There’s nothing like New England in the fall. If you’re a fan of foliage like the MI Spy, there are few things better than driving down a winding New England road with the canopy looking like a kaleidoscope of colors overhead. The air is as crisp as an heirloom apple — ideal hoodie weather, which is a major plus for those of us who like to remain inconspicuous. And you’ll find no better place to indulge all of your favorite autumnal activities, from hayrides and haunted houses to pumpkin picking and cider sipping. In other words, New England in the fall is the perfect place to conduct an MI Spy mission … at least, that’s what I told the Chief back at HQ.

Fortunately, the Chief just so happened to be looking for a report on the MI scene in the college town of New Haven, Conn., and its surrounding areas. The timing couldn’t have been better; I would be able to enjoy the New England autumn to its fullest before winter arrives and turns the whole Northeast into a depressing gray slush pile. So I hopped in the old Aston Martin, cruised down the Merritt Parkway, and took in the sights as I planned my cover story. Inspired by the trees and their changing leaves, I decided to mix things up a bit for this mission: This month, your MI Spy would play the part of a parent looking to buy a trombone for a student musician.

A few notes about New Haven: It is a leafy, historic city of 125,000 that dates to the colonial period and is best known as the home to Yale University. Because of the school’s size and reputation, the city has a decidedly academic vibe, in addition to being home to a thriving arts and theatrical scene. All these things have made New Haven a popular destination for both weekenders from nearby New York, as well as visitors from much farther afield. The icing on the cake: The Discoverer blog recently chose New Haven as Connecticut’s best among the “coolest cities in each U.S. state.” Added together, these factors should make this small metro a great area in which to operate a musical-instrument store.

Sam Ash Music
95 Amity Road
New Haven, CT

The Sam Ash chain has roots in the Northeast, and Greater New Haven is no exception. This Sam Ash is barely within New Haven’s city limits, straddling the city line with the affluent suburb of Woodbridge, fronting Connecticut Route 63 (Amity Road). This district of New Haven is officially known as Westville and has its own downtown farther south on Route 63. It’s a genteel area of older colonial and Tudor style homes, and one might surmise that a great deal of its residents are Yale professors. The Sam Ash location occupies a standalone building in a shopping district with lots of other standalone buildings. Next door is a music school, and a large Toyota dealer is across the street.

The midsize store is divided into three walled rooms, with its brass-and-woodwinds section in the middle. When I went there early on a weekend evening, nobody else was in the room. A man wandered into the brass-and-woodwinds section with a boy of perhaps 12, followed by a salesperson. They were shopping for a cello (perhaps a better name for the section might be “school instruments”) and found what they needed in short order.

This Sam Ash outlet gets almost five stars on Yelp for service, and your MI Spy’s query about a trombone was handled with similar dispatch. The salesman gave me the lowdown on the pros and cons of each model, the costs to rent an instrument, and the price tag for purchasing new versus used trombones.

There were several new models hanging on the wall in plain sight, as well as a used trombone. The lowest-priced model was the Benjamin Adams TB-100, priced at $219. Also on display was the Jean Baptiste ST 390, priced at $359. Both instruments come in a package that includes the instrument case and mouthpiece, as well as the trombone itself. The salesman explained that the Jean Baptiste offered several advantages for a beginner. “The machining on the slide is better, which makes it less ‘sticky,’” he said. “We also have noticed that the metal used is less susceptible to dents.” He added that the Jean Baptiste ST 390 is built to last longer than lower-priced trombones.

The highest-end model available, the Yamaha YSL-354, represented a steep jump in price. It lists as $1,337 on the Sam Ash website, but discounts are likely to be had in late summer or at the beginning of each school year. It would be appropriate for the most serious of music students, such as those in high school or college.

The Music Center of North Haven
473 Washington Ave.
North Haven, CT

Next up on my list was the Music Center of North Haven, which lies along busy U.S. Route 5 in a middle-class town that’s to the immediate northeast of New Haven proper. The store occupies a standalone building in an area that consists mainly of warehouses and industrial parks. Ample parking is available, and a banner out front testifies to the store’s popularity in the community. Inside, a series of wall frames chronicles the store’s place as a perennial favorite pick among readers of a local newspaper.

The interior of this store is unusual in that about half of what might ordinarily be a showroom is taken up by tables, chairs, a small stage and a bar of sorts. No doubt it provides a performance space for the young people (as well as adults) who enroll in the robust array of music classes the store hosts. A lattice divider and several potted plants separate the stage from the entry door.

Your MI Spy’s 6 p.m. visit coincided with what seemed to be the most popular time of day for visiting the store, as the man who proved to be its owner juggled two customers (one with a kid in tow) and a long informational phone call. Nearby, a teenage girl in braces browsed through several displays of sheet music. A drum set was located right in the middle of it all, and a boy of perhaps 10 beat softly on it and the cymbals that formed part of the set. (He was surprisingly good!)

The store heavily promotes its popular instrument rentals, as well as its rent-to-own program, for several key reasons. A 10-month rental can be had for a flat $159 per month, which covers any repairs made during that period. The owner noted that student musicians can be fickle, and renting gives both parents and students the flexibility to change their choice of instrument without incurring much of a financial penalty. Conversely, the rent-to-own program lets the parent apply some of the money expended on a rented instrument toward its eventual purchase should the student decide he or she likes playing it. “We offer the lowest-cost rentals in the state,” the store’s owner said. “In addition, our rent-to-own program has the lowest cost.” The rent-to-own program takes some bite out of what can be an expensive outlay, he explained. “A brand-new trombone runs anywhere from $795 on up,” he said.

