Wednesday, March 12, 2008

There are lame guitar shops, and then there's Rockin' Robin

For the fourth-largest city in the Republic, there really is a dearth of good, local guitar shops in Houston. The shop of choice for most seems to be the 36-year-old Rockin' Robin Guitars, often viewed by Inside-the-Loopers as the venerable go-to place for the sophisticated guitar connoisseur. What a bunch of hooey. The selection there is horrible. Unless you're looking for a random-year Strat or Les Paul (and you don't care what exact year or which particular model), then you're out of luck. Barely less common guitars are almost impossible to find: mention a Rickenbacker 660/12 or a Gibson Hummingbird, and you'll only get blinks in return. Actually, that's not entirely fair: they'll blink at you, and then they'll tell you how nobody plays those guitars, and how this beaten-up Korean-made Strat they happen to have is really more worthwhile to own. Certain manufacturers they apparently don't even sell, like Vox. Not selling Vox amplifiers? Really? Shopping at Rockin' Robin is thus akin to going to a garage sale: the inventory is random and incoherent, as if limited to whatever stuff Mr. Rockin' Robin happened to have bought for himself over the last thirty-plus years (and priced at about 30% more than what you should be paying for it). Throw into the mix the condescending attitude of the employees, and what you've got is a rarity: a guitar store that is actually a bummer to hang out in.

But there are those who love Rockin' Robin. Why? The answer is simple: given its location, equidistant between River Oaks and the West U./Southampton area, a lot of Rockin' Robin's customers simply have more money than experience (or time) to know any better. The clientele comprises mainly doctors and lawyers or their floppy-haired kids. (I know--growing up in West U. and frequenting Rockin' Robin when I was younger, I recognize my own kind when I see it.) Rockin' Robin thus smartly caters to a middle-aged, bourgeois imagining of what a guitar store should look like: poor lighting, torn concert bills and posters on the walls, amps lying about, peeling stickers on old rotten door frames, employees with long hair and rock-n-roll snarls. I guess the look is right (for those expecting their guitar shops to look like something out of Guitar Hero), but everything else--involving the actual buying of guitars--is wrong.

In contrast, the best guitar shop in Houston, also locally owned, is Fuller's Vintage Guitars. Located near 610 and Shepherd, it has an impressive selection of new and vintage guitars, hung neatly and logically throughout the store. The prices are as low as any you would find on the web, and the staff is very knowledgeable and helpful. They're basically guitar nerds, and with their large inventory, they pretty much have to be. Fuller's apparently has one of the largest Rickenbacker collections in the country, and when shopping for a Gibson ES-335 last year, I had my pick of about six in the store. That's admirable. One important advantage Fuller's seems to have is its relationships with the major guitar manufacturers; it is, for example, one of only twenty-six shops in the U.S. designated as a Gibson Original Dealer. As someone with no affiliation with either Fuller's or Rockin' Robin but who has spent a lot of time in both, the difference between the two is night and day. One is an actual, working guitar shop; the other is a clich├ęd cartoon of one.

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