Standing on a wooden floor and beneath a tin tall ceiling in a corner of Sam & Ruby’s The Corner Deli/Café in downtown Vassar, 16-year-old Olivia Storey plays her violin as customers sample soups, sandwiches and desserts.
To some, however, the main course is the live music from Storey, who began playing weekly at the Vassar deli in December to raise money to help pay for her trip to Europe this summer as a member of the Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp International Exchange Program Orchestra.
“It makes you wanna just sit and relax a little bit,” said Linda Mitchell, 66, of Tuscola County’s Vassar Township, enjoying lunch with her daughter, 42-year-old Angela Haynes of Vassar Township, and granddaughter, 20-year-old Brittani Haynes.
“Life is so busy that it’s nice to have this,” Mitchell said.
Storey, of Davison, has found it nice, too, to play in Vassar, a city of 2,697 people in southern Tuscola County, about 24 miles from Davison in Genesee County.
“I love playing in here — I really do,” said Storey, after playing her viola, and later her violin, last week for the lunchtime audience at the café at 100 N. Main St.
Storey plays the viola and violin in the eatery about noon on Fridays. She leaves her violin/viola case open on a table in front of her, and listeners toss money in the case.
“It has good resonance here,” Storey said. “Usually I stand right in this corner so I’m out of the way of everybody, but the sound does project out pretty well, so you can hear me across the room.”
Before landing her Vassar gigs, Storey, who is homeschooled, had been playing music in rest stops — overseen by relatives — along Interstate 75 to raise money to help pay for her summer trip to Europe, said her grandmother, Laura Miller, 55, of Davison, who said she has raised Storey since the musician was a little girl.
Storey, who has attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), plays live music to accompaniments of recorded music made possible by the technological assistance of Steven Adams, 49, Miller’s boyfriend.
“When Steve first mentioned to me that we were going to go out and play some deli in Vassar, my first reaction was ‘Why?’” Miller said. “We were doing so good at the rest areas. Let’s not mess it up. Isn’t Vassar way out in the middle of nowhere?”
But Olivia showed up one day in December, playing Christmas music in Vassar, a city known for Cass River floods and a shuttered foundry, but staging a resurgence aided by its Vassar Theatre, a flurry of new businesses and improvements to its school system.
Her performances occur in a building constructed in the late 1800s but renovated by owner Mark Cooper of Vassar’s Cooper Electric. Sam & Ruby’s The Corner Deli/Café is one of seven new businesses that opened in downtown Vassar last year.
“We really thought it would be a one-time thing and she would come out to Vassar and practice,” Miller said. “They invited us out one time and it was so successful that now it has become a weekly thing. It has evolved.”
Storey has earned about $2,800 so far, including a total of about $1,000 placed in her instrument case in Vassar at different times, said Miller, noting one man at the Vassar deli also arranged for a $1,000 donation.
“We have been so blessed by the residents here,” said Miller, noting this summer’s trip to Europe with the orchestra costs about $8,000.
Those wanting to help the musician pay for the concert tour may visit youcaring.com and type in “Olivia Storey” in the search bar to make a donation.
“Olivia has tried every year that she has gone to (Blue Lake Fine Arts) camp to get into this orchestra, and each year, she had been rejected until this year,” Miller said. “Really, I was surprised. We didn’t expect her to be chosen. They sent us a note and said she has earned a seat in the orchestra. Then they sent the bill and said ‘It’s gonna cost you $8,000.’”
Storey’s engagements at the deli in Vassar came about after Steven Adams’ father recently married the mother of Darren Drew and Robin Drew-Darley, siblings who own Sam & Ruby’s The Corner Deli/Café. (Story continues below photo)
“Robin’s mom, Patricia Adams, actually suggested she come out here and play, and we did,” Steven Adams said.
“Every time she plays they put it up on Facebook, and we come special just to hear her,” said Sandy Keyes, 76, of Tuscola Township, visiting the restaurant with her husband, Wally.
“Since we’ve been coming in here, there have been people we’ve met from Caro, Frankenmuth, Millington and Saginaw,” Sandy Keyes said. “They come from all over to eat here in Vassar. The momentum is just better than ever.”
Storey plays a variety of music, from movie songs to country-music favorites such as “Boot Scootin’ Boogie” by Brooks & Dunn, and “Friends in Low Places” by Garth Brooks.
“I think she’s doing a fine job for 16 — she’s awesome,” said Stacy Bierlein, 54, of Tuscola Township, treated to lunch at Sam & Ruby’s The Corner Café/Deli earlier this month by her brother, Dan Finta, in honor of her birthday.
“It’s a really great atmosphere and (the violin music) fits right in with the atmosphere of this restaurant,” said Finta, 57, of Vassar Township.
Mitchell said she enjoyed the music as well as a “superb” vanilla cream puff from the eatery while accompanied by Angela Haynes and Brittani Haynes.
“I really like it, because I was always into listening to the violin and the piano,” Brittani Haynes said. “It has a calming effect. It gives a nice feeling, and nowadays you don’t get much good relaxing music when you eat. It’s all about the pop music and what’s popular.”
Mitchell added that “I’ll find out when (Storey) is here — how often she’s here — and I’ll make sure I come back.”
Storey uses sheet music as she plays her instruments.
“We buy books that have the music accompaniment on CD, and then I transfer those (accompaniments) into an MP3 player so she can play along with the music today,” Adams said.
“We also took the time to lay out the book (of sheet music) going along with those MP3 tracks. So her songbook is laid out right in order so she can just keep flipping as the song comes up, so there’s no fiddling with music. It’s a process.”
Storey said her reaction was “extremely big” when the donor gave $1,000 to her cause in the Vassar eatery. “I was, like, ‘I’m being supported by someone,’” Storey said. “It was very surprising.”
Miller said Storey “had never played a gig like this where you were invited to play in a professional establishment” until she started performing in Vassar.
“This has led to other things,” Miller said. “People have said ‘Will you come play at our office party?’”
After her repeated appearances in Vassar, some residents simply refer to Storey as the town’s “violin girl.”
“This is, like, the first place I’ve ever had an actual gig, so I will probably come back here a lot more often,” said Storey, who plans to attend college to study music, and said she might become a music teacher.
“I love it here, plus they give me free food,” said Storey, though Miller adds that Vassar has given the young musician a fan base.
“We’ve been amazed about how Vassar has almost adopted her, and we feel that when we come out here,” Miller said. “And you can’t be adopted by a better community.”
Tom Gilchrist is a reporter for The Advertiser and can be reached at [email protected]