MI Spy continues his/her virtual visit of Minneapolis MI stores and this month selects a winner.

Editor’s Note: In our June issue, MI Spy reviewed Minneapolis-area websites. This month, MI Spy reviews four more sites and selects a winner among all nine websites presented both this month and last month.

Twin Town Guitars

Visit the Twin Town Guitars website, and you’ll immediately be greeted by a scrolling carousel of clickable images accompanied by clear, concise messages about the store’s deals and services. When MI Spy visited the site, these links included “Online Lessons” and “Quarantunes,” which demonstrated that the store is already reaching out to us in our socially distanced lairs. And the promise of “Curbside Pickup: Monday through Friday, noon to 5 p.m.” is another very good way for the store to show its adaptability. At the top of the site is the store’s logo and slogan: “Keeping Your Life Loud & Local Since 1997.”

Twin Town’s website offers a wide variety of instruments and accessories, and the homepage has a clean layout. One of the first things I clicked on was the “About Us” section, and I was pleased to see that the page recaps the store’s history, and it even mentions that it has solar panels on its roof (more signs of modernity and adaptability!). A bit of the store’s pedigree is also mentioned in that it is “picking up where the legendary Benedict’s Guitar Shop left off in 1995.”

Overall, Twin Town’s website is inviting and well organized. It is easy to navigate, and its dropdown menus work well. For each type of instrument or accessory, there are easily accessed options to limit your search results on the left-hand side of the page (including options to limit your results by category, price and brand). One minor quibble is that, in the search results, the prices are listed in a lighter gray font and are harder to read than the names and descriptions of the items for sale.

Sweep your mouse over an item’s image and “Quickview” will appear; click on that button, and it will open a popup with some information about the chosen product. You can also get more detailed information by clicking on the image or the product name, or by clicking “View more details” in the “Quickview” pop-up.

Twin Town’s website offers up electric and acoustic guitars, basses, amps, effects pedals, drums, keyboards and a variety of accessories. Within the acoustic designation, you can see banjos, dulcimers, ukuleles, mandolins, harmonicas, resonators and even sitars. It also offers band and orchestra instruments such as violins, violas, cellos, upright basses, clarinets, flutes, saxophones, trumpets and trombones. In addition, they do repairs for all types of instruments.

As for depth of inventory, electric and acoustic guitars, as well as drums, are best represented here. The store offers products covering many prices; for acoustic guitars, it has a $99 guitar as well as some over $3,000. It sells new as well as used instruments and equipment. There are dozens upon dozens of guitars offered here, as well as basses. Some instruments have more limited supply, such as banjos, saxophones and woodwind instruments.

Twin Town offers private lessons and classes, for both children and adults, for several instruments and genres, including jazz and blues. It even features a few tribute groups (including The Blues Brothers, CAKE and Juanes). They also have workshops and seminars, and a songwriting course. (These offerings may be handled differently during the pandemic, so contact the store for precise details.) The site lists 30 different music instructors, male and female, for various instruments and specialties. You can click on each instructor for a bio, personal statement and photo.

Blackbird’s Music Store

The homepage to Blackbird’s is like a record album cover: a bold graphic with their name and logo. The silhouette of a bird with a red musical note inside it grabs your attention, so if you were an indifferent web surfer, you would likely be drawn in by this catchy image.

You have a variety of choices to click on just below the graphic, such as “Events Calendar,” “Current Inventory,” “Lessons,” “Rentals,” “Repairs,” “Jams” and “Store.” Or you can scroll down to see the store hours and contact information.

Believe it or not, an Events Calendar is an atypical feature for a music store website. When MI Spy checked, Blackbird’s Events Calendar let visitors look at events for the current month, the previous month and the next few months. There was an intriguing assortment of offerings listed: Bluegrass Jams, French Canadian Jams, Celtic Jams, Adult Learner’s Jams, Community Ed Banjo and Community Ed Violin, and Guitar Jams as well. Blackbird’s is currently hosting the jams via Zoom. Based on the wide variety of events listed, it seems this shop has a strong emphasis on community participation and lessons.

As for inventory, Blackbird’s carries a lot of accessories for string instruments, especially for acoustics (although there is plenty on offer for electrics as well). It sells a few small instruments such as harmonicas and tambourines. In addition, the store stocks essentials like music stands, strings, rosin, humidifiers, picks, capos and more. And it is stocked with a variety of sheet music and books. If you click on the “Current Inventory” tab, you’ll see a link to the store’s Reverb page.

Blackbird’s offers rentals, and their policy is straightforward, but the problem here is that they don’t have pictures nor descriptions of their instruments offered. You are told to “Call or email us about specific instrument request (sic), since inventory is always rotating at the shop.”

