Editor’s Note: Part 1 of this MI Spy story ran in the February issue, starting on page 36. Please see that article for the introduction to that story, as well as full descriptions of MI Spy’s visits to Sam Ash Music and Guitar Center in Chicago.
Welcome back, MI Spy fans! And welcome to Part 2 of my mission report from wonderful Chicago. Last month, in Part 1, I detailed my visits to the Sam Ash Music in Buffalo Grove, as well as the Guitar Center in Arlington Heights. The Chief had dispatched me to search for an affordable 12-string guitar that I could recommend to my (fictitious) guitar students and their parents. If you haven’t read Part 1 yet, go ahead. I’ll wait.
Now, at the conclusion of my last report, I was thrown off the trail by a mysterious organization whose ever-watchful eye had followed me around Chicagoland. Following a close call with an eye-emblazoned white van parked outside Guitar Center, I decided to revisit my (surely compromised) safehouse to search for more clues about my pursuers. So I made my way back to the nondescript apartment building where I stage my Chicago missions, clambered up the fire escape and crouched outside the safehouse’s rear window. Peering inside, I could see no one lying in wait for an ambush. A good sign. I opened the window and crawled in.
A quick search around the safehouse revealed nothing particularly suspicious. No files were missing. All of my MI Spy gadgets were still safe behind the secret bookshelf, and my closet full of tactical tuxedos had been undisturbed. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that the place seemed … tidier than I had left it. And there was still the unmistakable scent of lemon lingering in the air. Other than that, nothing seemed amiss. My fresh-smelling foes had clearly done a good job of covering their tracks. Not even fingerprint scans or my trusty UV light turned up any clues.
I thought I had reached a dead end in my investigation until I noticed the piece of paper tacked to inside of the front door, right there in plain sight. It was a bill. The mysterious eye logo was prominently featured at the top, and the only item on the bill was a $350 charge for “spycleaning services.” Spycleaning? Had some rival intelligence organization, or perhaps a vengeful music retailer who had received a bad review in a past report, hired the mysterious eye to rub me out like some unsightly stain? And for only $350!? I had already seen a bunch of entry-level 12-string guitars that cost more than twice that during this mission!
Undeterred, I decided to continue my search in the apartment building’s garage. Much to my shock, the MI Spy Mobile, which I had abandoned outside Sam Ash for fear of tracking devices, was parked in my designated parking space! Another eye-emblazoned bill had been tucked underneath the windshield wiper — this one listed a $100 charge for “vehicle return services.” Were my pursuers so bold as to return an obviously bugged car to me and charge me for their efforts? Did they really think I could be stupid enough to use it?
Well, readers, rest assured: Your MI Spy is stupid like a fox. I decided to drive the MI Spy Mobile to the next music store on my itinerary. Let the eye track me all it wants. This time, I’ll be ready.
5013 Fairview Ave.
Downers Grove, IL 60515
I cruised down to Downers Grove, a charming community due west of the city, with a classic Midwestern downtown business district lined with well-kept streetscapes, buildings and storefronts. I easily found Tobias Music, an independent, single-location, family-owned store that, for more than 40 years, has served Chicagoland’s western suburbs, and as I came to understand, also far beyond.
Tobias Music specializes in up-market handcrafted acoustic guitars and also offers electric guitars, acoustic and electric bass guitars, mandolins, ukuleles, amps, related supplies and accessories, and sheet music. Its product offering also includes used instruments, and notably, a personal concierge-style service to help customers design and commissions one-of-a-kind guitars from among the top brands the store carries.
On the service side, Tobias offers guitar, bass, mandolin, banjo and drum lessons. The store is also home to the Garage Band University Music School, devoted to helping develop aspiring performers in ensemble stage performance. In addition, the store provides guitar and amp repairs, both in-house, and in partnership with Chicago’s Third Coast Guitar Service.
