I was visiting one of my favorite cities, San Francisco CA, and enjoying an extended hiatus when the call came. I had been all set to get a shrimp sandwich and watch some great street musicians at the wharf. But, since duty was calling, I slipped away, leaving a $50 on the counter. The Chief, his voice firm but seemingly frazzled, said, “Spy?” I responded, “Yes, Chief.” He said, “I have an emergency assignment for you.” He paused for a long moment. “We’ve got an agent down. Spy…I need you back.” My response was almost cinematic: “Chief…I never left.”

Despite my dedication to the mission, I was floored by the “requirements” of this very, well, unusual assignment. “Head out to Denver CO quickly,” he instructed. “Your fellow agents, Anthony and Cleopatra, will meet you there. Your story is that they’re helping Anthony’s sister buy a set of drums for her son.” He continued, “The kid just graduated and he’s off to college. And you, Spy…you get to be Grandpa.” For a moment, I was indignant. The MI Spy is a swinging, debonair man about town, not a little old man! No amount of technology, makeup or costuming could pull this off!, I thought to myself.

I never should have doubted the masters of disguise down at HQ. After they slapped on a few layers of wrinkle paste and outfitted me with a bald cap and some high-tech prosthetics, I looked in the mirror to find that I was…a senior citizen!

Music & Arts
5158 S. Broadway
Englewood CO 80113

Englewood CO is a suburb of Denver, with green fields shouldered by the Rocky Mountains. The parking lot was massive, but abandoned looking. After parking the car, I noticed a couple steaming up the car windows at 10:45am. I knew it had to be Anthony and Cleopatra. After I knocked on the window to try to get their attention, Cleo responded with a laugh and a flip of the hand. “You go on, Spy,” she purred. “We’ll be there in a bit, love.”

As I walked in, I noted the posted hours and the “open” feeling. Displays were neat and precise along the slat walls. I noticed Bellafina violins of various sizes and Glasser bows. I walked over to the only drum set that I saw on display. A young man at the counter greeted me as soon as I came in. He waited about five minutes, however, before he approached to see what I needed. After I gave him the story, he commented that the set on display was beginner level. I noticed three bass drums, as well, with a Gretsch looking particularly inviting. The man said it sounded like I needed something of higher quality, but he also said he didn’t really know that much about drums.

When the phone rang, he went to grab it and then proceeded to spend 10 minutes talking to the potential customer (never mind that a customer was already in the store). I eyed some Buffet Crampon clarinets and Yamaha saxes behind the counter. Meanwhile, a female employee walked from the back to the front counter, without acknowledging me. I started to meander around the back, where the sheet music was, and I saw teaching studios. At that moment, Anthony strode in, some of Cleo’s lipstick still marking his ear.

The salesman was still on the phone, so, for a moment, we waited. A couple of minutes later, he finished the call and approached Anthony. “Can I help you?” he asked. Anthony said he wanted a drum set. “Sorry, this is all we have,” the salesman said, pointing to the same set. I walked forward and asked about another set of black drums that I’d spotted. “Those are electronic ones,” the man said. “Maybe we should get those for his dorm room,” I mused to Anthony. The salesman quoted me $564 for the electronic drums with an amp.

I asked about hand percussion, in response to which he pointed to the wall, where there were prepackaged hand percussion instruments, and then he walked back behind the counter. I asked if he had a card. He wrote his name on a store card and gave us a friendly goodbye.

Music & Arts has a fantastic Web site and well-developed pages on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social media channels. Sadly, it didn’t really translate to my shopping experience.

Music Go Round
8055 W. Bowles Ave.
Littleton CO 80123

I stashed the car in the very large parking lot and looked around, taking in all the stores and activities around Music Go Round. As I prepped to walk over, Cleo said, “How about you go on in, Spy? Anthony and I will follow.” Fine!, I thought. I went in solo and got no greeting from the four guys behind the counter. Apparently, being an old man gets you ignored a lot….

I noticed promotions for local bands, posted store hours and a local magazine that covers live entertainment. The store is clearly in touch with the community. I noticed a lot of used amps, plenty of PAs and an equal amount of used guitars. There were teaching studios in the back, and I saw many used drums. Brands that caught my eye included Gretsch, Yamaha, DW and Latin Percussion. Clearly, it’s an impressive store with lots of great choices.

When I asked for help, three of the more middle-aged rocker guys mumbled at each other and then passed me to a young guy, with shoulder-length blonde hair, who was unpacking a box. Seeming quite friendly, he came over to ask how he could help. I told him about the young, college-bound drummer. He asked what brand of drums he currently has. Feeling a bit playful, I responded, “All I know is that there are two letters in the name.” He said, “Ahhh…must be DW or CB!” The guy seemed to know his brands! He showed me some intermediate-level drums and suggested that we buy him a gift card, so he could pick out his own. Not a bad idea!

“Give me an idea of the total price,” I said, “so I can tell the family and we can all chip in.” He put together the figures for a Tama Star Classic set with three Zildjian cymbals, a throne, a kick pedal and intermediate-level hardware; it came to $1,350, with a discount. He also said there was a special on Roland electronic drums, along with a Roland speaker. He told me that, for $640, those might be good for a dorm room.

