A bell rings out as we glide alongside a buoy bobbing up and down in the placid water. I’m slowly becoming hypnotized by the repetitive sounds of the rushing waves and the entrancing sights of undulating white foam that encircles and trails behind us.

Today, I’m on a ferryboat headed to New England, and it’s peaceful out here on the drink. Maybe a little too peaceful…. Fellow Spies have warned me about the sea and how it changes you. Right now, sensing the fresh air, soothing winds and bright sunshine, I couldn’t care less what anyone has to say. About anything. I’m getting lost in the private moments of a maritime miracle of sorts.

But, as is the case with most Spies, no matter how far I travel, I can never seem to escape my work. My mind always seems to drift back to the mission. The Chief, dear man that he is, has drilled into me the need always to be sharp. It’s instinct…like a dog making a final check of his surroundings before he curls up in a ball and rests his head for the night. Is it any wonder that I suddenly and begrudgingly recall why I’ve been sent on this nautical errand?

The Chief left me explicit instructions that I’m to check out musical instrument stores in southern Connecticut and inquire about beginner six-string acoustic guitars. Two modes of transportation would be made available to me: boat and automobile. Ordinarily, I might marvel at the proficiency of the agency and its ability to spirit me around the country undetected, but I can’t stop my mind from wandering right now. Mentally I’m anywhere, and everywhere, but in the game. Spy mission? What Spy mission?

Alas, I need to snap out of it. WWTCD? Well, for one thing, The Chief would tell me, if he were here, to pull myself together and develop my cover story before I hurt myself (and possibly others). OK…I’m a father looking for an acoustic guitar for my teenage son? No, that won’t work. How about a favorite uncle looking to buy his nephew, who’s in his early teens, his first acoustic? Yeah, that’s it! It’s just quirky enough to pass the smell test.

Secure in my super-secret plans, I lean over one side of the ferry and, through Indian summer’s heat haze, I spot the approaching shoreline, miles ahead of me. Tall glass buildings in the distance shine in the morning sun’s rays; white coastal sands offer me a tantalizing glimpse of a southern New England paradise. Connecticut sings its siren song, and I listen.

Jarring me from my daze are loud creaking noises of the ferry preparing for docking. It seems this ride is almost over—and just in time, too. I was starting to wonder how glorious the return trip would be. But I can’t turn back just yet. Besides, once we reach the shore, there’s a car waiting for me on land. Land. Ugh. It seems so…uncivilized. So…boring. I guess I’ll hold my nose, take the plunge and blend in with the other pedestrians scurrying around, trying to find meaning in this crazy world. OK…time to suit up. Here goes nothing. Ahoy there, landlubbers.

A Sound Choice
267 East Main St.
Branford CT 06405
My first stop is in Branford, visiting a mom-and-pop store that’s been operating for nearly 15 years. This is not a fly-by-night operation, nor is it a very big one, so the guy who runs the place must have some idea of what he’s doing. Still, I had my doubts about it; I thought A Sound Choice would be little more than a glorified online retailer with a token storefront.

Tucked in a small, well-kept shopping center along Connecticut Route 146, the store reveals itself over a grassy ridge as I pull into the adjacent parking lot. There’s something quaint about its tiny entrance that smacked of bohemia and those tiny seasonal shops run by ex-hippies you’d find in beach communities all along the Eastern Seaboard.

However, judging a store by its outward appearance is a huge mistake—one that I’ve learned the hard way. A Sound Choice may be nestled in the quiet molehills of suburbia, its atmosphere sweetly radiating a laidback vibe, but there’s nothing casual about the store’s inventory. Just from my initial perusal of the merchandise, I can tell that the place had a decent smattering of acoustics.

“I’ll be right with ya,” said a voice from a back office.

The guy, who I assume is the Owner, finishes whatever business he was transacting and approaches me. He’s a fairly tall guy, and I notice his earring right away. I immediately suspect he’s a local veteran rocker who spends his time trying to educate the kids in his area. (Noble of him, I say.)

