Welcome to Northampton, “where the coffee is strong and so are the women.” This saying, which I saw posted on stickers and signs throughout Northampton MA, seems to be the unofficial slogan of the city, where The Chief sent me on my latest spy mission. And although the city is not a huge commercial center with headquarters of major companies, like some cities I’ve previously visited, it has plenty to offer in the way of music venues, shops and, of course, instruments.
Northampton has a different vibe than most cities of its size across the U.S., and many of its residents seem to be trying to outdo each other. I saw intense neon hair colors, piercings galore and plenty of wild vintage clothing. The city also has a prominent
LGBTQ community. Tattoo shops, family-owned restaurants and gag gift shops line the city’s streets.
Northampton’s funky, anti-mainstream atmosphere also means it has plenty of independently owned shops, each with a different selection and each boasting staff members who know their stuff. Since ukuleles have been having a moment, I chose to scope out stores in the greater Northampton area for an instrument that has been referred to as a “gateway drug” into the world of music making.
Gerry’s Music Shop
80 Lamb St.
South Hadley MA 01075
My first stop was Gerry’s Music Shop, founded in 1946 and located in South Hadley MA, just a short drive from the greater Northampton area. Aside from selling and repairing instruments and providing lessons, the shop also supplies instruments to local schools.
Gerry’s stands alone, off the main road, but not exactly in a pedestrian-friendly area. From the outside, it doesn’t look like much. In fact, the building is rather plain looking, with muted colors, faded signs, and a handful of sticker signs on the door that tout various awards and brands of instruments available inside. One thing that was immediately evident, though, was the size of the building. I would later realize the store was one of the biggest on my mission, with one of the largest selections I would see that day.
I walked in and instantly noticed the variety of sheet music on display near the front door, all of it clearly organized and labeled by genre. A good sign, I thought, since it showed me the store is serious about education and helping people make the most of their instruments. An older gentleman walked up and greeted me with a smile, asking what brought me in. I told him I was interested in buying a high-quality ukulele. He showed me to an aisle to the right of the store entrance where higher-quality ukuleles were kept neatly on hanging wall displays. (The cheap, $30 plastic ukes in a variety of bright colors and tie-dye prints were lying on a standalone display, but he said not to bother. Those, he said, were better for kids or for taking to the beach, and they aren’t necessarily made for quality sound and durability.)
He asked if I wanted a soprano, concert soprano, tenor or baritone, to which I responded that I was open to anything. He handed me a beautiful Kala solid Acacia cedar-top concert soprano, listed at $359.99 but selling for $249. It was one of the more expensive ukes in the shop, which, the man said, was because of the solid, single-piece wood top, as contrasted with laminate wood often used in less-expensive instruments. The body was the color of a café latte, with a glossy topcoat that made the ukulele shine. It had a nice sound, too, and it was comfortable and light. He pulled out a stool for me and I gave the uke a whirl (as much as I could, anyway). I have limited knowledge of ukulele chords, but it was still fun to play. He took a step back and gave me space to play, but he was still attentive and ready to hand me the next ukulele when I stood up.
Along with a few other high-quality Kala ukuleles (the store only carries Kala and Makala ukes), the store also had a U-BASS, which is essentially the body of a ukulele with the big, fat strings of a bass. The man told me the instrument was often bought by bass players looking for something more portable than a normal bass guitar. I picked the U-BASS up for a minute and tried to play something, but I felt a little ridiculous and put it back on the display. Another interesting instrument was the Kala Banjo Ukulele—a soprano ukulele listed at $349 that was selling for $240—that looked and sounded like a miniature banjo. With a fair amount of metal around the body, it was heavy and delightfully twangy.
The salesman was attentive without hovering or pressuring me, and he was extremely helpful. He made me feel comfortable and at ease taking my time browsing. Overall, I was impressed with the customer service and selection at Gerry’s.
108 Cottage St.
Easthampton MA 01027
Around the bend and over Mt. Tom in neighboring Easthampton is Luthier’s Co-op. It couldn’t be more different from Gerry’s. The storefront is small and effortlessly cool, with instruments proudly displayed in the windows, and it’s located on one of Easthampton’s main pedestrian streets. It’s relatively quiet by day, but it comes alive at night. Immediately inside the entrance is a fully stocked bar and a stage for live performances; a handful of tables and chairs face the stage.
I visited on a slow afternoon, and I was the only customer in the store. Two employees (at least one of them was an employee, but the other could have been a friend) sat on stools toward the back of the room, talking. They said hello, then kept talking. I took a minute to take it all in.
The wall opposite the bar and stage was lined with guitars. The tables were placed a few feet away from the wall, likely to prevent customers, tipsy or otherwise, from accidentally bumping into the guitars. The floor had an old-school, black-and-white checkered pattern, and the ceiling was a vintage-looking pressed tin. Without a doubt, Luthier’s has a “cool factor” going for it.
Most of the instruments I saw for sale at Luthier’s were guitars. The sales associate asked if I needed help finding anything, to which I responded that I was looking for a ukulele. He pointed me to a few vintage ukes, but explained that the business only sells used instruments (except for some cheap plastic ukuleles that were new), so the selection continuously changes.
He handed me a 1950s Harmony baritone ukulele, listed at $249. He said it could use some new strings, but that, overall, it was a quality instrument. He was right. The ukulele had a clean, solid sound, and the quality was obvious.
