New York City might be known as the financial capital of the world, but the city’s financial titans—and just about everybody else—are powered by NYC’s music. The city’s boroughs are bursting with music artists, musicals and concerts. Nearly everyone recommends to tourists that they see something related to music. And, because New York City is known as a great place to shop, some of the best music merchandise around can be found there: with great deals sitting alongside absolute rarities. That, coupled with the wealth of knowledge found among the talented folks who live in New York, makes it a fine place to shop for musical instruments and equipment.

This month, The Chief told me my mission was to find an amp in the $200 to $300 range. I was to pretend I had no knowledge of amps at all. My cover story was that I was looking to buy an amp as a gift for a family member who had just purchased a guitar. My quest took me on a journey to four shops, each of which was distinct from the others in both in-store atmosphere and surrounding neighborhoods.

Southside Guitars
303 Grand St.
Brooklyn NY 11211

Situated in a relatively quiet, but nevertheless interesting, part of Williamsburg, this music shop specializes in vintage music gear—in particular, collector- and player-grade vintage guitars, basses, amps and effects. The store has been on Grand St. for about five years, and it was at a smaller location in Williamsburg for about five years before that. The shop itself had a good flow and nice walkability, with an open floor and instruments and other merchandise lining the store’s perimeter. Many instruments were grouped together neatly on the floor to accommodate the narrow nature of the shop. In addition, guitars were hung on nearly every available space on the wall. To this spy’s eyes, it seemed as though it could have been positively overwhelming to the indecisive collector. Even so, there was space for practice: Stools were positioned throughout the store so that interested shoppers could pick up any guitar and try it out. The register sat up near the front. The back portion of the store contained a table and a section for repairs.

Upon entering Southside Guitars, I was greeted by a friendly associate. He did not ask me if I needed help right away, choosing instead to give me my space to walk around the store and explore for several minutes. While browsing, I noticed that he went back to packing up some items for shipment. Walking to the back of the store, I noticed another associate, who stopped cleaning a guitar to greet me. There were no customers in the store at the time except for me. The door was open, and a nice fall breeze came through on that weekend afternoon. The atmosphere felt extremely relaxed.

I approached the associate in the front of the store after a few minutes and gave him my story, saying that I was looking for an amp for a family member who had just gotten a guitar. The associate’s face lit up and he began to show me a bunch of options, which included amps from Fender and Orange. Prices ranged from $200 to $650. Deep undercover and nearly fooled by my own non-musician ruse, I carefully noted all the details the associate shared with me. He seemed extremely knowledgeable about amps, emphasizing that he felt vintage amps sounded much better, due to the tubes.

I had read on the shop’s Web site that it specializes in unique and vintage items, and I began to notice and appreciate the vibe of the space. I liked the fact that the associate showed me many options and educated me about the subject at the same time. He assessed the type of amp I wished to buy by asking where it would be played. When I said it would be played mostly in my family member’s apartment, the associate referred to certain amps he pointed out as “apartment amps.” He let me know that tube amps are larger, so that would play a role in my decision if I were looking to purchase an apartment amp. He also showed me some modern amps, highlighting mini heads and cabs.

All in all, the experience was a very pleasant one because the associate took a lot of time to explain the details of many different amps, covering a range of prices. I left the store feeling educated on the subject, which is exactly what a shopper would like to feel when he or she is going to purchase an item about which he or she isn’t already knowledgeable. The associate did not make me, as his customer, feel stupid by using unfamiliar jargon, and he was super helpful and professional. Getting something for a new guitar owner at this shop would be sort of a splurge for a shopper like me, but it would be an amazing customer-service experience.

Main Drag Music
330 Wythe Ave.
Brooklyn NY 11211

A few blocks away, I visited Main Drag Music on the same weekend afternoon. Main Drag Music is located northwest of Southside Guitars. The space is very open and “flowy,” with high ceilings and columns, around which I noticed instruments were gathered. There was also a ramp that went up one side of the shop, which allowed you to get closer to certain instruments and get some space from other customers and activity in the shop. As compared to Southside, it seemed as though a greater breadth of musical instruments were stocked, with drums, keyboards and other gear sitting alongside a range of guitars. According to the store’s Web site, it hosts events in the space. I could definitely see that, because it had a vibrancy that I didn’t find in Southside Guitars. The open nature of the space and abundance of customers indicated that Main Drag might be more of a hangout than Southside Guitars is.

Walking around the shop, I noticed more employees were working at this store, and there was louder music and more of a feeling of “activity.” Customers populated the store, trying out instruments and browsing. Staff stood around, chatting with each other and reorganizing inventory. A female associate approached me several minutes after I entered the store and asked me if I needed help. She was cheerful and upbeat. I gave her my cover story, ready to dress it up with embellishments as need be.

She asked me a lot of questions to gauge my family member’s level of experience, as well as his or her preferred genre of music. Based upon the answers I gave, she recommended to me a VOX (selling for $159) and described the built-in effects and other features. The VOX was, in fact, the only recommendation she had for me. That there were no other recommendations somewhat surprised me, as I gave the same budgetary guidelines and player profile to the associate in the previous store, and I’d gotten more recommendations than just one over there.