I explain that I’m looking to buy an acoustic guitar for my nephew, and Rocker Dude asks me a few questions about the child’s age and height. Rocker Dude is attentive, but not too chummy. Slightly pressed for time, but not aloof.

Taking in all my information, he leads me to three different acoustic guitars: a Samick G Series Greg Bennett dreadnought (with a spruce top, mahogany back, sides and neck, and die-cast tuners) going for $199, an Ibanez PF series orchestra model with a spruce top and mahogany neck and body ($229), and a concert-sized, 39-inch steel-stringed Indiana Dakota with a six-pin rosewood bridge, adjustable trussrod and chrome machine heads ($119). They’re all pretty good lookin’ guitars for the asking price, and much better than the starter models I remember from decades ago.

The Dude mentions some other brands, including his assortment of Crafter guitars, but admits that they are a bit pricey for my purposes. Interestingly, the Dude doesn’t push one model more than any of the others, which I’m thinking is a savvy business move. He explains that if my nephew were to take six half-hour lessons for $300, he would receive the Indiana guitar free. Better to have him “actually playing the guitar he’s been learning on,” he tells me.

I am about to ask the Dude if he could demonstrate how these guitars sound, but then I suddenly change my mind. Not asking him to perform on the models in question would be an even better metric, I think, from an MI Spy perspective. This way, I can more properly measure the salesperson’s desire to seal the deal. Having said this, the Owner does not perform on any of the guitars for me. However, I have confidence that he is a straight shooter and is steering me, the prospective consumer, in the right direction. The Dude gives me the impression that I’m dealing with someone who understands the product, understands guitar students and doesn’t have a lot of time for BS. In every way, a businessman. (Maybe an ex-hippie turned businessman?)

I ask for a card—“Nice to meet ya,” I say—and off I go into the blazing sun. As I hop into my transport vehicle, I say to myself, “It’s a beautiful day and we’re off to a good start. Not too shabby.”

Sam Ash
95 Amity Rd.
New Haven, CT 06515
Heading south on both U.S. Route 1 and I-95, I arrive at my next stop: Sam Ash in New Haven. As I walk into the store, I’m greeted with a hello and a smile by one of the employees. (I like this place already!) Without too much trouble, I find the acoustic guitar department and notice some models on the floor; others are displayed in a glass-wall room near the back of the store. Before I make an attempt to go into this room, a slim, bearded, shaggy-haired, smiling salesman asks how he can help me today. That’s service for you.

Without further ado, he shows me a variety of acoustics, including some used ones, such as a limited edition Fender Hard Rock Café (with the tourist trap’s insignia emblazoned on the face of this black beauty) fetching $119, and several pristine Carlo Robelli guitars at various price points.

The Robellis look tempting, but the salesman, still smiling, does not recommend any of them to me. Yet, these affordable guitars fit within the parameters of my search, meeting the requirements of both price and style. Nonetheless, I accept the salesman’s advice at face value and move on.

Next, The Real Slim Shaggy shows me to a few more guitars, including a spruce-top Yamaha FG700S ($199.95) and a satin-finish Breedlove Passport C200 ($349.99). Discussion ensues about the quality of the materials used in each of these guitars, how the wood reacts over time and in different environments, etc. Slim seems to know his stuff. He must be a player himself, I think, as I spy his extra long fingernails.

Without me having to ask him, Shaggy says, “I’ll play a couple of these acoustics for you….” (Oh, geez. I’m going to regret using this as a sales staff performance measurement, I know it.) First, Slim Shaggy picks up the Hard Rock acoustic, then the Yamaha and, finally, the Breedlove, playing each in turn. You know what? The guy is pretty good! He plays a folk-y kind of thing with an undercurrent of polyrhythmic complexity. It reminds me of the churning, rolling waves of the sea that carried me here. (There I go again.)

I tell Shaggy that I’ll have to think about it, asking for his business card. Slim says, “Sure thing” and that he’ll note the models—as well as their prices—on the back of the card. After a little more than a minute, Slim returns.

