Attaining Nirvana  While Spying In Seattle

Attaining Nirvana
While Spying In Seattle

I received a call from The Chief one evening and, shortly thereafter, landed in hilly, tree-lined Seattle WA on a slightly overcast day. The air was a toasty 48 degrees as I walked to the rental car shuttle to pick up my car. At the rental place, my choice was between two Fiats: red or yellow. I decided to live dangerously, choosing a bright, blinding yellow for my mission. This way, I would be disguised as just another environmentally conscious Seattleite in a gas-efficient car. And nobody would suspect a spy in a bright yellow car. Too obvious.

I had also heard from locals that Seattle’s public transportation would not be reliable enough to hit the four music stores I was aiming to hit in one day. I was in search of a DJ mixer—an errand from The Chief. I made sure all of my routes were mapped out, including lunch with a friend of a friend in the Fremont district, and started to drive the adorable (and very easy to use) Fiat down the highways of Washington. Here, the highways make sense: plenty of time to switch lanes, and bold directional signs in easily viewable places from the road. I zipped straight to the first store on my route with no snags, enjoying the panoramic view of Washington through the windshield of the Fiat while scanning the radio for the best alternative, rock and indie stations. There were quite a few: 107.7, 90.3 and 103.7.

The Trading Musician
5908 Roosevelt Way NE
Seattle, WA 98105
Driving down the freeway toward my first destination, I couldn’t stop gawking at the splendor that is Washington State. The skyline of Seattle in front of me, the corridor of trees on the way down from the airport…there is nothing like the Pacific Northwest. I turned on a side street by accident, but easily found my way back to Roosevelt Way. The yellow Fiat fit perfectly in a free parking spot on the street. I walked past Café Razor to The Trading Musician, an atmospheric building with a giant guitar sign outside the front of the square multi-window building. It was closed when I arrived, so I killed some time in Café Razor, an artfully decorated two-story coffee shop with nooks, a community guitar, arcade games and a crowd of brightly dressed locals. The barista served up a strong, tasty cup of joe that was able to stand on its own without sugar or cream. A great cup of coffee would be something I would take for granted by the time my mission in Seattle was through; you just cannot go wrong!

A group of hipster 20-somethings wearing flannels, pink and teal windbreakers, big ’80s glasses and canvas shoes walked in and took up a table, where they were designing a Web site or a band. (I couldn’t tell which.) They mentioned playing with a band called Small Face, but I wasn’t sure if they were talking about a cover band or the actual band The Small Faces. After an hour, I walked back to The Trading Musician. The store was immaculate, laid out in a mind-pleasing fashion: the acoustic room to the right, guitars and basses hung to the left, and a nice big glass counter directly in front as you walk in. The pedals were inside glass cases. There was a giant upright bass and a harp in the acoustic guitar room. Shortly after I walked in, a girl in her mid-20s asked me if I needed any help. I was looking for a basic DJ mixer, so I asked if they carried any, although, looking around, I was pretty sure they didn’t.

She shook her head and a tall guy with curly brown hair, a flannel shirt, jeans and kind eyes walked up. He apologized for what he called “the mess,” but, to me, the store was immaculate, laid out well and extremely clean. I asked if maybe Guitar Center would be the place to go. “I wouldn’t send you there,” he said. “I would check out Platinum, on Capitol Hill.” I asked him if he had any lefty guitars—something I like to check out at every music store, and he said they had a few Strats and basses. I saw a sticker on the wall above the left-handed basses that said, “I Love Lefties.” Somehow, the nice guy and I started chatting about electronic/industrial music and Wax Trax records. Before I knew it, I was asking him about the Seattle music scene. He was quite nice, and recommended that, if I like old industrial music, I should check out Zion’s Gate record store near Platinum, the pro-audio store he had recommended for DJ gear.

I left in good spirits, happy to be in Seattle and happy for a friendly neighborhood music store. In addition, he had mentioned American Music as a potential choice for finding a DJ mixer, which just so happened to be the next store on my list. He handed me a card with his name on it above his title, Manager, and I slipped it into my wallet. I will be back someday.

I left in good spirits, happy
to be in Seattle and happy
for a friendly neighborhood
music store.

American Music
4450 Fremont Ave.
Seattle, WA 98103
The next stop was easy to get to from The Trading Musician. I entered the idyllic Fremont District of Seattle from a residential side street filled with regal Victorians, easily finding parking in the lot outside the store. It took me a while to get the short distance because I was busy gawking at the painted beauties in the neighborhoods alongside Fremont Ave.

