Plundering the Chicago Store

Sometimes you live right. The Chicago Store in downtown Tucson, on E. Congress street, had a store-wide clearance this weekend, and I could not resist. I had not been in there for years, even though I spend a lot of time working downtown. I remember going inside on a whim, maybe 10 years ago, looking over the selection of violins and mandolins, and having Joe “Chicago” try to talk me into a purchase. Now old Joe and his brother, Phil, have sadly gone on to the hereafter. Their son, Mark, owns and runs the shop.

The downtown Chicago Music Store, Tucson, Arizona

Many a famous player who has passed through Tucson, including Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, has had the privilege of perusing the “attic” section, normally off limits to civilians. According to a newspaper article, musicians would point out this and that instrument or piece of gear, and have the items shipped out. It sounds like an old tale where a sailor stumbles upon the lost plunder of a pirate ship.

Well this time the “attic” (the old dusty roped off upstairs area) was open to the public for the first time. So I went in right after opening time, 9 AM, not too many musicians in sight this early. After a short recon, up the stairs I go, in great anticipation.

OK, its not a pirate hoard, but a Sargasso Sea of old live sound and DJ gear, neglected guitar amps in various conditions of old age and disrepair, nothing much of interest here, except maybe that old Crate vintage amp…..

On to the next level, up the creaky old wooden stairs with all kinds of warning signs saying “Keep Out!”. Surely this is where all the old string instruments go to die. I stare at maybe several thousand cases for violins, violas, cellos, some instruments lying around out of the case, some hidden inside. Hopeless! I am beginning to feel like Indiana Jones…

After a few minutes of poking around, I find that most of the cases are empty, or contain badly maimed and broken old instruments. I am not a luthier, so I get ready to leave, but no… One last time, I ask the universe, “is there anything here I need to see?”.

Having faith (if not a touch of mental illness), I find myself staring at what turns out to be a very old rectangular, tan Roth violin case. I open it up, and behold, just about what I expected, an old beat up violin. She has a dark brown to black finish (“ox blood” according to my friend Tom B.), maybe something that the devil would play when going up against Charlie Daniels.

But hey, its playable, and I am looking for something to rent to my students, or maybe use for a different flavor while recording. I pluck the out of tune strings, thinking, “this one sounds pretty good!”

I put it back in its drab looking case, walk away, and start poking into a few more of the cases stashed like old coffins in the corner. Nothing. An old fellow is now up there as well, looking at a cheap Chinese violin that he found in one of these cases. I show him that its not very good, and a 1/2 size anyway.

He then goes over to where the old Roth case sits, and I say to myself, “Hey buddy, not today”. I go over and pick it up again. I look around and find Mike, an affable salesman for the store, showing another guy an enormous old bass fiddle in the next aisle over.

Mike looks at the violin I am holding, and agrees that it needs some work, and has no maker’s tag (the store tag says “no name, German, $400”). I am thinking maybe $200 tops?

So he says, “how about $75?”. I reply, “I think I can do that!”

So back downstairs, I lug down the old Crate amp that they wanted $39.00 for as is. Mike plugs it in, it does not turn on. Fuse is good. OK, so he says the speaker alone is worth at least that, maybe more. He is right, its a great old vintage Crate with the old style wooden crate box covering the sides. So it does not work – Mike has the name of a great local Crate amp tech. $20 – sold! (n.b. I later replaced the fuse holder, and now it works!)

About now I am feeling pretty good about this plundering of the old attic. On the way out I ask Mike, do you have any great old Mandolins? He says not really, except maybe that old Martin over there. Originally marked at $1500, on clearance for $500.

I pick it up. Its an old Martin turtle back, tag says its vintage 1898 – 1910. Mother of pearl inlay, and it does look very old, but in fair condition. It is not really playable due to a warp in the neck, but it sounds pretty good from what I can tell. Its not exactly the kind of mandolin I normally play. But 1898?

I say, “well can’t really afford $500, I have a limit today.” Mike comes back with, “well this weekend I could do $400…you come come back, the sale runs through Sunday”. Here we are, then, the spirit of old Joe, channeled through Mike, who obviously has been around long enough to know the drill. So I counter with “$300”, but I feel pretty bad about that, I know its probably worth at least $1000 or more in the collector market, but hey, its me mano-a-mando with Joe-Mike, and its worth a try. But Mike is not budging, and in fact I think he’s having second thoughts about the $400.

So I go up to pay for the amp and violin, and then that old voice clicks on inside my head, “don’t be an idiot, get the thing!”.

I turn to Mike and say, “go ahead and bring it over, let’s ring her up”. Some of the other sales guys are now aware of the action, and ask Mike, “who’s getting the Martin? How much did you sell it for?”. I am now feeling pretty good about this.

“$400 it is, and worth every penny!” (so says the ghost of Joe “Chicago” who by now is smiling. I can feel it).


  1. diamondjim says:

    Just a follow-up to my story about Plundering the Chicago Store, that old 1898 Martin Mandolin is now eminently playable! Thanks to local Palisade, CO luthier, Mark Erlich. It sounds like what you would expect for an instrument that old, kind of like a little ol’ lady. I think I will call her Ellen.

  2. Numerous of the French violins which were made in Mirecourt during the 19th
    century based there outlines on Stradivari.

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