Any online shopaholics out there? eBay prowlers? Amazon junkies? Or maybe you’re just a browse-aholic like myself. At any given point in the day I’m probably looking at a piece of guitar-related gear online, my cursor hovering over the “Add to cart” button, either trying to find a little restraint or a plausible justification. If not, I’m likely reading an article about something guitar related, scrolling through my Facebook feed (which I’ve populated with various guitar and gear pages) seeing what’s new or what other people are into. It’s somewhat of an obsession, although it’s not a recent development.
As fun as all of this virtual window-shopping can be, I can’t help but remember the time when window-shopping involved actual windows. I was a kid when I started taking guitar lessons at RIT Music when they were still located on Division Ave, near 36th Street. It was the mid 1990’s, and the closest thing I had to a computer then was my Nintendo Gameboy.
I can’t help but remember the time when window-shopping involved actual windows.
The shop was always buzzing with other musicians, people who actually knew what they were doing. Every Thursday night, I’d show up before my lesson and hear people playing the songs that I wanted so badly to learn, and it was exciting! It was sort of like the now equivalent of watching a YouTube video where somebody lays down a rad solo, but better because you’re actually there to experience it.
To me, RIT seemed like more than just a store. It was a sort of gathering place for local musicians, maybe not a hangout, but it clearly served some social function to the community. For example: If your band needed a new bassist there was no Craigslist, there were only bulletin boards. You’d walk into any shop in town and see the stereotypical flyer: “Alt-Rock band seeking keyboard player. Must have nice gear. Must not suck.” I was too young to be joining any bands, but I got a kick out of tearing off a phone number tab as I walked by (because kids are jerks who like to waste your time, I guess).
Right around the turn of the millennium, Guitar Center, the musical equivalent of Walmart, set up shop in Kentwood. I remember hearing the people at RIT refer to it as “Guitar Satan”. Being a kid, I didn’t realize the ripple effect that it was about to have on the other music stores in town. One by one, they would start to disappear.
Guitar Center certainly wasn’t the only factor in these disappearances. It was also around this time that the Internet became not just a place to exchange information, but also goods. I had been saving up to buy a certain guitar for over a year, and with what I’m sure was some considerable help from my parents, I was able to get the guitar that I had had my eye on for so long. I couldn’t wait to show my teacher at our next lesson. What I didn’t realize was that my Dad had found the exact same guitar I had been drooling over at RIT on a website for about $100 cheaper. When I showed up with it the following week, things got awkward. I remember the disapproval from the guy behind the counter and feeling like I had done something wrong.
Shortly thereafter, RIT moved to a location north of town on Plainfield. Suddenly the most convenient music store for me to go was Guitar Center. If you’ve never been in there before, let me describe it to you: It’s huge, at least compared to your typical shop. The first time I went in there I was in awe at the sheer number of instruments on the wall. Electric guitars, acoustics, basses, amps, keyboards, drums, PA’s, recording equipment: they have just about anything that you could imagine. Yet somehow, just like Walmart, it’s not a place that you love to visit. Being there… just isn’t very fun. It’s sort of like visiting a car dealership; as soon as I pick up a guitar there’s a salesperson asking me if I know about their financing options. It’s an awkward exchange that usually ends with me explaining how I’m just in there to pick up some strings. In my opinion, it’s these sort of interactions that have completely changed the atmosphere of what a music store used to be.
Which brings me to today, when it’s most convenient for me to do all of my window-shopping on my smart phone. It’s just one more reason for me to have my head buried in that stupid thing all day. There’s no more annoying salesperson to deal with, no asking permission to touch something, no twenty-minute drive. Instead, I can find a video demo of just about anything on YouTube and scores of product reviews and testimonials. I’ve essentially removed the human element from the experience altogether, and I’m not so sure that it’s a healthy separation.
Over the next month, I’ll be visiting some of the local music stores around Grand Rapids to get the scoop on their history and discover what roles they have had in this community. Hopefully in doing so, I’ll be able to figure out exactly where they fit in to our music scene and perhaps find out just where our local musicians are congregating these days. I’m very interested in hearing any of your own stories that you’d like to share, please feel free to send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Who is Kyle Viana?
Music lover and guitar nerd, Kyle Viana spends most of his free time with a six-string in his hands. Kyle has a degree in Music Industry Management from Ferris State University. He currently writes and performs music with the Grand Rapids Rock & Roll band Hurry Home and is the Production Stage Manager at the Grand Rapids Symphony.