Music Mike’s owner keeps community in Tune

November 21, 2022

Profile Story

At 10 on one crisp Wednesday morning, Mike Ricci unlocks the front door of his shop and steps outside with a cigarette between his fingers. Above him, large green letters spell out the words: “Guitars: Buy, Sell, Trade.”

Mike’s Music, located on Carbondale’s Main Street, is the result of its owner’s rollercoaster career in the music industry and his love for the college town that first drew him to Southern Illinois in the late 80s.

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The store has been open for nearly 30 years, and while Ricci has toyed with the idea of moving or selling the store, he has no plans to do so any time soon.

“Everyone gets sick of anything if you do it long enough, but I love what I do,” he explains. “We sell music. I mean, how awesome is that?”

Inside the shop, dozens of guitars hang on the walls and on fixtures in the center of the room. Towards the back, smaller items are on display in glass cases and on the wall behind the checkout counter. A table just in front of the counter is cluttered with tools and supplies for instrument repairs.

Ricci, a short man with a charismatic smile and more hair on his chin than on top of his head, sits down on a stool next to the table and begins to recount the moments of his career that led to the opening of the shop.

The 59-year-old business owner grew up in a close-knit neighborhood in the Chicago suburb of Des Plaines. It was in this neighborhood that he would meet lifelong friends and bandmates and where his passion for music would first be ignited.

Ricci’s mother loved reading and music, which was apparent in his childhood home. He has vivid memories of the shelves that filled his living room growing up.

“All of the walls had bookshelves and then the bookshelves had album spaces on the bottom…The entire gigantic living room was nothing but LPs and books.”

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The first instrument Ricci learned how to play was the trumpet, inspired by American musician Harry James. He says he was about eight years old when he told his mom that he wanted to play the trumpet and become a musician.

A pivotal point in Ricci’s music career occurred a few years later when his older sister and her friend brought home acoustic guitars one afternoon. He becomes animated as he remembers the girls playing music and singing and the amazement he felt listening to them.

His jaw dropped to the floor, and in that moment, he thought to himself, “I must do this. I must do this.”

Afterwards, he started teaching himself how to play with nothing but a chord chart and a few pages of sheet music, and he continued to play all throughout his childhood and teenage years.

“By the time I was 18 years old I was playing in a punk-rock band, the Sockets,” he said.

This band, formed by Ricci and his high school friends, was his first of “too many to mention.” They were performing in front of audiences by the second semester of their senior year, covering artists like Alice Cooper.

After high school, Ricci attended community college and worked part-time for a few years until a friend, who was attending Western Illinois University, persuaded him to go to Macomb, saying that it had a fun party scene and tons of bands.

During his time there, Ricci says he “played in a band, and stayed drunk the entire nine months.”

He failed out of Western that first year and moved back home, working multiple jobs until the fall of 1985. It was during this time that a friend invited Ricci to visit him in Carbondale, where he was attending Southern Illinois University.

“It was life-changing,” Ricci said. “I couldn’t believe it.”

The young musician immediately loved the nightlife and music scene in “Carbon-vegas” as he called it and enrolled himself at SIU as soon as he could. When he started classes, he formed another band with friends from home and said they would practice together all the time.

“All my bands were terrible,” he mentioned with a chuckle.

Ricci said, up until his time at SIU, his bands never took practicing seriously, sloppily playing through songs with a beer or joint close by. This changed when he became friends with one fellow musician from school who had a completely different level of professionalism when it came to music. From him, Ricci learned how to effectively rehearse songs and was impressed with the progress he made.

While Ricci explained his experiences in college and the friends he made, an employee of the store, Dan Tejada, came out from a back room where he had been repairing a banjo.

“Don’t listen to him when he says his bands were crappy,” Tejada chimed in.

He has worked at the store with Ricci for years, and the two know each other well. They banter for a minute before Tejada returns to his repair and Ricci turns back to the table.

After graduating from SIU, Ricci spent two years away from Carbondale and music in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. He later moved back to his college town and got a job with Nightlife newspaper, which was run by an old friend. It was through this newspaper that he saw a job ad for a music store manager.

An investor, with the same first name as Ricci, was interested in opening a music shop in Carbondale and needed a manager. Together, Mike Wright and Mike Ricci created Mr. Mike’s Music, which opened in 1993.

Ricci then bought the store in 1997 when Wright wanted to get out of the business.

“I was already running the whole thing anyway, the only thing was it wasn’t my money,” Ricci says about gaining ownership of the shop.

Mike’s Music now provides product sales and instrument repairs, and there are plans to bring back in-person lessons in the very near future, something the business hasn’t offered since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Another local business owner, Stephanie Wooley, is a frequent patron of the shop.

“I really admire Mike and the store,” she said while Ricci was helping another customer.

Wooley, who teaches stringed instruments to students at S.I. Suzuki Strings in Carterville, Illinois, came into the shop in search of a rental guitar, which Ricci was happy to offer recommendations about.

His knowledge and passion shone through as he continued to talk about his business once the store emptied again.

“At the end of the day, I do something that people want to participate in. They’re really happy to be here.”

But business, according to Ricci, could always be better. Carbondale is not the same place it was when he attended SIU or first set up shop. Just like most other local businesses, Mike’s Music hasn’t been overly successful in recent years.

Ricci credits this to past mismanagement of the university and what he calls abuse of power by the city, which made being in Carbondale after dark “as unpleasant as possible” and drove down the population.

“It’s terrible. It’s been heartbreaking,” he said.

Despite his disappointment with the city, Ricci has stayed for his business, as well as for his personal infrastructure in the area where he has spent the majority of his adult life. Most of his close relationships are central to Carbondale, including the people he makes films with, something he is very passionate about.

Like music, Ricci’s interest in film started at a young age, and he created his first major project in 2012, which was a web comedy series loosely based on his experiences in the shop. Now, his production company, Out of Tune Productions, creates narrative, commercial and documentary films; it has had work air nationally on PBS.

Ricci plans to continue making films and running his store in Carbondale for the foreseeable future, to keep the joy of music and art alive in southern Illinois and encourage young musicians in the community.

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