As one walks through the aisles of the Lark in the Morning store on Camelia Street in Berkeley, one is transported into a world of music. The store features instruments from Africa; China; Balkan countries; Russia; Southeast Asia; Native cultures from North, South and Central America; and much more.
“At any given time, we’ve got about 1,500 instruments,” said store owner Eric Azumi. “Many of them are available in the showroom for trying out. This is one reason we’ve located off the beaten path, in the Blick Art Supplies Building. I don’t want to have to worry too much about theft or damage.”
Azumi said many of the instruments in the store are handmade by craftspeople from around the world. Instrument makers often get in touch with him. He also takes trips to find unique instruments.
“I’ve been to Europe a few times and once to Southeast Asia, to visit Vietnam, but it was a bust,” said Azumi. “I arrived during the Lunar New Year, and everything was shut down, but I experience unique aspects of the culture everywhere I go. People love to talk about it and share it with you. That’s what made me want to get hold of a Polish goat bagpipe.”
Azumi explained how the instrument is made from a whole goat that they skin and turn into a bagpipe, but there are only two guys left that make them. One was a retired gentleman in Poland. A contact put Azumi in touch with the instrument maker, and he agreed to make one. Azumi then hired a musician to play some traditional songs on it and to make a video and book about it.
“Then the man who made mine called me for payment,” said Azumi. “Before I could send it, he passed away. His family decided to keep [the bagpipe] since it was his last. I was amazed he’d gone through all that effort for me. I guess there’s only one man left making them now, so we’re trying to get in touch with him.”
Since he’s a musician, as well as a businessperson, Azumi thought the store would fit into both aspects of his life. “I’m a little bit of a musician, and I emphasize ‘little.’ My career was largely spent abroad, building websites to teach English online, with the Swedish company EF Education. When I returned to the U.S. in 2016, I figured I’d stay in tech, which was one of the reasons we chose to live in the Bay Area,” he explained.
After applying for a few jobs, Azumi realized his heart wasn’t in it. He didn’t want a corporate position.
“I had a little money, so I looked for a small business to buy,” Azumi said. His criterion was simple: It had to be something he found interesting and could improve upon. When he saw the collection of instruments Mickie and Beth Zekley had accumulated for their store, Lark in the Morning, Azumi was fascinated.
“When I contacted them, the business had moved online, and their website needed improvement,” said Azumi. “I figured I could bring my expertise to bear there while learning more about the world of musical instruments. I’m still learning new things all the time.”
Lark in the Morning was started by Mickie Zekley, a musician who played traditional music from Ireland, England and France. It was first a mail-order business but slowly expanded to physical locations in Mendocino, San Francisco and Seattle.
“Mickie sold it in 2002, to a couple that went bankrupt,” Azumi said. “He bought up the inventory, after the stores went out of business, and moved online. He had an extra building on his property and stored the instruments there. Then he went looking around for another sucker to come and buy it. That was me.”
Azumi got to know the Zekleys fairly well and stayed with them for about a month after he bought the store, so he could get to know the business.
“I was frequently in touch with them during the first couple of years,” said Azumi. “As I learned more, I stopped bugging them as much, but I’d talk to Mickie every couple of months about one thing or another. Mickie passed last October and I’ve missed him. I’m still in touch with Beth. We’re helping her sell off some of Mickie’s amazing collection of instruments.
“He was an amazing guy. He played guitar, flute, Celtic harp and most folk instruments. He had paid gigs most of his life. He grew up in the ’60s and lived at the Hog Farm Commune for a while. He also started the Lark Camp, a week-long folk music festival up in Mendocino, with lessons, concerts and camping out. I’m not directly involved with them, but we have a good relationship. We have a booth at the camp every summer, and there’s cross-promotion on our websites,” he continued.
After buying Lark’s online business, Azumi moved the inventory to a warehouse in Berkeley. Lark had built up a community of supporters over the years and, as word got out, Azumi began to receive visitors. “It got to the point where I was spending a few hours a week talking with them while grabbing and unboxing instruments from the shelves,” he said. “I figured it would save time to open up a small showroom where we might be able to sell a few more instruments.”
Having a physical location required more time than Azumi expected, but it also brought in more revenue.
“We thought about opening a store on Telegraph Avenue,” said Azumi. “But with all the traffic we’d get, I’d have to have someone standing at the door, watching the inventory. That’s not the vibe I want to communicate.”
The instruments at Lark in the Morning are delicate, many one of a kind. Azumi wants people to be able to play them and touch them.
“My interest is world music,” Azumi said. “I’m always discovering new instruments, from regions of the world I’m unfamiliar with. I also enjoy meeting the makers of the instruments and observing their craftsmanship and the care and attention they put into their work. I’ve always liked working with my hands, so getting to meet Monty Levenson, a shakuhachi maker, was inspiring. He has a Ph.D. from Columbia, but when he discovered the world of shakuhachi, he dove into it. I find stories like that inspiring.
“No one’s getting rich here,” said Azumi. “I’m in this for the love of the music and, being my own boss, I can’t think of a better place to be in, at this time of my life.”
Lark in the Morning, 1001 Camelia St., Berkeley. 12pm to 6pm, Tue-Sat; 707.964-5569, larkinthemorning.com, [email protected].