MI Spy concludes a tour of the New York City metropolitan area by crowning “the King of Staten Island.” Next month, the Spy moves on to another region.

Staten Island, the southernmost borough of New York City, doesn’t get enough respect, especially when it comes to music. There’s a reason it’s sometimes called the “forgotten borough”; when most non-New Yorkers think of New York City, Staten Island’s sleepy suburban neighborhoods don’t immediately come to mind. And New Yorkers themselves tend to treat Staten Island as an afterthought at best. Even proud Staten Island residents and those who were born and raised there tend to look at their home borough in a self-deprecating light; look no further than “The King of Staten Island,” a movie starring “Saturday Night Live” cast member and native Staten Islander Pete Davidson, which does not exactly always offer a positive portrayal of the borough.

But Staten Island does have some impressive musical credentials. The best-known performers from the borough include rap greats the Wu-Tang Clan, rock legend David Johansen (best known as a member of the New York Dolls) and folk music star Joan Baez. The St. George Theatre has served up a variety of amazing musical performances over its nearly 100-year-long history, and clubs like Adobe Blues and Mother Pug’s Saloon are known for being fine live music locales.

And Staten Island boasts a fine assortment of independent musical instrument stores, as well. These tend to be modest-sized shops that serve the local community and help make the music go ‘round in “the Borough of Parks.” This month, the Chief tasked me with writing up a report on some of these small shops, so I called a Staten Island-based friend of mine codenamed “Big B the Lawyer” to see if he had the scoop on which ones would be worth checking out for my MI Spy round-up.

With Big B’s recommendations in mind, your MI Spy grabbed a mask and some hand sanitizer, hopped in the MI Spy Mobile, and hit the Staten Island Expressway to see if I could show Staten Island some of the love and recognition it deserves.

Norm’s Music
4401 Arthur Kill Road
Staten Island, NY 10309

I was particularly interested in checking out Norm’s Music, even though it was waaaaay out in a more rural section of Staten Island. Full disclosure, readers: Although I was visiting Norm’s new location on this trip, I was already familiar with its former location and its old ownership; in fact, one of the owners used to be a very chatty guy, and we actually knew a few people in common. I was kinda bummed out when Norm’s left its old location (I think a small grocery store moved into that spot), but it was good to see that the store lives on.

I didn’t want any of the workers to recognize me, on the off chance that some of the old staff had made the transition to the new location, so I zipped my coat all the way up and covered my face with a nondescript mask (a truly spy-like move that isn’t as suspicious now as it used to be in the pre-pandemic days).

Being familiar with the old location, I had some expectations about Norm’s and some notes to compare the new location to. One plus over the previous location: Norm’s now has a few parking spots right out in front of the store. The old location had no parking lot to speak of, only curbside, metered parking, which made it difficult to haul out and load the bigger purchases, such as amps.

But I did notice that the store is now smaller. The old location was a lengthier store that had more room to display instruments on the walls. This smaller space had less on display. Norm’s does, however, still carry a little bit of everything: guitars, amps, accessories, percussion, books of sheet music, sound equipment, keyboards and such. Everything was neat and prices were clearly displayed. There was even an inexpensive steel pan with mallets for sale (and for a long, strong minute, I was tempted to buy it). And Norm’s does carry a good amount of sound and DJ equipment. But the musical instrument selection was limited, especially compared to the old location, which had more to offer. (The website does have a bigger selection that shoppers can browse as well, so maybe it’s a sign of our world becoming ever-more digital.)

I also did not get much of a welcome when I walked in. There was one guy on the sales floor, and after he said “Hi. How can I help you?” he just went back to working on his laptop. It was also much quieter in the store than I was accustomed to; in the past, Norm’s was always playing loud rock ‘n roll on the speakers, and customers would be loudly trying out guitars or other instruments. It was too quiet this time around, but that was likely due to the pandemic.

Although I preferred some things about Norm’s old location, the current store does, however, maintain a kitschy touch that made me smile. Two fake flash pots dangled from the ceiling, with faux flames dancing from them. And Norm’s does have a cool logo.

Rustic Music Center
531 Forest Avenue
Staten Island, NY 10310

With a name like Rustic Music Center, I wondered if this store would be a log shack hiding a moonshine still out back. But nope, Rustic Music was more like a really cool duplex apartment with a heckuva lot of musical instruments popping out of every nook and cranny.

Like Norm’s, this store had a few parking spots, tucked around the corner. The walls were covered in guitars, both electric and acoustic, and there was a mini-room of amps and more guitars. The street level had a very impressive amount of other instruments as well, including a freestanding selection of ukes, displays for drums and percussion instruments, and more. The lower level had many acoustic guitars, banjoleles and a few mandolins, too. It was a crowded setup, but definitely not overwhelming, and I didn’t feel like I was about to slam into everything. Rustic Music Center also had a super-special guitar pick size for sale; I bought three of these as a gift for a college student acquaintance of mine, Agent J, who plays jazz guitar.

The guy who was working there was very helpful and knew his stuff. He showed me the variety of acoustic and acoustic-electric guitars he had in stock. He pointed out that some were especially made for classical music, and others more for folk and rock. One guitar caught my eye because the sound hole was shaped differently than a typical acoustic. The worker explained why that brand makes it that way, and he also pointed out the store’s thinner-body acoustic guitars. Upstairs, he told me about the different types of hollow-body electrics the store stocked. Also for sale were lots of effects pedals, which were displayed at the main counter.

