I got a call from The Chief at a reasonable hour, but he sounded frantic. “This mission is of the utmost importance,” he stressed, demanding that I journey immediately to Ashland OR in order to investigate the bounty of classical guitars contained within that vicinity. “It may be out of your way,” he said, “but this is urgent. Now get to it!” Within minutes, I had mapped my route and the stores I would visit. With that, I was on the open road.
The drive into Ashland was like something out of a forest postcard, with trees displaying an array of colors on all sides as I climbed the mountains to get into town. My destination was one of a few local hot springs resorts that boast mineral water pumped straight into the kitchen and bathtub. I had paid a fair price for a decent-sounding room, but got into town late. The office had called while I was en route, telling me they would leave my key taped to the door of the lobby if they didn’t see me before the office closed. What a trusting town this was!
Upon arrival, I found my key. For the price I had paid for the room, I thought they had made a mistake when I went to my upstairs lair in the Victorian cottage complex that composes the hotel. The room was gigantic, with a living room, marble-counter kitchenette, flat-screen TV and king-sized bed with a Jacuzzi in the bedroom! I momentarily panicked about my Spy budget, but I was too tired to freak out more than a few minutes before I passed out in a bed that felt like sleeping on a cloud. The next morning, when I checked in with the lobby, I found that I had indeed chosen the economically sized room. I could only imagine what the other, larger rooms were like. I made a note to investigate them in the future. This place felt like magic.
I didn’t plan on hitting the Shakespeare festival in town, although Ashland is well known for it, as well as for an array of tasty food that is often sourced from local sustainable vendors. It happened to be that, on the weekend I went, a famous author was in town for the filming of the movie based on her book about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, which runs from California to Washington. In downtown Ashland, fall leaves had been replaced with fake green spring leaves. This was not easy to do, considering Ashland is a tree haven; colors of autumn were abundant at every turn of the head, surrounding me in warm brown, red and yellow hues as I drove into town en route to the first store on my list.
The bulletin board in the downtown plaza had been covered with flyers from the mid-’90s, advertising bands like Beastie Boys and The Cramps. The entire bulletin board had been wrapped in plastic saran wrap so that no one would take the fabricated flyers down or post new ones during the filming. Groups of people passed by, staring at the billboard, confused as to why it was wrapped in plastic, but not necessarily noting that there was something else fishy about the posts, such as that they were repeated on different sides of the board.
Cripple Creek Music
353 E. Main St.
Ashland, OR 97520
Cripple Creek Music is smack in the heart of downtown Ashland, in the midst of the aforementioned rustic country trees and hills, tucked in between artsy stores and directly across the street from a fabulous-smelling bakery. Free parking was easily accessible on a side street. The store itself was medium-sized, with guitars on display to the right of the entrance, as well as in a second back room on the left and in middle displays. The specialty here is acoustic and classical guitars. Pretty soon after I walked in, a gray-haired male clerk asked me if he could help me find anything. I asked him if they had any classical guitars, in response to which he asked what price range I was looking for.
I told him I was interested in low-priced to middle-range guitars, adding that I was curious about all the classical guitar options they had in stock in general.
He took me to the second back room and pulled an entry-level guitar down from high up on the wall. It was a guitar that I’d never heard of: an Austin made out of spruce and maple. It seemed like a good enough guitar, but I was curious about what else they had at this high-end local guitar shop. He pulled down a Kremona guitar for $379, giving me some background on the company, which he told me was not to be confused with a similarly named company that is based in China. This Kremona, he explained, is based in Bulgaria, and it has been producing guitars since 1924. He mentioned that this guitar was made in the Orpheus Valley, going on to explain how the cedar top wood with mahogany sides would sound better with age as compared to the previously demonstrated entry-level guitar.
