I did such a good job on my last spy assignment that The Chief, head of The Organization, decided to send me on a trip back to New York City. My mission? To use all my snooping skills to find a good bass guitar for a novice player. But there was another equally urgent request: to get a good read on how customer-friendly the stores were. Would salespeople come right up to me? Would I be left to flail around like a drowning swimmer in deep water? Would there be a welcoming in-store vibe? Things like that.

Being a red-blooded American male, I needed some female companionship. Lauren, an actress I met on my travels, really wanted to see New York. And I really wanted to see Lauren. See her beautiful eyes, experience her sardonic wit…etc. I figured a great hotel would seal the deal. So, after mentioning the fine things I’d heard about The Empire Hotel (W. 63rd St.), Lauren jumped on a plane in L.A. and jumped off at Kennedy Airport. I met her at the glorious hotel in the afternoon, at which time we became thoroughly acquainted. Later, we had a wonderful dinner via room service. Then, I got ready for the next day and my first assignment.

Guitar Center
218 W. 44th St.
New York NY 10036

After visiting several Guitar Centers in various cities and having been treated as if I had leprosy, something had changed since the last time I’d been in one. Perhaps the CEO took the chain’s financial problems and customer-service complaints seriously. Whatever the explanation, the GC in Times Square was a nice surprise. They’ll never be confused with a boutique guitar shop. But, I must admit, they’ve really upped their game.

As contrasted with previous excursions, I had plenty of attention given to me when I visited the Times Square store. Still, though, no one saw me as a potential customer when I first came in. And considering I was nicely dressed and looked so money, they could still use some game-raising. However, after a couple minutes of appearing somewhat stricken, a salesman came up and asked what I was looking for.

“I need a bass for my son,” I said. “He’s starting to get pretty good, and I’d like to buy him his second ax.”

The salesman then showed me several good choices in this fun, noisy, cavernous store. The first was an Ibanez GSR200 ($199). It had a compact body, a smallish maple neck and it was easy to play. When I asked the salesman what else he had, he was happy to show me both a Fender Jazz Bass ($299.99), with two Fender-designed single-coil pickups and vintage gloss neck, and a cool-looking B.C. Rich Warlock NJ ($239.99) with bolt-on construction, a basswood body, B.D.S.M humbucker pickups and a bridge pickup. The salesman told me, “They’re in your price range.” I examined both bass guitars—suitable for those in the novice-player range—and glanced at the wider selection of new and used basses.

I sensed a certain impatience from the young man, who reminded me of a shoe salesman. After having shown me three instruments, he looked like he wanted to split. But I asked to see one more ax. I’m glad I asked, too, because he brought me over to—and let me play—a Dean Edge 10A PJ, boasting a basswood top, bolt-on maple C-shaped neck and rosewood fingerboard. It was retailing for $239. I told him that this was one that “Jimmy was born to play!” The salesman smiled politely. Then, he said, “If you need any more help, I’ll be over there.”

The bottom line? A decent array of basses for beginners and a pretty good shopping experience for a spy…but nothing to make you feel all warm and tingly inside.

I took a cab back to the hotel. Lauren was all dressed up in a Chanel suit, a big summer hat and oversized pink sunglasses. She was dressed for lunch and, happily, she’s plenty of fun just talking to me at a dark corner table. We decided to have Chinese food at PF Chang’s. Since the two of us went vegan, we settled on spring rolls, sesame noodles and a mixed vegetable dish. We strolled around New York, hand in hand, for hours. Ahhh…to be young, in love and in Manhattan! Well, we were in love and in Manhattan, anyway. When we returned to the hotel, I made plans for my next day’s excursion.

Rivington Guitars
73 E. 4th St.
New York NY 10003

As you enter the quaint, smallish Rivington Guitars, you wonder if it’s real or just the sort of shop you’ve envisioned so often in your dreams. That, just maybe, you made it all up. Happily, it’s real. You get a nice hello when you walk in and, almost simultaneously, you’re asked if you need any help. I did, and I got it. A salesman was patient with my clueless act. And, when I mentioned I needed a bass for my 13-year-old “son,” he smiled as if he had the secret of the world within his reach. And, in fact, he did.

The store traffics in lots of vintage instruments…some of them a bit pricey, all of them classy, and just the right number in any given price range. The guy first showed me a 1985 Hondo All Star Bass that sold for $395. It was black, it was in excellent condition and it was truly what the man told me: “a killer bass” with a nice maple neck and pickups that were “warm and punchy.” I also really dug the 1967 Teisco Crestwood Bass for $399. It had a gorgeous red sunburst finish (with black around the edges) and a very clean sound, and it just looked so “rock”! And, if I was willing to go up to $799, there was a 1971 Fender Musicmaster Bass that made the bass player in me want to cry. It was refinished, it had a great round sound and, generally, it had been lovingly restored.

