I’d been enjoying an extended stay in N’awlins after my last assignment when The Chief called in with my next mission. His harsh bark and frenzied demeanor were the death knell for my Big Easy. With great sadness, I realized that I’d have to pull myself out of my Cajun comfort and head north. (Above sea level, even!) At least it was still summer at the time and I wouldn’t freeze my bippies off.

Ahhh…Chicago IL. The Windy City! City of the Big Shoulders! Cornucopia of Guitar Cases! Well, perhaps that last one was wishful thinking on my part, but that’s exactly what I wanted from this town. My story was that I was seeking posh new digs for my Martin D-45 dreadnought, as I was starting to play more open mics and jam with friends around town. I needed something to cover my ax and keep it safe while getting from point A to point B.

I untangled myself from the web of O’Hare Airport and hopped into my french-fry-reeking rental car. Before getting down to business, though, a grievance: Chicago, you know I love you, baby, but I need to let you know that your roads are a rip-off. It seems like there’s a hefty toll every 300 yards or so on the highways, which, frankly, aren’t all that. I feel like I’m still somehow contributing to ex-governor Rod Blagojevich’s slush fund for when he gets out of the clink. To add insult to injury, I-94 is ever the fickle mistress, infamous for its bumper-to-bumper traffic snarls during rush hour…and any other time of day (or night) when you need to travel.

Like New York NY, Chicago is a patchwork of distinct neighborhoods, but on a scatter-view chart. The city proper has about 2.75 million residents, and the population jumps to 9.5 million when you include the surrounding metropolitan area. My first stop was in the belly of the beast.

Chicago Music Exchange
3316 N. Lincoln Ave.
Chicago IL 60657

The Lakeview neighborhood on the city’s north side is hip and lively, with lots of cool local shops. Chicago Music Exchange is there. It’s a destination for bands on tour and a veritable mecca for Midwestern musicians.

I fell in love with the gorgeous store at first sight. The stylish façade is distressed barn wood, with a seemingly well-earned “Best of Chicago 2015” award prominently displayed in the window. So cool was the store’s logo that I was tempted to purchase a shirt.

I was greeted by three rows of gleaming guitars, displayed floor to ceiling. The place was awash in natural light. Candid shots of contemporary bands (e.g., Mumford & Sons, Tame Impala, Grizzly Bear) were on display, all taken when members were shopping there. The Acoustic Room called out to me with its siren song of comfy leather chairs and couches. The “BASSment” was downstairs, as was a repair shop with a list of prices for common services. The whole place looked inviting, friendly and hassle-free. The guy who walked in just ahead of me had won a guitar in the store’s biweekly drawing, and he was grinning from ear to ear.

Soon, a friendly, bald, bespectacled dude with a full sleeve of tats came my way. He looked to be a lifer in the music biz. After I explained my need to shelter my D-45, he gladly showed me my options.

First was a Chicago Music Exchange-branded padded backpack-style bag, affordable at $49.99 due to the free advertising for them. The price increased to around $80 for a Taylor nylon gig bag. I liked the tan color, but I wasn’t sold.

Then, we strolled over to the other side of the display and I beheld the MONO-brand cases. Those were some serious good lookers and they were, obviously, what the salesman was pushing. He said they’d stocked up big time on that line and, therefore, they were offering 20-percent off until the supply was depleted. I dug the padded backpack design of the M80, with its messenger-style bag attached to the front, available in black or tweed grey. The case retailed for $250, and it came down to $170 with the discount and another special offer.

The salesman mentioned MONO’s ad campaign—it features, he said, a case that protects a super-expensive vintage guitar that’s been thrown from the roof of a building—as well as the brand’s lifetime warranty. The case looked like it would take care of a guitar better than a mama bear would protect her cub.

Then, he showed me a hard case option: a Martin-branded 630 molded hard-shell case, made by TKL. I liked the plush green fur lining, but, for the $150 retail price, it wasn’t for me. The salesman didn’t seem to be a fan of them, either, because of their relative heaviness. He said they reminded him of old bluesmen in the hot and dusty south, carrying a case in one hand and a heavy amp in the other. He said he had mad respect for those dudes, because he gets winded walking with an amp from the store to his car!

I thanked him for his time and told him I’d think about it. He said he’d honor the 20-percent MONO discount even if I bought from their Web site, as long as I mentioned his name.

