How to Buy a Guitar in Chicago

This is a new installment of Public Streets, a biweekly urban observations series curated by Ellis Avery. In its still relatively new location on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago’s Northcenter neighborhood ...

This is a new installment of Public Streets, a biweekly urban observations series curated by Ellis Avery.

In its still relatively new location on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago’s Northcenter neighborhood, the Chicago Music Exchange immediately dazzles visitors with row upon row of guitars mounted on the walls. Chandeliers drip from the high ceilings, lending a tone of casual opulence, while shabby chic couches and well-worn Persian rugs suggest that you might want to get comfortable and stay a while.

Poster-sized photos of guitar heroes including Keith Richards and Jimi Hendrix stare down from the wall just inside the front door. They’re guitar icons to be sure, but in this context they’re something more like religious icons, reminding shoppers that they too can scale similar heights of guitar mastery—with the tools to begin one’s ascent conveniently available for sale in this very room.

Recognizable musicians who stop in while touring through Chicago are often photographed like they’re on safari, the shots later hung along the walls, blown up to a more down-to-earth, more immediately aspirational scale than Keith and Jimi. Elvis may beam down at you from a beatific height in the acoustic room, but the Lumineers, all impeccably disheveled and bedroom-eyed, stare you right in the face.

Yet despite its plentitude, the place feels just this side of a museum. The instruments, hanging inertly, always seem like they’re begging to be played, not displayed like taxidermied specimens.

There are those for whom a trip to the CME is a destination, a pilgrimage. Folks come from around the world to plunk down hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars on a guitar (or effects pedals or amplifiers). But what exactly are they buying? “All these guys are just coming in from the suburbs to buy decorations for their man caves,” one veteran of the scene groused to me. Like the Apple Store or even Starbucks, the CME is particularly skilled at selling a certain lifestyle back to those who can afford it.

Just a few miles across town at the Midwest Buy & Sell, there are no chandeliers; instead, lunchboxes dangle from the ceiling. The aspirational photos consist mainly of ads ripped out of old gear magazines and hastily tacked-up posters from small club shows long since come and gone. The joint began life as a pawn shop and it retains an air of wheeling and dealing, hustle and improvisation. Still a hub for neighborhood characters, this is a place where it’s entirely possible to run into off-duty police officers, Chicago Transit Authority employees, and small-time peddlers trying to offload cheap socks or DVD players of dubious provenance. Especially on weekends, pizza and beer are often laid out on the front counter for the regulars to share.

It’s easy to lose an hour or three here in conversation that’s affectionately embroidered with profanity, trash-talk, gossip, and bullshit. (Though, as a woman, I know the worst of it doesn’t come into full flower until I’ve gone.)

Rather than trumpeting the names and photos of their famous clientele, employees and longtime customers will make frank, casual cracks about the well-known local-boys-made-good who no longer deign to set foot in the place, or about some nouveau-hip douchebags who once brazenly requested via cell phone that the store stay open late because their tour bus had hit traffic on the way in to the city.

Midwest Buy & Sell (2014).

Midwest Buy & Sell (2014).

The dinginess of the shop may appear low-rent or busted to the uninitiated, but the rough edges and careworn spots are more the patina of habitual use. Its denizens have played music for years and don’t fetishize its trappings. Here, a nicely made guitar is just a guitar; it can be traded in for another specimen next month or next year depending on whether the player needs it for a live gig or a down-and-dirty recording session. Here the musical gear doesn’t seem like lifestyle mise-en-scene, more just part of a life.

One gentleman who now spends so much time there that he’s essentially a 50-year-old unpaid intern, recently had surgery on his hand. I’ve heard him poke fun at himself for the fact that he now has to buy the lightest weight strings the shop offers. Even though copping to this isn’t remotely cool, it’s clear that he’s just happy to play with less pain.

Located so far out west in the city’s grid, Midwest will never quite be a see-and-be-seen destination. It’s more a know-and-be-known hangout staffed by wisenheimers who will happily take your cash if you see something you fancy, and hand you a lukewarm beer if they like the looks of you. icon

Featured image: Chicago Music Exchange (2014). All photographs by author.