The in-store setup was missing the special cable to connect the electronics, so the man went to look for it. That’s when I noticed Anthony and Cleopatra had entered the store and begun to walk around. In short order, they planted themselves in the drum section. The blonde-haired guy came back, having been unable to find that electronic connection. Boy, he had tried, though.

I asked him for a card. He wrote the price quote on the back of a band’s promo postcard. I was getting the vibe that this dude was the hardest-working salesman in the store, but there were no business cards for him to give out. I left, joining Cleo and Anthony, who were already in the car. They said no one had offered them any help.

Rupps Drums
2045 S. Holly St.
Denver CO 80224

The store, which is a converted house, has its own parking lot. Very nice! Immediately, we received a warm, friendly greeting from all three guys behind the counter. It’s amazing the difference it makes to receive a hearty hello and an invitation to come on in and look around. Even though the gentlemen were placing an order and each of them was throwing in his two cents, they made sure to stop what they were doing and offer a friendly welcome. That, my friends, is how it’s done! Looking around, we saw artist-signed photos with thank-you notes written for the staff and the store. We also noticed teaching materials and instruction rooms, as well as community boards for local players.

As I made my way through the store, it almost felt like walking down an aisle in an airplane, only with drums on every side of you. Everything was orderly, and the drums that were set up were on a large platform shelf to offer customers a good view. I saw stacks of the same set in different colors, along with shells stacked underneath. Brands included Tama, Mapex, DW, CB, ddrum, Yamaha, Craviotto, Natal and others. Broadening out my scope to percussion products of all kinds, I spotted logos from Paiste, Sabian, Meinl, Toca, Gon Bops, Remo and scores of others, with plenty of products available to try out and actually hear. I mean, when a store is trying to sell drum sets, timbales, cajóns and congas, it’s only natural for them to be set up to try out, right?

One of the guys stepped away from the ordering process, offering to help us find anything that we needed. We told him the by-now-well-rehearsed story. He immediately asked what type of drums the college-bound lad was currently using, and inquired about his plans for the future. The other two salesmen were giving helpful suggestions from the counter, even as they were writing up their order. Once they knew what our needs were, they switched salesmen, ensuring that the most knowledgeable helped us. He said, “Bring your grandson in, so that he can choose.” He noted that, if we bought something, it could be traded in for another product within 10 days. The store offers repairs, and it will even customize a set. The man put together a package—a five-piece used Ludwig set with a new kick pedal, a throne, high-end cymbals, and insurance to cover replacement or repairs—for $1,799.

Because I said that the young percussionist had an interest in Latin jazz, the salesman suggested a set of congas, timbales, eight good-quality hand percussion instruments and a cymbals upgrade for the same price. He noted that it sounded like he had a decent drum set already. He added that that would make him a more desirable player. This guy’s salesmanship was so on point that I thought Anthony and Cleopatra were going to buy something on the spot. I think they forgot we were secret agents on a spy mission!

I asked for a card, but there weren’t any left. The store is on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, along with having an information-packed Web site. I learned that Rupps Drums does something I’ve never seen before: tithing a portion of the store’s income to two community charitable organizations. These guys are very impressive, in more ways than one.

Music & Arts
7421 W. Bowles Ave. #12
Littleton CO 80123

This Music & Arts location had a great parking area right out in front. Cleo went to get her nails done; Anthony, meanwhile, tilted back the passenger seat and started to snooze. I began to wonder why The Chief had sent along two additional operatives when neither, it seemed, was all that interested in helping to do the nitty-gritty work of MI spying! Sadly, even secret agents can be loafers now and then.

The store was narrow, offering local info for bands right in front, along with posted business hours. I spotted a ukulele wall that boasted a nice variety. I also saw a long glass counter with Rico reeds and small goods; there were band instruments on display along the walls; and the store had a great selection of music gifts on racks in the center. A young, blonde-haired sales lady immediately greeted me, asking if she could help me with any purchases. I gave her the scenario, and then she showed me a small display of drums on shelves. However, nothing was set up to try, except the same electronic drums that the other Music & Arts had.

I must say, though, that the sales lady was really trying to be helpful. She said to bring in the young drummer to look through Music & Arts’ catalog of items to order. I asked her to put together a list with prices for me, so I could get an idea. She put together a Pearl five-piece drum set with three Zildjian cymbals, double-braced cymbal stands, a throne and a Sound Care three-year warranty. The total price was $1,245. The electronic drums with an amp, meanwhile, could be mine for $875. That would also include electronic cymbals.

I asked the sales lady how she likes working there, to which she responded that she really enjoys it. She performs in local groups and is a working musician. On the whole, it was a successful trip and a good customer-service experience.

The Sale

I learned a few things during this spying jaunt. A chain store might be a chain store, but, nevertheless, it’s the people who make the difference. The first Music & Arts was a bit too generic for me, with little distinguishing personality of its own. The second one, meanwhile, was more inviting. Music Go Round had one go-getter; maybe the other guys were just too cool for school and didn’t want to deal with the little old man asking for drums. When it comes to spending The Chief’s money, though, the purchase has to be from Rupps Drums. That store simply had it all!

After heading back to headquarters to be debriefed and to have my elaborate disguise removed, I slipped into my finest tux, grabbed a martini and happily returned to the swinging spy life that makes it all worthwhile.

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