The Guitar Works, Ltd.
709 Main St.
Evanston IL 60202

Still in Cook County, and roughly a dozen miles north of Chicago, is the suburb of Evanston, nicknamed “Heavenston” for its strong Methodist roots, numerous churches and long-lasting temperance. (One couldn’t legally get a drink there until 1972!) Now, the residents thumb their noses at their sanctimonious history. There’s even a Temperance Beer Company. This lovely, leafy city on the shores of Lake Michigan is also home to prestigious Northwestern University. The diverse downtown commercial district, which abuts the campus, is hip and bustling. Other retail areas of the city are Central St., Dempster St. and Main St. My case quest took me to the last.

Conveniently situated near the train line, Evanston’s Main St. looks a little long in the tooth. It was not very populated with shoppers on a lovely weekday afternoon. Just down the street from the post office sat The Guitar Works, Ltd., its big, blue awnings spanning three sizable storefront windows. Five floor-to-ceiling rows of shining guitars popped out like art against an exposed brick backdrop. The place was cute and cozy. I could tell a few other customers were looking at gear.

Upon walking in, I was greeted immediately by a sweet hippie chick who looked like a ’60s survivor with lots of stories to tell. I told her what I was after, and she steered me first to a Reunion Blues case—the RB Continental—that retailed for nearly $300 but was on sale for $189.95. The sturdy model was similar in construction to the MONO case I’d just seen, with the added benefit of a zipper to encase the backpack straps, providing additional storage and lots of padding. I liked the protective neck well and sky-blue, quilted interior, and I appreciated that the case also offered a lifetime warranty. When I balked at the price, we explored cases lower down the food chain.

Another Reunion Blues model—the RBX—was decidedly less padded but more economical. Lightweight and downgraded to a limited lifetime warranty, the gig bag retailed for $119.95. Then, we looked at a Guardian Featherweight case for $89.99. It was a molded foam case with a furry black inside, a pretty big outside pocket and minimalist backpack straps. That one didn’t seem like it would provide much protection or comfort.

Next, we explored the hard side with a Kaces-branded, flat-top number for $89.95. With just the standard little interior pick pocket, it was quite basic. Incidentally, by that time, my new pal and I were sitting cross-legged on the floor, and she was letting her artistic side shine. She mentioned that she personally liked that type of case, as it makes a good canvas for latex painting and stickers, but it still offers enough protection to save the guitar from everyday perils like a gallon of milk bouncing around the car trunk or a confrontation with a friend’s pet alligator. Say what?! I could see myself enjoying a beer with her at the old Temperance brewery later.

She recommended an SKB hard case as a step up from the one we saw, due to its arched top. With the store’s Manager, we looked online for one. I learned the SKB 18 molded case ($160) was something the store could order for me.

What it lacked in size, The Guitar Works, Ltd. more than made up for in the employees’ charm. I was a few storefronts away, jotting down some notes on the curb, when the Owner came running out of the store to find me and beckon me back. I was afraid my cover story had unraveled!

Actually, though, he had checked the inventory in the basement and found a used case that he thought might be of interest. It was a TKL model made for a Collings dreadnought, fashionably broken in, and with a velvet green interior and an arched top for added protection. I could take that one off their hands for $125. He even took an acoustic off the floor to demo the case further, which was very nice. (It was quite heavy when loaded.) I thanked the staff and bid them all adieu.

Make ’N Music
780 W. Frontage Rd.
Northfield IL 60093

Northfield bills itself as “the comfortable corner of the North Shore.” Roughly 20 miles north of downtown, the suburb is decidedly upscale—or parts of it are, at least. Northfield neighbors Winnetka, making its ZIP code the second wealthiest in the nation, according to data from Business Week. I was excited to stroll the streets and take it all in.

Following my GPS directions, I drove through and beyond the nicer part of Northfield, realizing (sadly) that my destination, Make ’N Music, wouldn’t be in the happening part of town. I guess I should have been clued in by the Frontage Rd. address. The store’s Web site also promotes a Chicago location on Racine Ave., opening soon.

Anyone heading south down I-94 toward Chicago has passed this place, which was formerly, and for many years, the home of Gand Music. It’s a small, arch-roofed building smack dab in front of the interstate, surrounded by various automobile dealerships. The cars roared down the busy highway nonstop.

When I walked in, I discerned that the slatwall-laden store was the least inviting of the locations I’d visited so far. It wasn’t what I was expecting from a village of this economic stature. There were the ubiquitous rows of hanging guitars, but the place had a crowded, disorganized, rather depressing feel. There was a warehouse area in the back and a repair shop to the right of the entrance.