Rivington is for the real players. The store’s basses—lots of Fenders—can go up to three and four grand. However, there are several vintage axes for the youngster or novice. More than anything, though, the store is as warm, cozy and welcoming as a library. You don’t feel rushed, you can ask as many questions as Macaulay Culkin did in Uncle Buck and no one makes you feel like an annoyance. And the store’s selection—for its smallish digs—is amazing. In terms of service and atmosphere, Rivington would be a contender that would be hard to beat.

I felt like I hadn’t been spending enough time with Lauren. So, I returned to the hotel and amorously made things right. Afterwards, we were both famished. So, after she took a bubble bath, we cabbed it over to The Candle Cafe, one of New York’s most divine vegetarian restaurants. We split some mole tempeh fajitas and a hearty seitan au poivre with roasted garlic mashed potatoes. I knew that, the following day, I was going to a big store, so I needed the sustenance. This meal did the trick.

After my first two excursions, I thought it might be time to try Sam Ash Superstore. The place is a bustling, enjoyable madhouse. The selection of basses was bound to be impeccable, of course. But would the service also stand up to scrutiny?

Sam Ash Superstore
333 W. 34th St.
New York NY 10001

Dressed in a blazer and white duck pants, I walked in around noon and went over to the basses. No one came up to me right away. But, as soon as I caught a salesman’s eye, an intense, but cheery, long-haired guy came over and asked what he could do for me. I told him about my boy and my price range, after which he went into action, without any annoyed exhalation. This young man showed me several axes that were very much in line with what I wanted to spend. First, there was a dandy Squier Vintage Modified Precision Bass PJ. With a list price of $499.99, it was on sale for $299.99. It had a C-shaped maple neck with a rosewood fingerboard, medium jumbo frets and nine-and-a-half-inch radius, making it easy to play. It also had that full, round Fender sound when played through an amp.

The salesman, who was attentive and pleasant, then showed me an ESP LTD FB-204 Frank Bello Signature Series ($449). The instrument, named for the Anthrax bassist, had a bolt-on construction, 34-inch-scale, basswood body and maple neck. The tone and feel were nonpareil. The salesman waited patiently while I did a walking riff on the instrument. Finally, he showed me an Ibanez GSRM20 Mikro Short-Scale Bass, which was on sale for $179.99. If there was one bass I would probably buy for my fictitious “son,” that would be it. Great price…eye-popping looks…and an easy-to-play maple neck, 22 medium frets and a warm sound. I told the salesman I just needed to think about the purchase a bit longer. He asked, “You sure I can’t show you something else?” I replied, “No, thank you,” appreciative of the young man’s dedication to helping me.

Despite its cavernous size and thundering noise, the Sam Ash Superstore was certainly a welcome addition to the New York City music store scene.

I returned to the hotel, took Lauren out for a veggie burger and promised her a fancy final dinner if, and only if, she’d let me wend my way to one more guitar store. Then, I headed to my last spot to look at basses for my “son.” By that point, he was becoming so real to me that I could almost…almost…imagine myself as a proud poppa.

First Flight Music
174 1st Ave.
New York NY 10009

First Flight Music is a store I’ve been hearing about from musos for several years. As good a time as I had at Sam Ash, First Flight was just the antidote I needed to the previous store’s hustle and bustle. After all, when you’re buying a bass for your “son,” you need to concentrate!

Almost instantly, I was greeted by a salesman who was welcoming and warm, but who was never pushy. I employed my best “dad” voice and demeanor, saying I was interested in a bass for a “beginner who was morphing into a novice.” The salesman first showed me an Austin bass from the APB200 Series ($249). It had a maple neck, a rosewood fingerboard, a volume control and a tone control knob. It came with a gig bag, as well. It really seemed a perfect fit for a new bassist. The gentleman also showed me a lovely, restored B.C. Rich Mockingbird bass, made in the late ’70s. It was angular, futuristic and incredibly cool looking. It ran around $500.

The salesman took the time to ask what type of music my “son” liked. When I told him classic rock, he replied that that might not be the right ax for him stylistically. It made me appreciate the store—and the man who was waiting on me—even more. Honesty and thoughtfulness, even at the risk of losing a sale, will get you a long way in this world. After the B.C. Rich model and the like, First Flight basses jump into the $1,700 and over range. But, the store has a terrific vibe and you can play ’til you find what you like. I can’t say enough good things about this calm, smallish little store. I thanked the salesman and said I’d weigh my options a little bit.

Although I’m a world-class, hardboiled operative, I felt a twinge of sadness when I left First Flight Music. I found myself wishing that I really had a son for whom I could buy a bass. “But,” I thought to myself, “maybe it’s not too late!” I drove back to my hotel, mulling over my decision of the best store I’d seen and thinking, too, about having a conversation with Lauren.

When I got back to our room, all traces of her were gone. Apparently, having sensed my pangs of desire to raise a future-bassist son, she’d swept out of the city and out of my life, leaving only her lingering scent and a short goodbye scrawled in red lipstick.

The Sale

Rivington Guitars earns the gold this month. It delivers the best in attentive, patient service—not to mention a great selection of basses—in “the Big Apple.”

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