When I first walked into the store’s short entry hallway, I was surprised to find an open door across from the entrance that led into an inviting performance space. Its warm wood walls were adorned with antique guitars, and a breakfront display case pulls shoppers into its engaging atmosphere and folksy acoustic vibe. This well-appointed space, complete with stage, lighting and sound, can seat up to 80 guests, and when I popped in, it was set with a combination of theater and cabaret seating. I learned that they use this space for manufacturer and supplier demos, pro clinics and workshops, and select talent showcases. It also offers room for rentals, and for hosting events including parties, private showcases and worship services. What a unique space for a small hometown music store!
On entering the small shop itself, I saw two other customers, one engaged with the owner, and the other waiting. I was immediately drawn into the front room devoted to the Taylor brand, where instruments hung two and three high on all four walls. The collection included four 12-strings ranging in price from $1,599 to $2,899, probably beyond the entry-level price point for my pretend students (and their parents), although it was an impressive selection. Also of note were a couple of eight-string baritone guitars, also beautiful instruments, yet in the same price range. Overall, the product mix felt quite well curated, though targeted to a decidedly up-market clientele.
I learned later that the shop usually also had at least one Taylor 150CE in that brand’s entry-level $900 price range for 12-strings on hand, but demand at the moment was outpacing production. It’s interesting to consider that the two national chain stores I visited earlier both had this model in stock, yet Tobias was sending them out the front door as soon as they came in the back. Go figure.
I’d been scoping out the front room for less than 10 minutes when the owner excused himself from his other customer for a moment to welcome me, apologize for being busy, inform me that “pops” would be there shortly to help, thank me for dropping in, assure me that my interest was important to him, and invite me to make myself at home with the instruments. I was already so impressed with the layout and selection — and itching to get my hands on a few of these exceptional guitars — that his thoughtful consideration sealed the deal. I settled in to sample the goods and wait my turn with little concern for time or attention
I spent the next half hour sampling the Taylor 12-strings and roaming the rest of the store. In the Taylor room, there was a $2,999 562CE on sale, marked down to $2,599. There was also a $2,299 362CE that was especially attractive in appearance, feel and tone for the price. There was another nook in the shop featuring the Martin brand with a great selection and inviting seating to sample the wares. The store also advertises and stocks many other top brands, including Santa Cruz, Gibson and Takamine guitars, along with Genzler, Fishman and NuX amps.
While I was exploring, several other customers came and went, two with new guitars in hand, including the Taylor 362CE that had caught my eye. I learned later that a third sale was finalized on the phone while I was there. Pops had arrived and was at the center of the action. As it turns out, he is the owner’s father, the founder of the store, and though now supposedly retired, still unmistakably part of the heartbeat of this shop.
With sales at hand complete, the owner then sat with me and focused on pulling out my story and interest. I concluded by remarking that his store’s offerings appeared far more upscale than my student’s (and their parents’) interest and budget. On the contrary! Right away he recommended Washburn’s Oscar Schmidt models as just one appropriate quality and value fit for my first-time 12-stringers. Though they didn’t currently have these models in stock, he could certainly get them, and though I wasn’t buying myself, he said that he’d like to have at least one on hand anyway. With an assist from Pops, they quickly came up with a price range ($180-$280 depending on model) and in-store availability (soon).
We had a thorough conversation as I peppered the owner with questions relating to how he would advise students and parents about a 12-string purchase. He went into great detail about body size and neck length considerations, informed in part by influence from Bob Taylor, Kurt Listug and the designers at Taylor guitars, with whom Tobias Music has enjoyed a personal and professional relationship since the early ‘80s. He also talked about his personal connection with Chris Martin of C. F. Martin & Co. guitars, and the shop’s website details its longstanding tight relationship with Richard Hoover of Santa Cruz Guitars.