Three archetypical dudes were working, all sitting behind the counter absorbed in their computer screens. There was the metal-ish one, the gray-haired ponytail flavor and the dark-haired grunge guy. No one was particularly helpful, even though I was the only customer in the place…and perhaps the only customer for miles around. The grunge guy reluctantly walked out from behind the counter.

Although the store bills itself as a “top cases dealer,” Make ‘N Music had but one case available—a Fender ABS molded hard shell—and it was damaged, at that, and therefore wouldn’t have been sellable even if it had fit my imaginary guitar. I have to give the store the benefit of the doubt, though, because it seemed like products ebbed and flowed depending on when you stopped in.

I asked the sales guy, a guitarist, what he used, as well as his opinion as to whether a gig bag or hard case might be better for my needs. He seemed vaguely more in favor of a hard case. I asked for brands to check out and price ranges I might expect, but I was met mostly with blank stares. He said I should just check some out and go with what seemed good to me. It was as though I were asking a mountain goat to share his thoughts on Kierkegaard.

At last, he suggested that the Guitar Center up the street would probably have a good selection. So, I hightailed it out of there and headed a few exits west on 94 to Highland Park. The salesman hadn’t even said to visit the store’s Web site (I got the impression the place was all about online sales) or to check back. The best thing about the experience was the plentiful parking.

Guitar Center
143 Skokie Valley Rd.
Highland Park IL 60035

About 25 miles outside of Chicago, Highland Park is another posh North Shore ’burb. It boasts a bustling downtown and it’s home to Ravinia, the cross-genre summer music festival famed for its Chicago Symphony shows and lavish picnickers.

Highland Park was used for location shots for several 1980s movies, including John Hughes classics like “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “Home Alone.” A little-known Chicago Bulls basketball player—Michael something—once resided there, in a 56,000-square-foot home behind foreboding iron gates bearing a large number 23. Frank Lloyd Wright also strutted his architectural stuff in Highland Park. Oh…and The Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan owns a teashop there. Can it get any quainter than that?

Alas, the Guitar Center happened to be located in the strip mall section of town, which could be Anywhere, U.S.A. It was seated between a Golfsmith and a Half-Price Books. The store didn’t have a huge footprint, but it was inviting, tidy and well organized. The acoustic room was all wood paneling with a wooden bench. I felt like I should be pressing a button to start the sauna. That particular location seemed to have a robust lessons program, teaching a steady stream of little North Shore Nathans and Natalies to play a variety of instruments.

I was greeted immediately when I walked in and asked what I needed help finding. Then, I was steered to an affable, swoop-haired, college-aged chap who led me to the guitar case section. The cases, which were displayed very nicely on a shelf, were all open so that people could easily see and compare the interiors; pricing and specs were available from the ample signage. Smart thinking, Guitar Center! Plus, at the time of my visit, the store had a great Labor Day Savings Event going on. How eventful!

The clean-cut kid helped me narrow down my choices. First, I checked out a Road Runner polyfoam acoustic case ($69.99 on sale from $79.99). That one had a cut-out, 20-millimeter, foam lining to ensure a snug fit for the guitar. He described it as lightweight, but rigid. He also pointed out the large storage pockets. I read about the two-year warranty on the sign.

He also thought the Road Runner deluxe wood dreadnought acoustic case would serve me well. That all-black beauty was $89.99—not on sale, unfortunately—but it looked darn sturdy and plush on the inside.

I had to ask about gig bags. When I did, the salesman took me to a smaller display. He talked about the super-cheap ones rather dismissively (“glorified garbage bags,” he said), but he did show me the Road Runner RR2AG Boulevard Series gig bag, which was marked down $10 to $49.99. It was black and probably the most backpack-like model I’d seen, with cushy, padded shoulder straps and lots of zip pockets for great storage. Plus, it had several red stars for decoration. I found the design fetching, albeit, one might say, a little communistic.

College Swoop was all business, but he was helpful and friendly enough. When I broke it to him that the sale wasn’t going down that day, he told me that the savings event went through the weekend.

The Sale

Although I wanted to take up residence in Chicago Music Exchange and become BFFs with my new pal at The Guitar Works, Ltd., I must award the sale to Guitar Center. The gig bags at the first two places were stellar, but their prices reflected that. For my relatively simple needs, the Guitar Center Road Runner gig bag for $50 would provide enough protection—and style to boot—without breaking this hand-to-mouth musician’s meager budget.

Yup…it was my kind of case.

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