The store was a big warehouse with giant brand-name signs on the outside walls. Walking in, the layout was rectangular, with speakers stacked in piles on the floor straight ahead and to the right, keyboards in the middle of the room to the right, and guitars—acoustic and electric—on stands and walls to the left. In the middle of the room was a large rectangular diner-like counter with three or four employees milling around behind it. Some acoustic guitars were hanging behind the counter, as well, and, facing left, toward the guitars, I noticed a large room with a “custom” sign hung above the door on the left wall of the electric guitar corner. The custom room was filled with drum shells.

As soon as I walked in the main entrance, a tall guy with a haircut that looked straight out of the ’80s—a bowl cut-inspired theme—asked me if I needed any help. I told him I was looking for DJ mixers. He pointed me to the right, where an older gentleman who looked like a mellower version of Alice Cooper was hovering near piles of speakers and a corner dedicated to mixers. The Cooper look-alike asked a lot of questions to narrow down my selection, such as whether I wanted to hook up records, an iPod or a computer to my DJ mixer. The entry-level models included Gemini’s PS424x ($99.99), Gemini’s MM-3000 ($199) and a used Denon DN-X100, which, new, runs for $200, but was on sale for $99. Gemini seemed to be the standard, aside from some Stanton turntables. While Cooper ran to take a call, I spotted a red-tag sale Gemini CDM-3610 Dual MP3/CD Mixing Console ($237.99), a used Numark CDN35 Dual CD Player ($199.99) and another Numark, the iCDMIX 2, for $149.99.

When I asked about the logistics of connecting to a laptop, Cooper tried to steer me toward a digital dbx 223 crossover or a high-torque direct drive. Then, he explained to me that records these days on turntables are blank, and have the feel of a real record, but this is what the DJs are doing now. I got the feeling this guy really knew his stuff, and had I actually, really been looking for and wanting to learn anything else about DJ mixers, he would have been the person to continue talking to. After we were done, I walked around the giant rectangle of a store, walking again by three or four employees who were sitting or standing near the middle counter, helping customers and chit-chatting with each other in a subdued tone. The attitude was friendly, but the employees also left me alone after I asked where the lefty guitars were; a female employee pointed me in the right direction. The lefties here were a Kurt Cobain-inspired Mustang, some Squiers and Strats. I didn’t feel like playing any of them, so I wandered back to the yellow Fiat and maneuvered my way down Fremont, away from this idyllic, hip neighborhood filled with mouthwatering eateries and over the Fremont Bridge toward the Westlake District.

Guitar Center
530 Westlake Ave.
Seattle, WA 98109
The Manager at The Trading Musician told me he would never send me to Guitar Center when I asked him where I could find DJ mixers. As Seattle is known for its DIY underground music scene, I wasn’t surprised at the comment, but it also filled me with a bit of trepidation, considering how kind the musicians at the previous two smaller stores had been. Would this be the place to break the spell?

Finding my way around proved to be a bit more difficult coming out of the Fremont District. I lost my way when I got into one of the city’s infamous streets, veering off in a completely separate direction if you aren’t in the correct lane. I then had to find my way back through a series of U-turns and grid maneuverings. I found parking on a street a couple of blocks away, paid for parking (something I had not had to do in the previous two neighborhoods) and walked through new semi-high-rise loft buildings and software engineer types toward a red building with Guitar Center emblazoned across it in red. I had trouble finding the correct entrance and, when I did find it, the girl behind the check-in counter sneered at me, but then, to her credit, asked if I needed any help. “I’m looking for DJ mixers,” I said, in response to which she pointed toward the back of the building. The space in the back of the warehouse building, filled to the brim with amps, guitars and gear, had a number of tiny side rooms also crammed to the brim with gear. The main floor was dedicated to guitars and amps; these side rooms seemed to be for accessories, drums and mixers.

The DJ room was a bit confusing, and I wandered for a second before a girl with multiple facial piercings and a black bandana asked me if I needed any help. I asked her where the mixers were and she pointed me to a smallish closet-like room behind her. “Most of the mixers are in that room,” she said, “But we have a lot more. Our Pioneer brands are in the warehouse.”

I walked into the room and a colorful disco ball shot out all the colors of the rainbows straight into my eyeballs, as I noted brands and models for a good 10 minutes before another salesman—this one tall, attractive, late 20s to early 30s and green-eyed, with a faux hawk—asked me if I needed anything. I asked if they had any used models. I had noted a number of brands, used and new, which included a Numark dual CD mixer with no price tag, a Denon DN-S3700 with no price tag, a Pioneer CDJ-850 multi-format ($899.99), a Numark NDX800 Professional Software Controller with MP3/CD/USB ($399.99), some Stanton tabletops, a Behringer DJX750 DJ Mixer ($250.99), a Numark M2 DJ Mixer ($86.98) and a used Vestax PMC17A for well under $200. The green-eyed salesman said there was also some mixed gear in various places on the floor, and he pointed in the direction of the room outside and the larger room outside that room before shrugging and loping off, leaving me to myself again.