The store also does a brisk business in used instruments, and there was a wide assortment on the wall next to the checkout counter. Used models included woodwinds, a trumpet and a Mandini trombone priced at $399.

Goldie & Libro Music Center
380 Washington Ave.
North Haven, CT

The New Haven area’s oldest music store, Goldie & Libro, is right down the street from The Music Center of North Haven. Goldie & Libro moved to its present location 15 years ago from downtown New Haven, where it had been since its founding in 1920. Across Washington Street is a new Amazon warehouse that, according to reports, will employ as many as 1,500 people when it’s fully up and running. (Your MI Spy wouldn’t mind conducting some espionage in there!)

Goldie & Libro also heavily promotes its rental and rent-to-own business, and an associate explained how it all works. A trombone is considered by the store to be a “Group A” instrument, which is the least expensive to rent. A 10-month trial — which spans the entire school year — costs $180, including the fee for the loss/damage waiver (LDW) and sales tax. Should the student be somewhat unsure about his or her choice, the store offers a four-and-a-half-month trial for $21.27 per month. This includes a heavily discounted rental fee of $20, as well as sales tax; the LDW fee is waived for this period. After either the four-and-a-half or 10-month trial, the rental becomes $31.91 per month.

With a nod to the Amazon facility across the street, the associate noted that independent instrument stores still have a key role to play in serving the musical community and budding musicians. She stressed that it’s important for consumers to deal with someone who knows about music — especially parents who didn’t take music lessons themselves. “People are buying more things online these days, including musical instruments, which are often used,” she said. “But it’s not a good idea. They might pick up something for $200 and think it’s a bargain. Then they bring it in here for a tuneup and find it needs $500 worth of repair work to be usable.”

For purchasing, the store’s owner strongly recommended one of two models. “The best on the market for students is the Yamaha YSL-354, which is on sale for $849 for the back-to-school period,” he said. “In addition, the Blessing BVB from St. Louis Music is good buy at $699. We don’t sell as many, but it is a very good instrument.”

All Things Musical
3210 Whitney Ave.
Hamden, CT

All Things Musical was by far the most pleasant, aesthetically speaking, of the four stores I visited on this mission, owing in large part to the remodeled barn it occupies. The store sits within a shady, mixed residential-commercial condominium on the busy Connecticut Route 10 in the northern part of Hamden. It’s near the popular Sleeping Giant State Park and Quinnipiac University, well known for its political polling. The barn building appears to have preceded the newer residences, offices and stores, and sits in the middle of the complex. It has two levels, and when you walk inside, the atmosphere is that of a gift shop in a resort town, complete with musical wind chimes. From the classrooms upstairs came the pleasant sounds of budding cellists.

All Things Musical functions as a school as much as a retail establishment, which was also the case with the two North Haven retailers. There weren’t a lot of instruments on display here. As with the other stores, All Things Musical offers a rent-to-own program, and most band instruments are available through the store’s rental program. For a student trombone, all instruments cost a flat fee of $71.79 for a three-month period or $146.23 for 10 months. Should the student or parent wish to purchase the instrument, $77 is credited toward the purchase price. The trombones are all R.S. Berkeley University Series Bb models.

“All of the instruments are used, but are thoroughly reconditioned and come with an excellent warranty,” said the salesperson. “The University Series has a list purchase price of $975. We sell it for $589, a discount of 40 percent.” The salesperson also noted that the store uses R.S. Berkeley trombones because of the company’s reputation for quality. This particular model would be considered mid-range, she said. “They aren’t low-end models,” she said. “Anything you purchase from us will be something that will last for the duration of a

The Sale

All four stores were staffed by pros, and they all knew how to satisfy the customer.

The last of the four, All Things Musical, seems to function as much more of a music school than as an instrument retailer, though it came up on and Yelp with great grades in the “musical instruments — sales and rentals” category.

Your MI Spy may have managed to visit the Music Center of North Haven at an especially busy time, or perhaps a staff member called in sick. The owner was clearly swamped, so the advice received was friendly, if a bit cursory. The store clearly benefited from its good reputation, though, as the showroom was busy and there seemed to be several classes going on in the back.

The final choice came down to a tossup between Goldie & Libro and Sam Ash. At Goldie & Libro, I was initially assisted by staff at the music school (it occupies the rightmost of two adjacent Washington Avenue storefronts) because the instrument store was closed, but a call the following day provided a wealth of information from the store’s owner. But the one element that edged out the rest was the longer, more parent-friendly store hours offered by the big kid on the block, Sam Ash. Surely, longer hours will always appeal to parents who commute to New York City or otherwise return home late in the evening, as well as to people who hold more than one job. The realities of raising a child, such as instrument purchases and music lessons, are pricey, especially when you live in a place where housing and taxes take a bigger chunk of your paycheck than they do in, say, Cleveland or St. Louis. In this instance, the salesman at Sam Ash provided polite, no-nonsense service. It was a quick, concise and informative experience, and the store’s staff gave your MI Spy — and, actually, any other customer — all the facts needed to make an informed instrument choice. In fairness, so did the other three stores.

Consumers in the southern Connecticut market would be well advised to visit all four of these locations to shop and compare instrument choices for a trombone or virtually anything else a budding musician might require. At the very least, you’ll be able to enjoy some amazing fall scenery as you drive from store to store. Now, if you’ll excuse me, these apples aren’t gonna pick themselves.

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