A time-honored tradition of broke students, shop browsing can often be more satisfying than blowing all your cash on something you don’t really need. Some people like shoes, some like clothes, and some like musical instruments. If you don’t have the funds but want to check out some of the city’s best and strangest instruments, these stores are ideal for browsing—no purchase necessary.
169 W. Fourth St.
Music Inn is a tiny box of a store in the West Village dripping with obscure ethnic instruments. Hanging off the walls and ceilings like Christmas lights, instruments from all over the world appear to be organized in no particular order and finding what you want is perhaps as much of a challenge as figuring how to play it. The store is more like a crazy haphazard museum than a traditional instrument shop—many visitors come just to take a look and try their hand at the didgeridoo propped in the corner or the sitar dangling from above. Music Inn, for all its great merchandise, does not prioritize customer service, and the lone employee sitting on a chair near the door usually appears to be off in some other world. When I called, the man who answered the phone asked me what I wanted and before I could answer, screamed at me, and told me to have a nice weekend, even though it was a Tuesday. Perhaps not the place to come for warm treatment, but the only place to go if you absolutely need a balalaika.
Matt Umanov Guitars
273 Bleecker St. (between Jones and Cornelia streets)
Founded as a guitar repair shop in 1965, Matt Umanov Guitars has grown into a full-service purveyor of vintage and high–end guitars. Vintage guitars are desirable for their exceptional craftsmanship: “You’ve heard the phrase they don’t make them like they used to,” manager Danny Reisbick said.. Additionally, Reisbick explained that there’s nothing like “a finely-made guitar out of solid wood—as the wood itself ages, and not only as it ages, but as it is played—as it vibrates and resonates and vibrates it sounds better and it warms up and really opens up. Even a guitar made today could be really good in 70 years or so when it really opens up.” Though a Martin or Gibson flattop from the ’30s or ’40s will cost more than months of gigs might earn you, Matt Umanov also sells “kitschy stuff” as Reisbick calls it, which runs for about $1,000. If you’re a starving musician—or one whose gigs take place in the privacy of your dorm room—you can still afford to look at the antique guitars, even if you aren’t buying. “We get people coming in the door every day from Santa Barbara to El Salvador,” Reisbick said. “It’s a hard store to walk by and not come into.”
109 W. 57th St. at Sixth Avenue
Steinway & Son’s has been making pianos for 150 years and has gotten the hang of it pretty well. Their flagship store in Midtown West, aptly named Steinway Hall, is an elegant and over-the-top mecca for all things piano. The store, which is three floors complete with a rotunda and hand-painted domed ceiling, houses the world’s largest collection of both new and used Steinways, available to rent and to buy. The “piano bank” contains a special selection of concert grand pianos available to performers. Luckily, since Housing Services doesn’t allow huge pianos in the residence halls—and Steinway Hall is the kind of place where if you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it—the store allows visitors to play as many pianos as they want. With over 150 to choose from, even the pianist with the shortest attention span should be satisfied.
156 W. 48th St. (between Sixth and Seventh avenues)
A rock ’n’ roll institution, Manny’s has been around since 1935 when Manny Goldridge founded it as a big band instrument store. The store has been in the Goldridge family since then, passing from son Harry to grandson Ian. In the years since it first opened its doors, everyone from the Rolling Stones to the Beatles to Jimi Hendrix has passed through and stocked up on gear. Framed pictures and memorabilia adorn the walls—you can see Hendrix’s receipt from when he bought a guitar at Manny’s. Manny’s now sells guitars, keyboards, drums, and recording equipment, and continues to attract stars. “Keith Urban was here yesterday and purchased a guitar,” said guitar sales associate Jeremy Kolmin. Rumor has it that the store, facing hard economic times, is set to close, but Manny’s is still attracting visitors hoping to experience a little music history. “A lot of people come from other countries and say ‘we’ve gotta go to Manny’s,’” Kolmin said.