MI Spy wraps up the year with a visit to the Garden State.

The coronavirus pandemic of 2020 has changed just about everything in our lives, but if there’s one change your MI Spy is actually thankful for this year, it’s all the extra free time I’ve had to spend binge-watching my favorite TV shows while locked down in the MI Spy Cave. And just because HQ has me back out in the field, that doesn’t mean the marathon streaming sessions have ceased. Quite the contrary. In fact, I was midway through my fourth or fifth rewatch of “The Sopranos” when I got the call for my latest mission: appropriately enough, it was to scour the MI retail scene in northern New Jersey.

The Chief was no-nonsense as usual, his manner reminding me of a certain brooding mob boss of prestige TV drama fame. “Spy, we need you in Jersey,” he barked. “You’re gonna give us the rundown on the music stores in the northern counties. And just so I can be sure you don’t screw this up, I’m gonna assign you some muscle to watch your back and make sure you stay socially distanced.”

Per the Chief’s orders, this time I would be accompanied by Agent MHD. MHD is a keyboard and acoustic guitar specialist, has a background in the flute, and knows a thing or two about what to look for in musical instruments and sheet music. MHD was also bored that day and figured, heck, an excursion and free food, with me at the wheel — why not? So I picked a sunny day — one worthy of a highway-cruising opening credits montage — to check out a few of the Garden State’s musical instrument stores.

We set out for New Jersey’s northern counties: the stores we selected are in Warren, Bergen and Passaic counties. They aren’t far from each other, and are not difficult to get to from Brooklyn or Manhattan. However, I am pretty sure that any shopper would need a vehicle to travel to any and all of these locations.

I traveled during what is ordinarily a hectic time to visit a musical instrument shop. This year is a little bit different (huge understatement there, I know). However, in two of the four stores, we did observe people looking specifically for sheet music and instructional books, musical instrument rentals and sales, and accessories related to instruction. Be it online or in-person, music lessons are still taking place.

As we strolled around each store, we also paid close attention to the pandemic adaptations and social-distancing protocols. Masks and hand sanitizer, protective Plexiglas structures by the cash registers, tape and signs and other distance markers on the floors: all of these are the current reality.

The Music Shop
56 Fanny Road
Boonton, NJ 07005

Our first destination was this cheery-looking shop, situated on a quiet road. As soon as we walked in, one of two workers (both clad in masks and store-logo shirts) asked, “Can I help you?” We decided to browse, and I admired various band instruments while MHD went immediately to the contemporary sheet music and found (and purchased) a softcover collection of Radiohead songs rendered for piano and guitar.

The store had proper health measures in place. It had a few large pieces of Plexiglas suspended from above, to keep a safe but sociable barrier between workers and customers. It had hand sanitizer bottles set out, and tables in place near the counters to keep a bit of distance between the cash registers and customers.

I watched as a local music teacher was comparing band instrument books with one of the workers, discussing the pros and cons of certain brand series. I asked the teacher a few questions, such as the grade levels and interests of their students. He told me he was working with fourth through eighth grade students, “sometimes in school, sometimes virtual.” He also wasn’t sure if they would be performing a live concert this year. The worker attending to him was helpful, describing the lesson books and their respective strengths.

The Music Shop was also selling special masks for students who play wind and brass instruments, as well as cover bags for flute, clarinet, French horn and other instruments. Hey, there is a market for these kinds of products now, even though just last year they would have been seen as laughable or bizarre. But then again, could you imagine explaining 2020 to the 2019 version of yourself?

One wall of the store displayed a bright red plastic trombone, and a green model too. One of the workers and I chatted about them, and he told me, “We carried four colors at one point, but now we just have these two left.” I remembered that a friend of Agent MHD’s, codenamed Jak, had a green plastic trombone. Despite what some purists might think, these are actually impressive and unusual instruments!

Pressing further, I asked the worker how business had been lately: “It’s starting to pick up, because parents and teachers are coming in,” he responded. I asked which instruments are big this year, and he told me, “Well, we don’t know yet. We’re waiting to see. It’s been spread out so far.”