Under “Lessons,” the “Teachers” page lists 10 music instructors, and you can click on each person’s headshot to read a brief bio. Blackbird’s also does repairs at the shop, and the specifics and prices are spelled out on the website, which is good policy.

Overall, there are a few very inviting elements to this website, as well as others that are lacking. In person, this is probably a lively and homey place to buy things and play music, but over the internet, there are definite limits.

Hoffman Guitars

A lot of text, a hand-drawn logo, two close-up pictures of guitars, and an action shot of a black dog running in the snow: This is what you first see on the Hoffman Guitars homepage. It comes across as homespun, not slick, but also not necessarily the most eye-catching layout and graphics. You had better be interested in what they have or you will turn away quickly.

But the text is interesting, if you are a guitar lover. The retailer is straightforward and clear about its business, which includes crafting custom-made guitars, servicing guitars of many brands, selling essential and desired accessories, and casually teaching people about guitars and how to appreciate them. (One thing I didn’t like on the homepage is the sidebar on the left. It’s rendered in two badly paired colors, so it’s harsh on the eyes.)

Click on the link for “New Guitars,” then click the various links listed under “Models,” and you will be enthralled by Hoffman’s beautiful handcrafted guitars. There are a dozen types of guitars, all with specifications listed. This is serious stuff, and real craftsmanship.

On the other hand, the “Recent Additions” link brings you to blogs and material that was written in 2013 and earlier. And two of the links in the main menu bring you to nothing. The site may have “130 separate pages with more than 1,000 photographs” but then, it’s more like a museum than a store. The website has some tantalizing elements and some average aspects, but badly needs editing and revamping.

Schmitt Music

The main reason I picked Schmitt’s to include here was that it used to be located within Minneapolis but now has multiple locations elsewhere, including a suburb that is close to Minneapolis. And also… none other than the dearly beloved, legendary Prince himself once posed for a photograph in front of the infamous Schmitt Music Mural in downtown Minneapolis, on Marquette Avenue (the mural is still there, although the store moved).

So, let’s take a look at the website for Schmitt Music in Edina, Minn., which is the closest location to Minneapolis.

The Edina store site’s homepage also has a prominent carousel of images that scroll by. The homepage packs in a lot of information (including links to the other Schmitt locations), and it is easy to navigate the rest of the website from here. There are blog posts that are only a week old, so this is a well-maintained section of the website.

One unusual aspect of Schmitt Music in general is that it not only offers private lessons and group lessons for several instruments, it also offers music therapy sessions (including individualized music therapy sessions for “birth through age 5”). You can find information about these music therapy offerings on the website.

Schmitt Music is an impressive entity in other ways, too: It has 15 store locations (including a few others that are not far from Minneapolis), and it turned 123 years old this past November. The franchise stocks a wide variety of instruments and accessories, but as it specializes in keyboards, pianos, and band and orchestra instruments, it is less of a rock ‘n roll outfit and caters more to children and schools.

The website features links for several categories and subcategories of instruments, and each section provides prices for individual items. However, for some sections, you have to click through a few different layers of links to get to specific items and prices. Overall, it’s a well-designed site and provides a lot of information, in a nice setting.

The Web Winner

Making my final evaluations and comparisons for this particular report was sooooo different, ladies and gents. Not being inside these shops, on my own two feet, was a new experience indeed. And thanks to the inherent anonymity of the internet, I didn’t even have to use my dazzling MI Spy skills! So, I am giving you my report based only on what I saw online, and this approach certainly has its limitations.

Therefore, for what it’s worth, I selected Twin Town Guitars as the winner for its design and the way it clearly conveyed information on the store’s products and offerings.

A few honorable mentions: If you are into violins, violas and cellos, you will be very impressed by the Claire Givens Violins site. Similarly, if you are interested in folk, bluegrass and Americana, the Homestead Pickin’ Parlor and Blackbird’s Music Store sites are enjoyable and informative. If you want high-end guitars, then Hoffman and El Diablo will have you drooling. Schmitt Music is a good all-around music emporium website. A few of the other websites need some gussying up to be more enticing to discriminating customers.

One thing that got me wondering was that these sites did not namedrop some of the more famous musical performers and groups that have come from Minneapolis, such as Prince, the Replacements, Soul Asylum and Lizzo. Are there any bits and pieces of memorabilia from them and others in the actual stores? If so, you wouldn’t know just from visiting the websites. I’d have thought at least some of them would have made mention of these luminaries and others.

Well, ladies and gents, I do hope to make it to Minneapolis someday again, to check out these stores and maybe take in some live sports once the stadiums and arenas open up again. Wouldn’t that be a great time? Until then….

To read more mission reports from our MI Spy, click here.

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