We had a discussion about getting what you pay for, and I asked what other options were available. He showed me a $500 Kremona Rosa Morena guitar—not specifically a classical guitar, per se, he said, due to the flamenco tap boards on the front of the guitar near the strings. But, he said it was just as good for the same purposes. This guitar was made of rosewood and spruce, and it sounded marvelous. The most expensive guitar he showcased for me was a Kremona Rosa Diva for $1,099. He was pushing me to purchase one of these guitars—mostly the mid-range models—and he kept harping on the price and availability being limited on certain models, especially a Crafter guitar he showed me. He highlighted a lefty Crafter CE-15 going for $675, a price and model that, he said, was rare and would go fast.
There was a whole display rack that showcased left-handed classical and acoustic guitars, including a left-handed 12-string Crafter guitar for $419. He continued to try to convince me to purchase a particular Crafter I had ooohed and aaahed over, but I told him I would take his card. This might be your last opportunity, he said, but I wasn’t swayed to lay down almost $700 for a classical guitar on my first store visit. He was persistent, though, and I left with the feeling he was disappointed he’d helped me out and I hadn’t purchased anything at all.
2570 Crater Lake Hwy.
Medford, OR 97504
My next stop was outside the city limits of Ashland, in neighboring Medford OR. The drive to Medford continued to be picturesque, with trees displaying fall leaves to my right and left, a constant in this terrain. I passed Lithia Hot Springs Resort, and a drive-thru coffee shop called The Human Bean. The hills spread out for miles to my right.
I found Guitar Center easily and parked in the parking lot. It was the tiniest Guitar Center I’d ever seen, but it was still decently large inside…a mini-warehouse type of space. As I walked in, a clean-cut girl with a pink mohawk and a few facial piercings greeted me on entry. I asked her where the classical guitars were, and she pointed me toward a small back room where the acoustic guitars lived. Sheet music and guitars were all around me; pedals were in a case to my left. In the back room, a gentleman about 60 years old was playing a guitar, and he started to ask me questions about my visit. He did not work there, though. He told me he had written a few songs for his granddaughter, and talked about a Taylor guitar he owned that he was thinking about selling. He serenaded me with songs about Jesus and being a good person as I investigated the guitars hanging on the wall.
At one point, a salesman came in and asked if I needed any help. However, upon seeing that I had found what I needed—the classical guitars—he left the room to aid other customers. I jotted down the models I could see, which covered one wall of the acoustic guitar room: an entry-level Cordoba C3M for $199; a Lucero Thinline Cutaway Acoustic-Electric ($199); a Yamaha CG102 Spruce Top ($199); a Manuel Rodriguez C1V Cedar Top ($369.95), as well as a Manuel Rodriguez AV Classical ($599.99) and a Manuel Rodriguez Caballero 11 Cedar Top ($299.99); and, for good measure, a bright tangerine-finished Ibanez AEG10NII Nylon String Cutaway Acoustic-Electric. By the time I’d noted practically all of the available guitars, which seemed to be in the Rodriguez, Ibanez, Yamaha and Lucero range, I had grown tired of the serenading, although it did seem to be from the heart. And so, I waved goodbye to the gentleman who was playing guitar. On my way out, a group of high school- or college-aged young adults was smoking cigarettes in front of the store, but they didn’t bother me as I got back in my Spymobile and headed off.
522 S. Central Ave.
Medford, OR 97501
Also in Medford, Larry’s Music, my next stop, was easily accessible and navigated via large city streets. It was a large warehouse with a storefront covered in stickers of brand names. When I walked in, there was a pretty limited selection of guitars as compared to the previous two stores, but I spotted a Fender CN-140S Classical Acoustic Guitar for $249 on a row of guitars hanging on pegboard along the back wall of the store. I asked the man at the counter near the front door if there were any other options, and he said he could contact the sister store in Grants Pass to look for the entry-level Fender FC-100 Classical Nylon String Acoustic Guitar Pack. He wasn’t sure about the price and eagerly called over to the other store while I waited. They didn’t have it. I asked about other models, in response to which he mentioned that they could special-order a Guild brand classical for between $400 and $500. However, he said, it wasn’t something the Manager generally liked to do, because he wanted to sell the floor models first. I thanked him and headed out to the next, and final, store on my list. As I left, the man apologized profusely for not being able to help me more, and I almost felt bad for him that he couldn’t assist, since he seemed so genuinely eager to do so.