The Music Shop is a sizable store, with a lesson center, recital hall and repair shop within the strip mall where it’s located. (There is also a sandwich shop in the middle, and a business center as well.) The main sales and rentals location carries a good deal of inventory: band instruments, keyboards, some acoustic and electric guitars, a moderate variety of flutes, saxaphones, trumpets and more. It also carries a good selection of sheet music and books. And the layout of the store is neat and inviting. “I got a good vibe from the store; they were approachable,” MHD told me as we got into the car. Overall, it is a good store for students, with a decent selection of instruments and accessories.

Robbie’s Music City
514 U.S. Route 46
Wayne, NJ 07470

When I pulled the car into the parking lot at Robbie’s, it was like finally getting to speak with a neighbor you keep seeing around but haven’t met formally. I’ve driven past this store a number of times over the years but had never gone inside because I’m too often in a rush. I’m glad I finally made the time to stop by.

Robbie’s is a large, sprawling store with big windows, showcasing lots of items for sale. MHD and I walked in and were impressed by the vast inventory. The woman working here, wearing the requisite mask, greeted us as soon as we entered; while we were there, she took several phone calls and chatted with us as well. However, it was a bit too quiet in the store, and I was surprised. At times, I felt like I was strolling through a museum to musical instruments.

The store seemed to have almost everything musical: loads of drums and percussion, brass instruments, accordions, sheet music (new and old, some discounted too), keyboards, violins, mandolins and banjos, acoustic and electric guitars, xylophones, pianos (grands and uprights), basses, plastic instruments such as kazoos and recorders, amps, and all manner of accessories, cases and furniture, such as music stands, benches, and so on. It stocks new and used (some products labeled with “Make an Offer” signs), and the layout is a series of rooms branching off from a main sales area. Hanging on the wall of one of the offices was a vintage four-stringed instrument that I found pretty intriguing.

OK, now let me tell you about the Trumpet Bucket. There was a blue plastic bucket on the floor, and it held six or seven trumpets. A sign said “As is, $75.” I was suddenly feeling the urge to make like Miles Davis, and picked up one of the horns as if to play it. The woman working there chuckled and told me “They’re mostly sold for parts. Some are in better shape than others, and with a little work, some could be made playable!” But handy with the brass instruments I’m not, so I declined the offer.

I asked if local students and teachers had been coming in, and she turned a bit somber. “Not too many yet. We’re waiting to see.” But she told me some schools had begun to call in orders, especially for instructional materials.

The store was orderly and had a fun atmosphere. If you love musical instruments and are looking for a “find,” or would rather just select something easily displayed, you will be pleased with Robbie’s. (One friend of mine, when I told him later on that I’d stopped by here, told me he wants to bring his son by so they can scope out used equipment.)

Robbie’s also has a repairs department, and it offers lessons (although currently online) and other services. There is also a Hackettstown, N.J., location for Robbie’s, so you might want to check it out too.

Sam Ash
50 E. State Route 4
Paramus, NJ 07652

Ahh, the highways and byways of New Jersey; three of the music shops MHD and I visited were located just off highways, and sometimes in order to exit the highway I had to make a pretty quick turn, lest I miss my entrance into the parking lot. (Echoes of the New Jersey refrain “Which exit?” would then haunt me.) And yep, with this branch of the Sam Ash chain, I had to make a swift swerve off a highway, almost directly into a parking spot. Whew!

The Paramus Sam Ash is quite an impressive store, and is lengthy (or “looooong”) in size. There was also a very health-conscious atmosphere at this location. At the front-door register, there were bottles of hand sanitizer and disposable masks for customers. There were printed fliers attached to guitars that read “Please ask an associate to try out any guitar or bass so they can disinfect it before you play.” The keyboards section had a similar set of fliers. Looking around the carpeted floor, I saw taped lines and arrows to promote a smooth, socially distanced traffic flow.