As I went to leave, the sales guy cheerfully told me to “Check out our selection online!” and handed me a business card. (The MI Spy did check out their website later on, and it is a well-designed site.)

Castellano’s House of Music
1013 Richmond Ave.
Staten Island, NY 10314

If I thought Rustic Music was like a duplex apartment, then Castellanos was like a crowded house full of musical instruments, accessories and other goodies. Unfortunately, there was no dedicated parking for the store; I had to park my MI Spy Mobile in the parking lot of the nearby supermarket.

To be honest, I was a tiny bit spooked by the location, because Castellano’s is across the street from a cemetery. I was a little bit worried about the possibility of bringing home a haunted or otherwise cursed instrument. However, MI Spy duties called, so I shrugged that off and headed inside.

Castellano’s is a longish, narrow store. Somehow, despite the narrowness, the store features two aisles; it does get a bit crowded, since nearly every available inch of space is in use. As soon as you enter the front door, you are greeted by wall displays of sheet music and music books. A slightly ripped, inspirational poster taped to the door to the second floor, with a newspaper clipping in the middle of it about a local musician who competed on “American Idol,” offered a quaint touch. And another homey touch was the green street sign reading “Marion Castellano Way.”

This shop had a lot of guitars of many different types hanging from the walls, and some in boxes. Also on display were amps, keyboards, a few stacks of drums (with a humidifier puffing away on top of one set), a large assortment of guitar picks (including a set emblazoned with the logo of the NHL’s New York Islanders), ukuleles, violins and more. Castellano’s also stocked lots of accessories, including some for brass and woodwind instruments.

While I was there, an older man was playing some jazzy licks on an electric guitar. He and one of the two workers on duty were discussing the features of that guitar as compared to another. I approached the front counter, and a friendly younger guy greeted me. He and I talked a bit about the kitschy Ed Sheeran guitar displayed on one wall. “The pickups are really good, and the sound is really nice,” he told me. Someone who works here is probably an AC/DC fan, because I saw more than a few accessories (gig bag, picks, etc.) for sale with the band’s logo on them.

Mode Music
1238 Bay Street
Staten Island, NY 10305

If Rustic Music was the duplex apartment, and Castellano’s was the house, then Mode Music was Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe/Instrument Menagerie! The store gave off a distinctly museum-like feel. In fact, several items on display were in glass cases (and I wasn’t always sure if they were for sale or just for show). Among these were acoustic guitars, a few electrics, a uke, a bass and a washboard for percussion. Another case held a saxophone, violins, guitars and more.

There was a partial wall that was chock full of tambourines and small percussive pieces, and on the floor was an arrangement of drum pedals, lined up as if they were shoes. Also arrayed in various places on the floor were congas, chimes, accordions, bongos and more. There were neat piles of drums, amps and recording equipment (including an Akai tape player that looked decades old). In one obscure corner, there was a lit-up sign that read “Harmonicas and Melodicas by Hohner” with a drawing of each. There was also a high shelf that held instrument cases and toy figures.

This was kind of an odd touch: Occasionally, when browsing through the displays, I encountered mannequin arms that were wrapped around certain instruments. Simply put, Mode Music is a mighty atypical store with a lot of personality, and the mannequin-arm displays are just one example. Sure, the stock of vintage musical instruments was impressive, but I was more impressed by the unusual displays. The offerings are plenty, and not always the run of the mill. This is a shop where you want to hunt and discover something different.

But at first, I wondered if I’d even get to go inside, because a small sign on the door stated that the owner was on a break. I began to walk away, but then a man came to the door and said “I’m here! Come on in.” We actually had a cool discussion of the music that was playing in the store; I liked one older-sounding jazz track and asked if we were listening to Lionel Hampton. The owner replied, “Yes, and listen carefully; he often made noises as he played.” I told him that I’d actually seen the late, legendary vibes player participating in parades in Manhattan when I was a kid. (My parents would say, in a hushed tone, “There’s Lionel Hampton!” We would wave at him, and he’d wave back). We also chatted about Oscar Peterson and other jazz greats of old.

Besides offering a fine setlist of ambient music, Mode Music also offers music lessons and three studios for recording and rehearsal (under the name Phrygian Studios). The store also does repairs.

The Sale

For most Staten Islanders, Rustic Music Center is a great choice for instruments of any level, beginner through professional. It has a wide variety of guitars and percussion in particular, although not much for brass, woodwind or band and orchestra. The service is friendly, and there is a very good price range. Therefore, the MI Spy is awarding it the victory this month.

Mode Music is more of a destination, to be honest. This is the kind of store that people from outside Staten Island would go to on a pilgrimage, because it really is unusual. It’s an eye-opening place, and the kind of store where you can have a deep chat about jazz music with the owner.

Norm’s Music is the kind of place that will serve its immediate area well, and Castellano’s is also really good in this regard. I have to say, Staten Island peeps, your independent music store scene rocks. This is especially heartening to see in this day and age, when small businesses are often in peril. I hope that Staten Islanders (and those from neighboring locales) will patronize these local stores and keep making music!

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

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