Editor’s Note: These store visits were conducted prior to nonessential businesses being shut down in New York City due to the coronavirus.

I was texting a lady friend when the phone rang. The caller ID read “Chief Concern,” which is how I have the Chief entered in my contacts. (Don’t tell anyone, though; the Chief doesn’t know, and he has his ways of finding out, so it will have to be our little secret.)

Of course I was annoyed by the interruption, but hey, the Chief’s calls mean more money in my pocket (although not as much as you’d expect for someone with my unique set of skills). I answered the call.

The Chief’s gruff voice immediately blasted forth from my phone without so much as a greeting. “Spy, I need to send you on another assignment,” he said.

“Since when are we close enough for you to just call me ‘Spy?’” I quipped in response. “Please refer to me by my proper designation, ‘MI Spy.’ Or if you’d prefer, ‘Grandmaster.’”

“’Grandmaster?’” the Chief scoffed. “Grandmaster of screwing up, maybe. OK then, ‘MI Spy’ it is. I need you for a mission.”

“I’d love to help you out, Chief, but I’m feeling kind of tired lately,” I replied. “It must be burnout. Maybe I should take a vacation with those big bucks you pay me.”

“Burnout is definitely the right word to describe you,” the Chief shot back. “You just spent two months in Chicago. Most of our agents would kill for an assignment like that. All you had to do was check out some music stores.”

I brushed aside the Chief’s casual dismissal of my work. “How many years have I been doing this without a break, Chief?” I protested. “There are probably stores I’ve spied on that are up to their third generation of management by now.”

But the Chief was having none of my protests. “The mission never stops, MI Spy. And we never sleep. Which brings me to your assignment: I need you to file another report on the MI retail scene in New York City.”

“Fine, but my dating life comes first, Chief. And my shaken-not-stirred drinks.”

“Spoken like a true professional, MI Spy,” the Chief groaned. “Just get me that report, and save the drinks and the dames for after you’ve filed.”

It hadn’t been long since my last New York City mission. I had scoped out some stores in the city last year, but in order to protect my identity, I would have to choose some different targets this time around. My first thought was lower Manhattan, as in Greenwich Village or thereabouts. I selected three stores in the area, but needed a fourth, so I decided to check out one more store right across the Hudson River in Hoboken, N.J., as well.

Rivington Guitars
73 E. 4th St.
New York, NY 10003

As I stepped off a train in midtown Manhattan, I knew I needed some fuel for the day ahead. So, I ventured to one of my favorite sub sandwich shops, Potbelly. The chain is based in Chicago, and I always love stopping in when visiting the Windy City. The first thing I noticed at the New York City location was a sign on a bulletin board telling me that “Dan Smith Will Teach You Guitar.” Considering this advertisement for guitar lessons was one of the first things I saw on this mission, I knew it must be some kind of omen. I ordered a chicken-and-cheddar “bigs” sandwich, along with a bag of Sun Chips and a bottle of Coke Zero, and scarfed it all down while trying to come up with a cover story for the mission, while also wondering why polar bears are on Coke bottles if they don’t drink soda.

But I digress. After leaving Potbelly, I decided to walk downtown to my first target, Rivington Guitars. It was not a beautiful day, and I was dodging puddles at several intersections, but the weather was unseasonably warm and I like walking the Manhattan streets, so it could have been worse. It actually was quite a walk, but I enjoyed it. On the way to Rivington, I decided what my story would be. Drawing inspiration from the music lesson ad in Potbelly, I decided I would look for a beginner guitar for my son, a 10-year-old boy. I figured I would steer the conversation toward acoustic guitars first, but was interested to see if the stores would try to sell me on an electric, which would require an amplifier purchase as well.

Upon walking into Rivington Guitars, I was greeted immediately. I told the salesperson my cover story, and he responded that most people start on an acoustic guitar. However, he mentioned that he started on an electric guitar.

“If I started on an acoustic, I probably never would have played [music],” he said. “Because when I was 10 years old, I said I wanted to play like that guy.” By “that guy,” he meant one of the electric guitar gods of his youth. He acknowledged that today is a bit different, and not as many kids immediately want an electric guitar. And he noted that an acoustic may make the most sense for my “son.” So, he recommended I go next door, where Rivington has a separate acoustic guitar room fronted by another employee.

I made my way next door. The salesman was working in the back, but immediately came out to greet me. I told him my cover story, which reminded him of his own beginnings as a guitar player. “I started at 10, and my parents got me a toy guitar,” said the salesman. “That didn’t work.”

He recommended an Ibanez with a cutaway for $179. Then, he asked if I had heard of Takamine, to which I answered “yes.” He also noted that a Jasmine could do the trick. When asked about acoustic versus electric, he noted for a starter guitar, acoustic would work well. I thanked him, and off I went.

Rudy’s Music
461 Broome St.
New York, NY 10013

I took another long but nice walk over to Rudy’s Music — yes, this is the famous Rudy’s that used to be a key cog of New York City’s Music Row on 48th Street, although that location is long gone. The first thing I noticed at Rudy’s was how clean and beautiful the store is. I also found it to be spacious, especially considering the huge cost of real estate where it is located. Although the size certainly does not rival a Guitar Center or Sam Ash, its excellent layout made its two floors seem like a really nice, impressive space. Several staff members were working when I walked in, and I noticed both male and female employees, which is always nice to see. I quickly glanced at some guitars and Rudy’s Music T-shirts before finding my way into an acoustic guitar room, where an employee was ready for me.

First, I brought up Rudy’s former famous 48th Street location and asked how long it had been since the store had moved and what the reason was for the move. The salesperson responded it must have been a decade since they moved and that Music Row, as 48th Street used to be called, was no longer a thing, unfortunately, so a move was required.