The Paramus shop also had one of the coolest safety measures I’ve seen in a music store: a drum pedal rigged up with a bottle of hand sanitizer, and a sign that said “Press on Foot Pedal to Dispense the Disinfectant.” While that may not qualify as a haiku, it might be my new favorite bit of poetry. You have not truly rocked out in 2020 style if you haven’t stomped on a drum pedal to receive a squirt of sanitizer. With a bit of humor (deadpan and otherwise), this Sam Ash is doing a very impressive, proper job of keeping customers and staff socially
distanced and safe. I appreciated that!

The store had a very big selection of all types of new and used instruments and equipment, and prices were marked clearly on tags. While we were snooping around the store, a few customers were trying out instruments (such as a young man playing a Coldplay song on a keyboard and a family that was discussing a hand bell set rental with a store rep). A few others were buying guitar accessories, and one was trying out an electric guitar. A female worker was in the brass section, fielding phone calls.

I flagged down a worker in the guitar department who told me that business was pretty good because “Guitars are an ‘all around the year’ thing. They’re not usually in the school bands, so we’re getting customers all the time.” I asked him about a curious hybrid plastic/wooden four-stringed instrument that came in two bright colors (the red one looked like a lollipop) that was available for $159. “That’s a banjo-lele,” he told me. “It’s a fun thing. We place it with the ukes.”

Overall, the store was neat, organized and not intimidating, and MHD liked the vibe.

Guitar Center
1 US 46
Totowa, NJ 07512

MHD was plumb tuckered out by the time we reached Guitar Center (highway driving ain’t everyone’s cup of iced tea, after all) and decided to stay in the car while I popped inside the store. There was plenty of parking. A sandwich-board sign in the lot read “Contactless Curbside Pickup Here,” so customers have that option now. In various places throughout the floor of the store, there were official GC signs that said “To maintain social distance, please wait here.”

GC stores are usually big and bold, full of lots of everything musical, and buzzing with music, energy and sales. The Totowa branch was, as expected, pretty lively. Once inside, I noted that there was a lot to browse and buy, and sales reps were nodding their heads and saying “Hello” to me and the others in the store. This GC was well stocked with guitars and basses, effects pedals and amps, drums (traditional and electronic) and other percussion, keyboards and harmonicas, pro equipment and lighting, and much more. It also stocked gifts,
records, calendars and other items like that. And, as is par for the course in Guitar Center, all items for sale were clearly marked with price tags.

Throughout the store, there was tape on the floor, showing arrows and margins to help the flow of traffic, and several laminated signs that read “Please Ask for Assistance,” as well as bottles of hand sanitizer. One thing this
GC didn’t offer but that I’ve seen in other locations is individual guitar picks. However, it did have small plastic buckets set up with rolls of paper towels and pump bottles of hand sanitizer.

An item in percussion that caught my eye was the Lap Cajon for $84.99 (it was located next to some mini-bongos). GC also stocked a few other cajons that had really cool designs.

At one point, I was about to enter the store’s Acoustic Barn because no one else was in there (there were signs indicating that occupancy in each side room is limited to one or two people at a time), when a man dashed over to me and asked “Are you the keeper of the keys?” Apparently the guy thought I was a GC worker, and when I shook my head, he continued past me.

If there was one drawback at this shop on this particular day (it was a Friday), I only spotted a few floor staff on duty, in addition to someone greeting people coming through the door.  Customers did have to search out staff for help, but at least they were all pleasant.

The Sale

Each of these four stores was making the best of the social distancing scene, adapting to a lot of online services, and taking health protocols and such into consideration. I was pleased with my visits to all of them, but there is something extra special about Robbie’s Music City in Wayne. This store is not part of a big chain, yet it carries a very impressive amount and variety of instruments and items that musicians need. MHD and I felt a very good vibe here, and we definitely think you should check out the store if you’re in the area.

The Sam Ash branch and the Guitar Center branch were both good options as well, and you can find lots of what you want and need in each. The Music Shop is especially good if you are buying for children and students in general. In the end, each store had its strong points. With our mission completed, MHD and I stopped off for some gabagool sandwiches with some fresh mootzadell, secure in the knowledge that the music retail racket in northern New Jersey is in good hands.

To read more MI store round-ups from the MI Spy, click here.
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