I asked about his take on Taylor’s ES2 electronics, as it was now becoming something of a litmus test for retailer product knowledge. He started by explaining the science behind the quartz-crystal-coated piezo pickups, distinguished by Taylor’s unique pickup placement, and concluded that the tone appeal is great but still subjective — not necessarily better, just different. And setup cost for a 12-string was $15, plus your choice of strings.
Tobias Music bills itself as “The Ultimate Mom and Pop Experience.” If that means “expert in product knowledge and caring customer service,” then yes, they are.
Exiting Tobias Music, I scanned the area for any sign of white vans with eyes painted on them, fully expecting a confrontation with my pursuers. But there were no white vans to be found. “I guess I lost them,” I half-shouted as I sat behind the wheel of the MI Spy Mobile, hoping the agents of the eye were listening in. Maybe I could lull them into a false sense of security and catch them sleeping at my next destination….
Hix Bros. Music
1941 W. Wilson St.
Batavia, IL 60510
Finally, I headed straight west to Batavia, a suburb straddling the Fox River along the valley that marks the western edges of the Chicago metro area. The Hix Bros. Music store here is the second of two family-owned independent shops. The business was originally founded by John Hix in 1946 further south in Aurora, a major city southwest of Chicago. The founder’s three sons took over the business in 1996, built out an expansive new main location in 1999 adjacent to Aurora’s Fox Valley Mall, and opened the Batavia satellite store in 2003.
The main store in Aurora houses studios for lessons, recording and ensemble space, along with guitar and amp repair shops. It sells a broad range of guitars, keyboards and percussion, and offers band and orchestral instrument rental through a third-party partner. Its educational offering includes its “Ukulele Club,” providing private and group classes; the “Hittin’ Stuff Percussion Ensemble,” creating a group experience for all ages and skill levels; and the “RocksCool” rock school, an eight-week live band adventure that includes recording and a live performance showcase.
The Batavia store I visited is located in a strip mall on a busy major road. Though much smaller than the main store, this shop still stocks a healthy collection of guitar and keyboard instruments, amps, PAs and stage lighting gear, along with sheet music and all manner of accessories. It even has several band and orchestra instruments displayed to promote rental services. I also noted a single small, enclosed sound booth I guessed is used for lessons. There didn’t appear to be any other studio space at this store.
I was greeted as soon as I walked in by a pleasant fellow who’d been vacuuming. When I explained my interest, he immediately pointed out the two 12-strings they had in the store and said right away that one of them was admittedly in some disrepair. It was a Fender CD-60SCE-12 acoustic/electric cutaway offered at $300, and the bridge had started to pull away from the body. This store did not have the enclosed, humidity-controlled space of the other three stores I visited, and he suggested that it was likely due to having hung on the wall in the open air for so long. He said that it needed to be returned for replacement.
The other 12-string on hand was a Takamine GD30CE-12 acoustic/electric cutaway listed at $770 and priced at this store for $500. Once he pointed out the guitars, he thoughtfully offered a tuner and brought me a stool so that I could sample the instruments. He then plugged in an amp directly behind me and resumed his vacuuming.
Despite the problem with the bridge, the Fender tuned up nicely and had the tone one would expect from a $300 guitar. Imagining my (nonexistent) students’ smaller hands, I especially liked the slim neck style. Because of the bridge problem, however, the strings were lifting up out of alignment with the neck, and the intonation was clearly off, moving higher on the frets. Yes, this guitar needed to be returned for replacement. The Takamine played well, was in fairly good tune, and had tight action, good intonation and a pleasing tone. I consider it a fair value at the $500 price offered.
Having sampled 100 percent (meaning both) of their 12-string offerings, I browsed the store a bit to take in all else that it had to offer. I then engaged my staff helper and his colleague, who were involved in other tasks in a half-walled-off, office-type area in the rear, to ask more questions. There were no other customers in the store during my visit. I dangled the “I’m a teacher researching product and dealer recommendations” carrot, but I got no bites. No probing about where I teach, what I teach, age and skill level of my students, and so on.