I then got into my cover story. The salesman pulled a Taylor off the rack, and instead of just describing it, he played it for me for about 10 seconds. I really liked that. Hearing the Grand Acoustic Academy 12 made me want to buy it more than if I were just told about it. The price was $649, including a gig bag and lifetime warranty. The salesman then proceeded to play the guitar again. I told him I would have to think about it, so he invited me to go upstairs and check out some more guitars.

I proceeded up the stairs, where there was one customer and another employee waiting at the ready. The room is dedicated to C.F. Martin, with several guitars behind a glass case. I heard the salesman explain several of the models to the customer, such as which were the newer models. The salesman seemed to be on a roll. I did not want to break his stride, and hence did not ask for help. So, I just let him talk to the customer and checked out the Martins myself.

I made my way back downstairs in an effort to leave, but was impressed that another salesperson approached me and asked how I was doing. He then welcomed me to check out any electrics I wanted to. I told him I was considering acoustics, specifically a Taylor, and he noted that the store has much more than Taylors, including a Gibson J-45 for sale. “We have a little bit everything,” he said.

I thanked him and was on my way. The one thought that went through my mind was that Rudy’s exuded class throughout my visit. Clearly, it is a well-run organization.

TR Crandall Guitars
156 Ludlow St.
5th Floor
New York, NY 10002

I took another lengthy walk through some beautiful areas of Manhattan to TR Crandall Guitars. It was slightly different from the first two stores I visited in that I had to ring the buzzer to be allowed inside. Once inside the building, I took the elevator up to the fifth floor. I walked back to the acoustic area and got to hang out on my own for a while. So I checked out some guitars, took a brief look out the widow and sent out some texts to spies who report on other industries. Even with all my experience, I always like to get advice form the people in my field.

I was approached by a salesman after eight minutes, and it was worth the wait. He acknowledged TR Crandall may not be the best place for beginner guitars because it sells mostly high-end products. In fact, most sell for $1,000-plus, I was told. But that did not stop him from showing me several guitars. He said he specifically liked a Harmony guitar they had in stock. He noted it was pricier than a normal beginner guitar, but “Once you buy this, you won’t need another guitar. You might originally think it is a great beginner guitar, but then you realize, this guitar is for me.” He proceeded to play the guitar for me, so I got a better feel for the instrument, which was a nice touch.

I told the salesperson I would think about it, and said an electric guitar could maybe work for my son as well. He asked if I had an amp at home. I said no. But he still showed me an electric guitar, which he also played for me, noting I could easily buy a beginner amp for $50 or $100. “Eventually you will want a [Fender] Stratocaster, but you can start with an another [electric] guitar,” the salesman said.

Then he asked me something the other stores did not. “Are you going to teach him?” he asked, referring to my 10-yearold son. “No,” I responded. He followed up by saying he teaches lessons if I am ever interested in signing my son up. In fact, he wrote down his phone number on a Post-It note for me to call should I go that route. I thought he went above and beyond the call of duty, which I really liked. I thanked him, made my way back to the fifth-floor elevator and headed back outside.

The Guitar Bar
160 1st St.
Hoboken, NJ 07030

After leaving TR Crandall, I made my way to the PATH train to get from lower Manhattan to Hoboken. I tried to get directions from Waze, but for some reason, it did not recognize the Christopher Street PATH station. So instead, I turned to the trusty Google Maps. It told me I needed to walk 1.7 miles to the PATH station, which I did (remind me to invoice the Chief for some new walking shoes). Once at the PATH, I paid the $2.75 fare and took a short eight-minute journey to Hoboken, N.J., known as the “Mile Square City.” After about a 10-minute walk from the station, I was at Guitar Bar’s 1st Street location (there is also a Guitar Bar Jr. second location in uptown Hoboken).

As I walked into the store, I was immediately approached by an employee. I presented my cover story for the fourth time. The employee’s first question was how tall my son is. I said about four and a half feet. He then asked if the guitar would be a surprise, as in a gift, to which I answered “no.” He then recommended that I bring the 10-year-old boy into the store so he could “size him up.” This certainly made sense, considering how many different shapes, sizes and neck profiles there are available on the guitar market. Of course, it would be impossible to fulfill his request, unless I could get the signoff from HQ to bring in one of our more undersized junior agents.

With my fictional son unavailable for the moment, the salesman showed me some acoustic guitars just to give me a taste for what I might be buying. “Many of the guitars we have are in the $79 to $159 range, depending on how serious he will be,” the salesman said. “Here’s [an Ibanez] for $149, but it comes with everything you need: the bag, tuner and strap. But I also have a used [guitar] with a bag we can sell for $89.” He said the sizes of these particular guitars would likely work for a 10-year-old boy. I thanked him, and off I went.

The Sale

I made the short walk back to the PATH station and took a 15-minute journey back to where my mission began: midtown Manhattan (33rd Street and 6th Avenue to be exact). I knew picking a winner would not be an easy call. The only thing I did know was I needed to sit down after all that walking; all told, I clocked 10.8 miles worth of steps for the day.

All four stores are well run, and none hosted a bad experience. In fact, all four were really good. I was treated well at all four locations. And all of the salespeople were clearly experienced and knowledgeable. We definitely were dealing with no rookies on this trip. I certainly could have purchased a guitar for a 10-year-old boy and been happy with the decision.

So, the decision comes down to where I felt most comfortable and where I could really see myself buying the guitar from. I really liked the look and feel of Rudy’s Music. It is hard to explain, but something about that store made me want to open my wallet. The space was impressive, the displays were nice and the salespeople were friendly. To sum it up, at Rudy’s, I felt happy while I was in there. It is a place I would want to jam and hang out in. That’s why it earns the edge in my book, and is therefore this month’s winner.

For more reports from our MI Spy, click here.

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