to play the traditional string instruments.

“About three years ago, I convinced Lenny Trawick to teach lessons here,” Brown said. “He’s an incredible teacher. If he can’t teach you to play, then you can’t learn.”

Brown said he is amazed at how much the young musicians know.

“At ages 11 to 13, they know more about playing than I knew when I was 30,” he said. “It’s amazing.”

And, the interest of young people is a good indication that string and folk music is alive and well in rural South Alabama.

“We were able to get a good start in business because a Martin sales representative was willing to take a chance on us,” Brown said.

“We’ve stayed in business because we treat our customers right and because we sell quality instruments. More than half of the instruments that we stock are American made. Our customers are good country folks that love the music they play and we sell the kind of instruments they want to play.”

Brown said as long as bluegrass and gospel music is being played and young people keep walking through the doors, he and his wife have a good shot at another 20 years as hobbyists.