I asked if he had other suggestions, and he pulled a 1950 baritone ukulele off the other wall. The instrument, made of solid wood and listed at $179, didn’t have a brand name inscribed on the head, as did the other ukes. It was a nice instrument…not quite as nice as the Harmony was, but solid nonetheless. Both ukuleles had quite a few dings and scratches, as would be expected on 60-year-old instruments.
Customer service at Luthier’s was more hands-off than at Gerry’s, but the sales associates were friendly. I’ve heard the store also does a great job on instrument repairs. (Although only one other customer came in during my visit—it was midday on a Thursday, after all—I did hear him discussing a delicate repair with store employees.) Overall, going to Luthier’s is a rather different experience, but it’s one that I found entirely enjoyable.
21 Pleasant St.
Northampton MA 01060
There’s a reason why Downtown Sounds has been awarded “Best Musical instrument shop in the Pioneer Valley” by the local Valley Advocate this year and, judging by the award stickers on the wall, nearly every other year for the past few decades. (This year, Luthier’s Co-op won second place in the same contest, and Gerry’s Music Shop took third.)
Downtown Sounds opened in the ’70s, and it has been an integral part of Northampton’s music scene ever since. During my visit to the shop, customers poured in and out of the store, many staying longer than I did, and tested out the vast selection of instruments.
From floor to ceiling, the store is lined with guitars, bass guitars, drum sets, accessories and, yes, ukuleles. Downtown Sounds is one of the larger stores I visited, similar in size to Gerry’s. I was greeted by one of the two store employees behind the counter, and I told them both my mission. They pointed me to where a handful of ukuleles were hanging on the wall.
I walked over and, at the recommendation of one of the employees, picked up a Kala tenor travel ukulele, listed at $259. The body was one of the thinnest I’ve ever seen on a ukulele, which, the man said, is what makes it travel-sized. Even though the body was nearly half the width of the others, it still had a nice sound. It also, of course, was incredibly light.
The employee also pulled out two others he recommended, made in the U.S.A. by Massachusetts-based company Fluke. They were listed at $229. A large, circular opening on the head of the ukes near the tuning instruments helps add more depth to the bass and the overall sound of the instrument, the man told me. Indeed, they both had a rich sound, especially for a ukulele. The one drawback to the Flukes, I was told, is that they have plastic frets instead of metal, and they could become worn over time. Still, he told me, “I’ve played $1,000 ukuleles that didn’t sound that much better than these. They really have a nice sound, and they’re a local company.” Their appearance was interesting, too; both bodies were unusual shapes, and the front of the bodies were painted different colors.
I was really impressed by the employee knowledge. Clearly, they’re passionate about music and the instruments they sell, and they were able to tell me all kinds of fine details about the pros and cons of each instrument. It seemed to me like their top priority wasn’t making a sale but, rather, making sure I found the best possible instrument for my needs. There were plenty of stools and quiet side rooms to try out the instruments, and it was a pleasure to browse through the selection in peace and to ask for help when I needed it.
13 King St.
Northampton MA 01060
For my next and final stop, I walked down the street from Downtown Sounds and through the bustling center of Northampton to Birdhouse Music. Compared to the other stores I visited, it’s tiny. Since it’s located above a restaurant, it’s a bit harder to find than the others are, but I walked through the doorway, went up the stairs and entered the music shop.
As I walked in, one of the store’s employees was sitting on a chair, jamming on a guitar. He said hello and kept playing. Another employee was sitting behind the store’s counter, working on something on the computer, and asked if I needed help. I told him what I was looking for, to which he responded that, unfortunately, the ukulele selection was a bit limited at the moment, as most of the instruments are used. However, he handed me a Lanikai ukulele. It didn’t have a price tag or specs listed, but it had an interesting, natural stripe pattern on the wood and it was fun to play.
Peeking out from behind a few other ukuleles on the windowsill behind the counter was an Oscar Schmidt OU5 concert ukulele, listed at $115. It’s a decent instrument, but the appearance really caught my eye. It’s made of Hawaiian Koa wood, and it has an abalone inlay lining the edge of the body and on the fretboard. The glossy finish on the wood made it really stand out. (The sales associate wasn’t sure what the decorative inlay was made of, but I did some research at home and found it was abalone.) The sound quality was good, too…both clean and bright.
The final ukulele I played was a Kohala AK-B Akamai Series baritone, listed at $149. It had a darker sound and it was nicer than I expected from its matte, minimalist appearance.
The store was bright and looked like it might have been an apartment originally, with multiple small rooms containing various instruments (mainly guitars). Patterned rugs decorated the floors, and the windows had views of downtown Northampton below. It was a fun store to check out, but I wish the instruments were a bit more organized. Also, the employee didn’t have much in-depth information about the instruments. The one to whom I spoke seemed more preoccupied with his work on the computer, but he was friendly and helped when I asked.
The greater Northampton area is a fun, artsy place to visit, as were the music stores I shopped. Judging by the stores’ overall selections and customer service, my two favorites were Downtown Sounds and Gerry’s Music Shop. It’s hard to pick between the two, but I’d have to award the final sale to Downtown Sounds for its vibe, exceptionally knowledgeable staff and expansive selection. A music lover could spend all day in that store, which is what I intend to do the next time I return.