1103 N. Riverside
Medford, OR 97501
The last store on my list was the mother lode for classical guitars, although I did not have any idea this would be the case when I drove over to it, having just come from a sparsely stocked store in the way of classical guitars. The final destination was easily accessible from Larry’s. Parking was available right out front…literally in front of the entrance. When I walked in, the counter was to my right as a clean, carpeted facility opened up before me, a rectangular-shaped mecca full of gear.
A young clerk asked me if I needed any help. I asked him for the classical guitar section. He pointed me to a wall toward the back, along the same wall as all the other acoustic guitars. I stared in awe at the beautiful models available, noting in particular a Teton STC105NT Solid Cedar Top Classical Guitar ($369), an Alvarez Kazuo Yairi CY120 ($699.99) and an Amigo AM30 Nylon String Acoustic ($149). At this point, the clerk approached me and started to tell me some of the history of the Amigo, elaborating that it was made in a violin factory in Romania. I asked if they had any Kremona guitars, remembering the history of that brand that I’d learned about from the clerk in the Cripple Creek store and trying to strike a comparison somewhere in my mind. They did…a Kremona Rosa Morena Classical Acoustic ($529.99) and a Kremona Rondo Thin Line Classical Acoustic-Electric ($849).
As I was investigating a La Patrie ($899), the clerk told me that this particular brand (owned by Godin Guitars) was from Canada. “Would you like a brochure on any of these companies?” an older lady sitting behind the back counter asked me. I told her I was OK with my trusty day planner, and noted a Hofner from Germany going for $349.99 and a couple of used guitars: a Casimiro Flores handmade classical guitar ($229) and a vintage Epiphone that was in pretty good condition ($599). On my way out, I noticed a side room to the left with more guitars…mostly electric, and a large number of custom guitars. There was a strange green guitar from Japan above the clerk’s desk at the front entrance. A number of handmade guitars from a local retired mechanic—one notably made out of a toilet seat—were in view. Other guitars were made using license plates and hubcaps as materials.
Another clerk, older than the first who had approached me, showed me a number of specialty guitars. I chitchatted with him and the older woman who had offered to give me a brochure while I was assessing the classical guitars. I never wanted to leave since there was so much good conversation and quirky material to look at. But, alas, my time was up and I had nothing left to suss. Spies need to keep on the move, not getting hooked in by the charm of their subjects.
Out of the stores on my list, I have to say that, for the selection, service, staff pleasantness and easy parking/location, Tom’s Guitars wins. All the clerks were knowledgeable about the products I was assessing, plus the history of the companies that made the products. They offered a few used models along with the new models and were eager to help, not getting tired of my questions. They seemed genuinely interested in learning about my needs as a customer. Second on the list would be Guitar Center, mainly due to the selection. The staff was friendly and I was greeted upon arrival and exit, and asked by a clerk shortly after I arrived if I needed help. The areas of Medford and Ashland OR seemed friendly in general.
The third store on my list would be Cripple Creek, due to the clerk being eager to answer my questions. However, he pushed hard for the sale and didn’t seem very pleased that I wasn’t going to purchase anything. In this case, the questions seemed to come with strings attached, with the clerk trying to sell me a particular model even as I was walking out the front door. The last on my list would be Larry’s, but not because of the service. The service was great and the clerk seemed genuinely sorry he couldn’t meet my needs. But they had almost no selection of classical guitars. The clerk explained that the Fender was their favorite model, and thus the only one they carried. But, were I actually looking for a classical guitar, I’m sure I would have wanted to decide this for myself.
Report filed, I headed home, awaiting The Chief’s next urgent assignment.