Even as I thanked her for her help, it occurred to me that she didn’t offer as much in the way of amp knowledge as the salesman in Southside Guitars did, and the store didn’t seem to have as wide a selection of amps as the previous one had. I continued to browse on my own for a while. Then, several minutes later, she approached me again and suggested one more option: the Roland CUBE-40GX, which was a little more expensive and which had a bigger speaker. The price was about $250, which was neatly within the $200-to-$300 range that I had specified.

All in all, the customer-service experience at Main Drag Music was not as substantial as it had been in Southside, but the store was still clean and well stocked. It seemed like it would be a really fun place to try out instruments and, possibly, to visit for an event. Buying from Main Drag would probably produce the same feel-good effect as buying from Southside, I decided.

Norm’s Music
922 Kings Hwy.
Brooklyn NY 11223

Several days later, I traveled down to the southern Brooklyn neighborhood of Gravesend, which is 30 minutes outside of Manhattan. Norm’s Music is maybe a 10- or 15-minute walk from the subway. It’s actually kind of an exhausting trek for someone going there from Manhattan. Once inside, however, one finds a little, homey music shop in a neighborhood that feels as though it’s a lot farther from Manhattan than it actually is. It feels kind of like it’s outside the country. The shop has blinking lights and a warm, inviting atmosphere. Apparently, Norm’s Music has been open for more than 30 years, and some staff members have worked there for more than 10. Photos on the wall depict famous musicians who visited the shop; they include Marky Ramone and countless others. I noticed guitars hung on the walls and instruments organized into different sections. There was a practicing space, as well. The store was a little cluttered as compared to the previous two places, but it had much more warmth, resembling someone’s basement: a little messy, but inviting and relaxing.

I approached an associate shortly after having entered. I gave him my story about looking for an amp to purchase for a family member. He recommended a Blackstar amp, saying it was good for an apartment. He noted that Marshall amps would be good if my family member planned to join a band. I thanked him and continued to browse. Looking around, other amps I noticed in the store included the VOX AC15C1 (for $599) and the Orange Crush CR60C (for $499), along with a selection of Marshall amps that ranged from $129 to $699.

Since the store wasn’t very crowded, I wondered why the associate didn’t try to help me out more. (I had chosen a weekday evening, after work, to visit.) I figured most people were on their way home from work. On the plus side, the sales staff was giving me the space I needed to look around; on the other hand, the man offered me limited choices. Mulling over all of that, I left the shop.

It was definitely a trek to get to Norm’s, but I could see the value in traveling all the way down there for a great deal or a particular item.

Guitar Center
139 Flatbush Ave.
Brooklyn NY 11217

The last store I visited was Guitar Center, located in Atlantic Center. I visited on a weekday, during the evening commute. To get to the retail space, I descended an escalator to the basement. I immediately noticed that Guitar Center was much more spacious and full of instruments and rooms than the other three shops had been. I was impressed by the “Acoustic Corral,” a sectioned-off area for showcasing (and trying out) acoustic guitars. I also saw that there was a “Lessons” section and a “Used Gear” area. It seemed to me that this would probably be a good place to get the best deal, given the selection and retail space.

A cheerful greeter said “Hello!” to me as I walked through the door. I heard people playing guitars in one corner of the store, and I also heard music playing in the background. In addition, announcements were made from time to time, with employee news and other information. The whole store was neat and organized, and it seemed to be run efficiently and staffed well. An associate was on the floor, talking to a young man who was playing a guitar. Once he became free, I approached and asked him to recommend an amp for my family member.

Without hesitation, he recommended an all-tube amp, saying he wished he had gotten one from the beginning for himself. He pointed out a VOX amp (priced at $350) and said it was well made for the price. He explained to me that classic rock albums got their sound using all-tube amps. (That was helpful for me in better understanding the sound he was describing.) To further show me the all-tube amp sound, he plugged a guitar into an all-tube amp and played it for me. Due to the noise level in the store—what with others practicing, background music and PA announcements—it was a little hard to hear exactly what he was talking about. Nevertheless, I appreciated how hard he worked to explain the different amp sounds, and how he used his own music knowledge and experience to do it. It was clear that the young man was working in the right place. I, convincingly playing a novice to music, understood what he was explaining and felt as though he gave me useful information to help make a purchase.

In case I was interested in something different, he also showed me a digital amp made by Fender. He explained that the sound was not as warm or natural as that of an all-tube amp. And, as a bonus, the associate also mentioned a used amp (priced at $200) that was available that day. He also recommended that I return for the holiday specials, which, at the time of my visit in autumn, were fast approaching.

The Sale

This is tricky. At first, I was torn between Southside Guitars and Guitar Center: a battle between a local shop and a chain store. On one hand, Southside Guitars boasts an amazing customer-service experience and truly special merchandise; on the other hand, Guitar Center has more amenities and gives a shopper more realistic (and more affordable) options. The associates at both of those locations were extremely nice, clear and informative.

Although I might be inclined to get a better deal at Guitar Center, I, as a shopper, would probably be all right with absorbing the little-guy, brick-and-mortar cost by shopping at Southside Guitars. It’s about the feel-good nature of the purchase. I think that, if I were shopping for a gift for a family member, I would want to get something special. So, maybe I would go a little out of the way and get something from a shop in Williamsburg, rather than a chain store in downtown Brooklyn.

That might not be what you, the reader, would expect the MI Spy to write, but my verdict reflects my desire both to get something special and to keep small shops alive. And, who knows? If its Yelp reviews are accurate, then maybe Southside Guitars would offer a deal that would beat Guitar Center.

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