I leave Sam Ash wondering if all the salespeople at musical instrument stores in southern central Connecticut are as attentive and knowledgeable. On my way out, I notice another retailer in the same shopping center. Always on the lookout for MI outposts, I walk the short distance to Amity Music’s front doors. My hopes soar when I discover that the store is open, but by appointment only. More proof of how vital Sam Ash must be to the surrounding area and its local musicians.

Guitar Center
50 Boston Post Rd.
Orange, CT 06477
Of all the stores I visit during my recent jaunt through the Northeast, Guitar Center in Orange has the most “curb appeal.” As I approach the location, I’m struck by the huge glass atrium above the entrance; this openness suggests a kind of transparency—a now-familiar blast of MI retailing fresh air—that bodes well for this location, I think.

As I make my way toward the acoustic guitar section, I spot a nicely laid out showroom, which features neatly kept floor models (many of them used) and a glass-enclosed room (similar to the one at Sam Ash) to house a variety of acoustics, including Yamahas, Mitchells and Breedloves, among others. Incredibly, directly behind this room is a second glassed-off guitar studio (of sorts), complete with sliding doors and numerous acoustics out of my price range. In fact, the room looks so pristine that it practically screams, “Off limits!”

I search elsewhere. As I traipse through the first guitar room, I notice a salesman helping a middle-aged couple. They’ve latched onto an acoustic and, in turn, the sales guy seems to have clung onto them. Tightly. I stealthily follow them, attempting to get the sales guy’s attention, but without (I hope) being too obvious about it.
After several minutes of this cat-and-mouse game, it’s apparent that the salesman couldn’t care less. At one point, he even holds the door open for me, smiles and allows me to pass through into the showroom (again). How great. Yet, he doesn’t bother to engage me. He offers no “Be right with you” or “Wait a moment and I’ll take care you, guy.” Nothing. Instead, he leaves me in the dust and heads to the front of the store, presumably to “walk up” the sale. I don’t know when I slipped on this Cloak of Invisibility, but it must have been somewhere inside the first guitar room, I think. One thing was for sure: This guy’s no Rocker Dude or Slim Shaggy. He’s more like Slim Saggy.

While I flip over price tags to check the dollar amounts of many of the guitars on the floor, busying myself (or so I think) before Saggy returns, I notice that no one—not a single, solitary soul—is looking in my direction. Not even the other customers. For all the good it will do, I glance—well, glare is more like it—at Saggy, who’s yukking it up with his co-workers near the store’s entrance. Glad you’re all having a great time….

Fuming and fully irritated, and just about ready to call the game, I think, “I came here for a reason. Now it’s just a matter of figuring out what that is!”

In order to get a better read on the place, I cave and break one of my Spy tenets: I head over to the guitar department desk where a shorter, different salesman, who’s talking on the phone, ignores me (surprise!) for a minute or two. I find myself beginning to wonder if I really am invisible, Cloak or no Cloak. In Desk Man’s defense, his conversation does seem to be semi-store related, so I temper my boiling-point anger. But, I suppose my facial expression is speaking volumes, as Desk Man quickly ends his call and asks if he can help me. (That’s a loaded question, given the kind of service I’ve been experiencing. I don’t know…can you help me?)

After taking me through the first guitar room, which I had been in and out of about a million times (I stopped counting after the 999,999th time), Desk Man goes into his pitch. It seems everything in the acoustic guitar department is all about the package deal. For instance, GC is running a special on a Yamaha GigMaker standard dreadnought for $129, which includes a gig bag, an instructional DVD, tuner, strap, strings and picks. Other Yamahas are on sale, too, such as the FG700S, which I’d also seen at Sam Ash, but it’s marked down to $169 here. The GigMaker Deluxe dreadnought, which comes with all the accessories mentioned above, is being sold for $169. Lastly, there’s a Breedlove D200SMP ($249, including gig bag).

These are some great deals, but what really is the difference between one guitar and a competing brand? The salesman simply says that they all perform similarly, but that you really can’t go wrong with a Yamaha. Well, at least Desk Man narrows it down for me.