The store staff was personable and responsive, but only reactive in answering my questions without pausing from whatever else they were doing. I asked about typical 12-string stock on hand (just two at a time), what kinds of lessons they offered (keys, guitar, bass, voice, some woodwinds) and instruments available for rental (pretty much anything band and orchestra, all provided by a third-party partner.)
Hearing the scrape at the bottom of the barrel, I wished them good day and went on my way. The damaged Fender was back hanging on the wall when I left.
As I made my way back to the MI Spy Mobile, a sudden chill came over me. There, on the far side of the parking lot, sat the dreaded white van, the unblinking eye branded on either side.
I dove under a row of parked cars and crawled within spitting distance of the van. Once again, no one was inside. So I produced my trusty Universal Lockpick, popped the lock on the van’s back doors, and threw them open. The van was filled with what I could only assume were surveillance devices cleverly disguised as cleaning products. As I leaned forward to examine what appeared to be a steam cleaner, a hand suddenly reached out and grabbed me by the shoulder. A voice cried out, “What are you doing breaking into our van, you nutjob!?”
My MI Spy training kicked in, and I dropped to the asphalt in a strategic fetal position. “Don’t touch me, I’ve got the Modelovirus!” I screamed.
“You mean the Coronavirus?”
My attacker muttered something unintelligible in disgust, then said, “Get up, MI Spy. I’m not here to hurt you.” He was wearing crisp white overalls with the familiar eye logo embroidered on the chest, and he was holding out a card with the same logo printed on it. Dusting myself off, I stood up and took the card from him. The back read
“Private Eye Spycleaners. Covering your tracks since 1953.”
“The Chief hired us to keep an eye on you. We’ve been following you all around Chicagoland cleaning up after you so you don’t blow your own cover,” my assailant explained. “Do you know how hard it is wiping all your greasy fingerprints off the guitars after you’re done manhandling them? Not to mention picking up all your discarded martini olives. And this time you even left an MI Spy Mobile parked outside a music store! You’re getting sloppy, Spy!”
A spycleaning service! Of course! That explains the lemony smell at the safehouse, among other things. And I was wondering how my tactical tuxedos stayed so pressed and fresh.
I shook the man’s hand. “Well, thanks for your help,” I said. “But if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a mission report to file!”
At the end of the day, the choice of a shop in Chicagoland for a 12-string guitar was crystal clear. Both Sam Ash and Guitar Center stores have strong selections on hand with competitive pricing. Guitar Center gets the special mention here for range of product and pricing for its entry- and mid-level market, and for its excellent merchandising display.
In defense of Hix Bros., I did have occasion some years ago to visit its main store, and it had an excellent selection, and I had a very good experience with a skilled and attentive staffer. I suspect that my visit to its Batavia location without an immediate buyer in hand made me just another “looky-loo” not worth much attention or effort. They have been doing business in this location for more than 15 years, so they must be doing something right.
All that being said, it was Tobias Music that won the day, hands down. In addition to outstanding product knowledge expertise, Tobias is in the habit of building close customer relationships with its consultative sales style. Though the quality and price of offering at hand was likely out of bounds for my, at best, intermediate-level students, the owner never hesitated to focus his attention on my needs, and quickly offered solutions he could provide. His attitude and action clearly rang out. In fact, I received an email from him the same evening of my visit saying that they’d ordered two different Oscar Schmidt 12-string models to have on hand in the shop, and to please feel free to stop by anytime to give them a test drive. Bear in mind, he knows that I’m not buying either of these. But it’s clear that he also knows that as a player myself, I am a prospective customer, and that as a teacher, I am a potential referral source for many other prospective customers.
Tobias Music doesn’t just serve Chicagoland’s western suburbs. It is a destination dealer for discerning customers across the tri-state region and beyond. I’m going to swing back the next time I’m in town to play those Oscar Schmidt guitars … if they’re still there!
To read other reports from the Music & Sound Retailer‘s MI Spy, click here.