The vibe in Guitar Center was tense. It felt competitive. The salespeople seemed preoccupied with bigger and better things. Although they said all the right things, they didn’t seem to put their hearts into what they were doing, as the employees at the previous two locations had. There was no easy banter. Either it wasn’t cool to chat too long with any specific customer due to corporate policy, and they instead were encouraged to sell as a priority, or they just weren’t interested enough to do so. Unlike the previous two stores, there was no chitchat about the latest technology or obscure bands and music scene tips. I left and, as I was exiting the turnstile, the girl at the counter stopped talking with another customer to ask if I had found what I needed. I said yes, and she stared at me, confused, before I left through the front door and walked back toward my car, heading off to the last of the four stores on my list.

I headed down the freeway through a considerable amount of traffic, going 60 miles per hour at times and 15 miles per hour at others. It wasn’t stressful, as the views to the right and left of the freeway were breathtaking. I could see the downtown area and the Space Needle, as well as lakes, mountains, trees and elegantly painted Victorians. Seattle is like nothing else visually: it’s a tangle of different influences, and feels less like the United States and more like an independent country all its own.

Georgetown Music
6111 13th Ave. N
Seattle, WA 98108
I arrived on the clean, easy industrial street where Georgetown Music is ensconced within a lovely brick building sprawled on the corner of a city block. As soon as I walked inside the store, I noticed an island display holding guitars in the center of the floor and a number of guitars hung around the store on the walls. There were amps stacked in various places on the floor, mostly clustered around the middle guitar display, and there was a large glass counter toward the back. A 20- or 30-something guy dressed like many of the guys I’d seen so far in Seattle (American Apparel blue hooded sweatshirt, skinny pants, beard, mustache, short brown shaggy hair) immediately stopped playing the guitar he had been playing on a stool to the right of the entrance and asked if I needed any help.

I asked him hesitantly if they carried any DJ mixers, wondering if perhaps this shop might be a DJ mixer no-go, as well. He nodded, and told me that they carried a few used mixers, rising from his chair quickly to walk me toward a big room to the right of the main rectangular space. “We only have these few,” he said, pointing down to a small glass counter in the back room. On the small glass counter sat a few used mixers: a Behringer XENYX 802 ($70), an M-Audio and a Roland. We started talking about software, and he recommended Traktor for DJing.

“It’s so easy,” he said, “unless you want to do all of your own presets and not the top 40 songs like a lot of DJs do—in that case, you want to get Ableton.” We chatted about the semantics of using DJ mixing equipment, and how doing music these days seems to entail knowing at least some type of DJ mixing. He shared a story about being at South by Southwest and having to learn how to DJ last minute due to getting a gig for a band he was in. He downloaded the software and learned to use it while waiting in the airport. “I wasn’t going to turn down the gig,” he said, as this was a big opportunity for him and the other musician with whom he worked.
We talked more about music and how most musicians have to have multiple projects to get by, although it’s hard to find time. “Everyone has nine-to-fives,” he said. “Isn’t that the opposite of what it should be?” A bumper sticker stating “Don’t Quit Your Day Job” came to mind.

The other salesman on the floor, the resident guitar tech, was working on a salvaged Strat with a rosewood fretboard and a maple neck. I started chatting with both of them about music and being in bands, and we shared some stories about horrible catastrophes with band mates not quite working out. These guys, like the people at The Trading Musician, clearly worked in music because they loved music. The guitar tech played music and fixed guitars. The American Apparel hoodie salesman worked on various projects and was always learning new gear to keep on top of what was going on. “I’m nervous,” he said, “because I have a show coming up for this new band I’m in, and we haven’t been able to find the time to practice because the songwriter works nights in a restaurant and I work days.”

They didn’t mention where else to buy DJ gear. (I’d forgotten to ask them about that until I’d left the store.) But, I’d had a good time and said, “Thanks for chatting music.” The hoodie-wearing guy said, “That’s what we’re here for!”

The Sale
As far as gear is concerned, I would have to say that American Music is the winner. The service was good, the salesman knew absolutely everything about the DJ gear I was looking for and I didn’t encounter any hostility or attitude from any of the employees. It was easy to find, and there was an entire parking lot dedicated specifically to the store. But it’s hard not also to put The Trading Musician and Georgetown Music near the top of my list. They both offered amazing service, and their depth of knowledge went way beyond simply pulling gear off the walls. I would gladly return to the latter two any day for my own personal needs. Guitar Center, though it had a lot of equipment, would be my last stop due to the pressure-like feel of the sales floor and the lack of easy conversation or help.

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