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A Boy and His Banjo?

How chronicling a day in the life of a local music store nearly makes one Metroland writer a poorer man

By John Brodeur

It was a last-minute assignment: Hang for a day at one of our area’s fine musical-instrument dealers and observe the passing ships. It seemed easy enough at first—show up, take some notes, general people-watching stuff. Unfortunately, I forgot to account for my wanton desire for new musical toys, and I damn near came out a few hundred bucks in the hole.

(Now when I say I spent a “day” at the store, I mean I visited on two separate occasions—once in the morning, once in the afternoon. And if I mention any names, I’m making them up. And when I get to the part about actually considering a purchase, I’m flat-out lying—there’s no way I could afford another instrument on my salary.)

I arrive shortly after the store’s 10 AM opening time. The clerks just bustle around the store until noon, accepting deliveries and unloading packages, or polishing the chrome flames on one of the goofy-looking bass guitars. One of the clerks, Chuck, tells me that mornings generally go this way, with the occasional “old guy” popping in from time to time. And while a few folks do show up—a 40-something guy wants to get some setup work done on a 1970s Guild Jetstar (speaking of goofy-looking bass guitars, this thing looks like it was made in shop class), and a retired couple bring by an old nylon-string classical guitar they want fixed up for their grandson—there’s not a lot of action early in the day, so I start fiddling with some of the acoustic instruments.

And that’s when it happens. I’d been worried about coming here. Every time I do, I end up leaving with something I don’t really need.

My inner Kermit (I didn’t even know I had one) tells me to pick up a banjo. Big mistake. It just feels so right. I’ve never really played the banjo, but it’s not fundamentally that different from guitar, and right now, to my ears, it’s the greatest sound ever.

But no, I can’t. Not today. I’m supposed to be working, you know.

On the other side of the store, there’s this kid with a knit hat who’s been here since 11 or so. By my count, he’s checking out his third guitar and second amplifier of the day. I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who gets all pie-eyed at everything he touches.

To avert certain financial disaster, I head upstairs to check out the drum section. It’s about 2:30 now, and there are a few more people milling around, more than elsewhere in the store. I guess drummers are early risers.

The drummer for a local metal band is fixated on the TV in the corner. The TV is showing a Chad Smith instructional video. While it might be fun to learn the finely honed technique behind “Suck My Kiss,” I’m distracted by this other kid—he’s all of 13 years old, and his parents are nowhere to be seen. He’s wailing away at the electronic drum kit like he forgot to take his meds. He has it set on “hiphop,” so everything sounds like a record scratching or that subsonic bass rumble you usually hear coming from the hatchback of a Honda Civic. Technology is just fascinating.

Back downstairs, one of the clerks is explaining to a mother and her two daughters how a lefty can play a right-handed guitar. He explains to them that he’s self-taught, and that he actually learned to play backwards (it does seem natural that the right hand would do all the work) until someone called him out on it months later. Mom ends up buying each of the girls their own electric guitar and practice amp. Mom must be pretty cool—when I was young, I asked my mom for drums and ended up with a flute (no offense, ma).

I start fiddling around with this Gibson Firebird that I’ve been eyeing. Even unplugged, it just sounds sweet. But the price tag says “Hell, no,” so it’s back to the banjo. Ah, yes. This is why I’m here. I’m trying to rationalize spending $400, even though I still have to return empty beer bottles to make rent this month.

“I think I have room on this credit card,” I’m telling myself. “And I can always sell that old acoustic I’ve not played in a year.”

Did you know that the banjo is the only non-percussion instrument that has a drum head? Just trying to rationalize things.

One of the owners takes me aside to show me a Dobro banjo that just came in. “They only made 300 of these,” he tells me. “Isn’t it cool?”

“You’re not making this any easier,” I reply.

Between 4 and 5 PM, business picks up in a big way. Parents drop off their kids for lessons, state workers stop by on their way home to the ’burbs, and the “working musicians” start to file in—they don’t have day jobs, Charlie jokes, so they’re just getting out of bed now. From the looks of it, he’s right—a few indie-rock types (thick glasses, tousled hair, jean jacket, Vans deck shoes) are rubbing the hangovers out of their eyes as they check out effects pedals, and one out of every three customers wears a goatee and facial piercings. Everyone’s got their hands on something that makes noise. The kid with the knit hat is still here. The decibel level is up; my energy level is down. It’s nearing closing time.

I sit for a few private moments with my new friend before the store closes. Me and this banjo, we have this thing going on. It’s personal and special, and I just have to have it . . .

Man, I need to get something to eat.

Thankfully, that’s when they start turning down lights and ushering the customers out into the November chill. “Saved by the bell,” I tell myself. I’ve survived with my skinny wallet and questionable sanity intact, but there’s always a next time. . . .

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