Granted, I learned a bit about the range of choices in this market, but I’m unsure that this experience would persuade me to chart a special course through Boston Post Rd. just to buy a musical instrument at GC. It’s my firm belief that had I not walked over to the sales desk, I simply wouldn’t have been helped at this store. No one even made an attempt to approach me. However, as with most Guitar Centers, the inventory was fairly extensive and the layout of the showroom and guitar department was the best I had seen all day.

Still, could cool gear and cosmetics suppress my bad memories of Saggy and convince me that GC is the place to beat? I’d reserve judgment. After all, there was one more stop to make.

Route 1 Guitars
189 Bridgeport Ave.
Milford, CT 06460
As I near the end of this MI Spy southern Connecticut journey, I zip down U.S. Route 1 to the appropriately titled retail guitar outlet that is its namesake. Route 1 Guitars is such a hot-rodded name that I can’t escape the thought that this will be the M.I. equivalent of a party store. I imagine that there’ll be wall-to-wall salesmen literally throwing acoustic guitars at me, begging me to check out the merchandise; there’ll be loud, picks-a-flyin’ jam sessions accompanied by automated moving lights, dancing babes in steel cages, lions and tigers, and even a DJ with two turntables and a microphone. Musical mayhem and rock ‘n’ roll debauchery all around.

When I roll up to the establishment, all of my preconceived notions are washed away in a flash. “Exciting” would not be a word used to describe this store. Still, although no party atmosphere exists here, the relative calm is actually a welcome change from the nerve-wracking nonsense I had experienced in Orange. And, what’s more, I stumble upon a great selection of acoustic and acoustic-electrics up against the sidewall.

Then, suddenly, a bright-eyed young woman with dark hair pokes her head around the corner. She appears to be cleaning the place: She has a white towel in her hands and wears dark shorts, of the sort one might slip on for marathon running. (The Spy has always been drawn to a woman with an hourglass-shaped…guitar.)

Bright Eyes steers me toward a thatch of Takamine guitars and, finally, one in particular: a spruce-topped Jasmine S35 series dreadnought ($129), which, she explains, hasn’t even been removed from its shipping box yet. “But, you know what? We really should have one Takamine on display, anyway….”

Bright Eyes proceeds to tear open one of the boxes and reaches for the Takamine. Wow…I didn’t mean for her to do that. She’s certainly grabbing my attention and instilling more than a little guilt in me. I almost feel compelled to buy the thing after she’s gone through so much trouble. Well played, Bright Eyes. Well played. Truth be told, though, I’m glad she opened one of those Takamine coffins. Had she not, I never would have seen the guitar up close. Bright Eyes cradles the Jasmine in her arms and plucks a couple of the strings to demonstrate its sound. I’m not sure if she’s a guitarist, but I’ll give her an “A” for effort.

Even after this endearing display, I remain neutral about the item, however. Bright Eyes, on the other hand, isn’t fazed in the slightest. She hangs the brand-new, factory-issued guitar on the wall and casts her final baited hook to reel me in. If I buy the Takamine, she’ll give me a $10 discount on a gig bag and a 10-percent markdown on lessons. I’m intrigued. (I’m thinking that it’s too bad my nephew—pretend or otherwise—doesn’t live in the state.) But am I moved by those eyes or nato wood sides?

When I slyly ask for a business card, she hands me a golden, pocket-sized billboard. I look down to check out to whom I’ve been speaking, but it’s immediately obvious that the card she’s given me isn’t actually hers. Wrong gender. (Curses! Outmaneuvered again!) It seems Connecticut’s siren song has claimed me as a victim after all.

The Sale
I’m usually not overly diplomatic, but you can’t go wrong with the inventory and selection at any of these stores. It’s a tough call, but, upon serious deliberation, I’d have to say the winner is Sam Ash in New Haven. I have to hand it to Slim for his obvious knowledge and showmanship. He had me sold. In fact, Sam Ash very nearly single-handedly legitimized the entire New England mission.
Bon voyage, Shaggy!

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