Author: Poling, Chuck

You Better Shop Around

I’ve spent a fair amount of time in music stores since I started playing guitar 40 years ago. As a starry-eyed teen with dreams of musical fame and fortune, I’d ogle the Martins, Gibsons, and Fenders and fantasize about whipping out a huge bankroll and taking home two or three of each. As it was, I could barely afford new strings a couple times a year for my no-name acoustic guitar, and the best I could do was occasionally pick a D-28 or Les Paul in a music store.

Not many music retailers want teenagers messing with their guitars, unless there’s a parent with a checkbook accompanying them. I learned to move around and not visit the same store too often. Guitar Center was great because it had such high employee turnover that no one on the staff would recognize me from my previous month’s visit. Neighborhood stores were a little tougher – I generally hit them every three or four months. Even still, I was lucky to get ten minutes of playing time on a fine guitar before a surly clerk asked me if I was serious about buying it.

I was always amused when a serious customer would come into the store and an otherwise indifferent employee would switch on the enthusiasm, sometimes to the point of cringing subservience (imagine Gollum as a salesperson).

But on the other hand, I can sympathize with people who work in guitar shops. If they’re getting paid on commission – and most surely are – they’ve got to move merchandise to make a living. And they’ve got to listen to a lot of lame, wannabe Jimi Hendrixes, B.B. Kings, and Tony Rices. The movie “Wayne’s World” includes a scene in a music store where a sign declares “No Stairway to Heaven.” I guess the acoustic equivalent is “No Cherokee Shuffle.” You get the picture.

So while I appreciate the challenges the job presents, I still continue to be amazed by the behavior of the employees. I can’t think of any other type of retail establishment where the “associates” are so rude, condescending, and downright arrogant. In a word, they have “attitude.” Perhaps they think this is part of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. They could be resentful that they have to slave away in a low-paying job because the world fails to recognize their musical genius. Maybe they were just not raised properly.

Fortunately, Bay Area bluegrassers have a couple of great stores that cater to acoustic music. The Fifth String in Berkeley and Gryphon in Palo Alto are happy exceptions to the rudeness rule. Helpful, knowledgeable employees encourage customers to play as many instruments as they like to make sure they’re getting the right one. Instead of pressure tactics (“that price is only good until the end of the week”) they let the instruments make the sales pitch.

A few years back I stopped by the Fifth String just to hang out and talk to some friends who worked there. After I expressed a passing thought to John Kornhauser about wanting to play dobro, he started pulling some off the wall, gave me some fingerpicks and a slide and told me to try them out. Of course, I was just window shopping and had no intention of buying a dobro, so I started messing around and was having a lot of fun, and next thing I knew I’m walking out the door with a brand new dobro. I wouldn’t call Kornhauser a salesperson as much as I’d characterize him as an enabler. He didn’t hover over me or pester me with extraneous information. He just let me play and fall in love with the dang thing.

Around the same time, Jeanie was looking for a dreadnaught guitar so we motored down to Gryphon to check out their inventory. There’s not much in the way of bargains at Gryphon, but then there’s not any junk down there either. We explained what we were looking for to an employee and he listened carefully and then asked us a few questions. He watched intently as Jeanie played to get an idea of how she would be using the guitar. Every ten minutes or so he’d bring another guitar and explain how it differed from the others (rosewood vs. mahogany or wider neck vs. narrow neck) and asked her what she thought of each instrument.

We were there about an hour and a half, and Jeanie must’ve played seven or eight guitars. We didn’t buy anything that day, but we didn’t get any attitude from the salesperson. I think the folks at Gryphon (and the Fifth String) realize that buying a fine instrument is an important and very personal decision for any musician. They take the long view that creating customer loyalty will pay off in the end. It’s a marketing truism that educated customers spend more – and are more likely to spend it where they were educated.

Over the years we’ve bought several instruments from each store, as well as numerous accessories. We support these stores not only because they’re local and independent, but also because they’re good. They treat us well and respect our patronage. They wont’ try to sell us something that they know isn’t a good fit, and they don’t mind answering a lot of questions. We know we can walk into Gryphon or the Fifth String and feel welcome.

Unfortunately, the talk around town is that the Fifth String will be closing soon. Sources close to the situation have informed me that closing is imminent – perhaps as early as next month. We’ll have to cruise by there one last time just for the memories, and perhaps a sweet deal. It’s a shame to lose such a venerable institution, but I’ve also heard some interesting rumors about continuation of their classes and jams.

Stay tuned for updates!
Posted:  4/22/2013

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