I will never forget the experience of making the rounds at the local music stores when I was young. I grew up in the country, in southern Illinois, and the nearest music store was a 30 minute drive away. You could take the day and hit four or five stores on a Saturday, if you didn't mess around, which we used to do almost religiously during my high school years.
You have to remember, this is before the internet. The only way to check out gear was to physically walk into a store and actually check it out! Now days, I sit at the table while my coffee is brewing and check out the latest posts on Craigslist, Reverb,and a few Facebook trade groups, all in a matter of minutes. The hard truth is, the neighborhood music store experience is practically a thing of the past. You are truly lucky if you have a local store that you can count on for service and selection. Especially one that makes you feel like Norm walking into Cheers, as you enter the door.
I recently took the family on a short vacation to Chicago and then up to Sturgeon Bay, WI for a few days. We didn't have much of an agenda, but I did request a visit to the Chicago Music Exchange before we left town. I had been there once before, years ago, and the experience has always stuck with me. Needless to say, this time around was not a disappointment!
We parked a few blocks away on a sunny, Sunday afternoon, and walked to our destination. The neighborhood was vibrant and inviting as we strolled down Lincoln Ave. For everything that CME has to offer, the vibe of the store is not one of a mega box-super store, but truly a neighborhood specialty store. We followed a gentleman carrying a guitar strap inside and as he took his business straight to the counter, I was stopped in my tracks by three, vintage, tweed Fender amps sitting in a row on the floor, as if to say, "Welcome! You finally made it. We've been expecting you."
As you look around the store you begin to realize, this isn't your average music store. Looking for a Les Paul? They have a wall, not a row, a wall of them! Maybe an ES-335 is your style, or a Rickenbacker, or Jazzmaster...walls of them. It truly is awesome! Yet somehow, the fine folks at CME manage to keep the vibe very personal, not intimidating. The last time I was in, I remember the staff helping a girl and her parents with her first guitar, a Squier starter pack. The salesmen gave as much attention to her as if it had been Nels Cline checking out pedals.
As I made my way around the store I found more and more treasures in every corner! A vintage Magnatone combo, a Gretsch in Jaguar Tan/Copper Metallic (my new favorite color!), and even the twin to my vintage Ibanez Artist solid body I had in high school! I hadn't even made it into the acoustic room yet, and I was already going into sensory overload. It really is impossible to convey the amount of gear at CME! I saw so many pieces that I had never seen before, some I hadn't even heard of. It is such a different experience to walk into a store and find a wall of the guitars you had in mind. "Oh, I think I'll check out a few Gretsch hollow bodies today. Boom! A wall of Gretsch guitars at your disposal!"
Speaking of acoustic guitars, CME has an acoustic room that is as beautiful as the guitars that adorn the walls! A mix of new and old, the room had plenty of vintage Martins, Gibsons, and some other gems for customers to try out. One thing I noted was the fact that the guitars were all in great playing order and the strings were in great shape. Nothing is worse than going into a music store and spotting a guitar that you have to try, only to have it playing horribly or the strings dead. All the guitars were freshly strung, well adjusted, and the frets polished, making them each a joy to play.
There was no shortage of amps either. Wether you are looking for the latest Morgan or a vintage Fender combo, CME has pretty much anything you can think of, and the staff is happy to pull one into one of the private demo rooms for you to try!
Even though I found a Gretsch that I couldn't live without, I only left with a t-shirt. Luckily, CME has an excellent web site so I can keep up on the latest arrivals! If you find yourself in Chicago with some time on your hands, do yourself a favor and check out the Chicago Music Exchange. They have some nice amp rooms dressed with boutique gear for you to test drive, a bass department (in the basement of course),an amazing collection of drums, boutique pedals, repair service, and more! Thanks CME for showing us what a neighborhood music store should be! Cheers!