I sit alone in my home office of my third-floor condo, enjoying my “birdhouse” view of the world while gulping a freshly rescued Diet Coke from the fridge. Then, it happens….
The ever-so-familiar boop-beep-boop, boop-bo-beep of my Skype pierces the tranquil silence. It’s The Chief and, with the push of one button, I have answered the call. My geographical tracking device indicates he is calling from India, but I know all too well that he is, in fact, somewhere on the East Coast of the U.S. I know exactly how the conversation will go before it happens. Like clockwork, it plays out exactly the same way every time.
“How are you?” That’s his standard opening question.
“Good. How are you?” And that’s my standard response.
“Fine. Absolutely fine.” And, thus, the pleasantries are concluded.
Then, we get down to business. He tells me I am to get on a plane and fly to Newark NJ, where a car has been left in the short-term parking lot of Terminal A. A bald man with a beard and glasses, who will be dressed liked a ship’s captain, will hand me the keys at exactly 7:15 at baggage claim 132. The Chief goes on to tell me that the car has been outfitted with all the necessary supplements that a spy could ever need, namely a GPS, an EZ Pass and Sirius XM Radio. He then tells me I am to drive to Princeton, where an apartment has been rented for me under an assumed name. He tells me the name.
“You’re out of your mind,” I say to him. “Nobody is ever going to believe that’s my name.”
“Why?” he asks innocently.
“I don’t look Nicaraguan!” I retort.
“Well, neither did Agent 67,” he barks. “But she managed to pull off the cover brilliantly.”
He then tells me that I will have two days to go shopping for vocal microphones at four of the nearby music stores. My cover is that of a movie director trying to complete voice-over work for a film.
“Take care,” he says before quickly hanging up.
“No worries,” I respond, but the line is dead.
Music & Arts
3375 U.S. 1
Lawrenceville, NJ 08648
I dial the number and wait.
With the speed of a hummingbird, the connection is made. Then a ring, and another, and another….
Is this place even open?
A fourth ring….
Are they really that busy?
A fifth ring…and then….
A young male voice answers the phone with the name of the store, a certain eagerness discernible in his voice. I inquire if they carry vocal microphones, and he answers in the affirmative, while quickly rattling off three or four brands and models. I tell him I might stop by and check them out. He tells me his name and asks mine, with which I oblige him. He tells me that he looks forward to meeting me.
Upon entering the store, a giant electric keyboard greets the customer, calling to mind a lazy zebra basking in the sun. Trumpets and saxophones hang on the wall over the cashier’s desk and give off a radiant glow. Oddly, though, my Spy Academy-trained senses reveal it smells like a shoe store.
There is a small beehive of activity at the cashier’s desk, as two customers are completing purchases.
I begin to stroll down the middle of the store, glancing at the racks for microphones. I am midway through the store when a voice is heard behind me. (I cannot help but wonder, in that moment, whether a super villain has somehow been tailing me ever since baggage claim.)
“Can I help you with anything?” the voice offers.
I turn to see a young girl standing behind me who has that almost-scholarly look. Do I try to play a big shot and steamroll right over her, or do I let her have her moment? I choose the latter….
“I’m looking for a mic, specifically an audio mic,” I say.
“You mean vocal,” she says, correcting me with a slight smile. I confirm that she’s right.
She turns and takes off toward the front door. I follow at a brisk pace. She takes me over to a rack a few steps from where I entered. There is one microphone in a box on a hook. There is a second hook, too; it, however, is bare.
“We have this one,” she offers. “And we also have this one,” she adds, pointing to the empty hook. She continues, “But we are all out right now. I could order one and get it in a couple of days.” Her youthful eagerness almost makes a grizzled Spy like me chuckle.
A boxed RØDE microphone is on the rack, whereas the empty hook is adorned with a Shure label. I ask what the key differences are, hoping for some guidance in what to choose. She responds by asking me the purpose for which I’ll be using the product. I respond voice-over for films.
She discusses the relative merits of the two products—including the one not currently in stock—in considerable detail, talking about the pros and cons for my particular application. I get the sense that her product familiarity is strong, and that she really wants to make sure my purchase completely suits my needs.
I say thank you and tell her I might stop back in a week or so.
884 Buford Dr.
Lawrenceville, NJ 08648
The front of the store is dark, calling to mind a black hole in outer space, as numerous jet-black speakers and amplifiers sit in the corners by the entrance. The store itself is empty of customers, but the shelves and walls are overly crowded with all shapes and sizes. It is like the offspring of a garage sale and a dollar store: nothing goes together, yet everything seems to belong. There is a foreboding circular desk in the middle like a small castle. It seems miles away. A burly, clean shaven man sits at the desk. He looks up as I approach.
“Can I help you?” he asks, his thick German accent immediately apparent.
Still standing seven feet away, I feel that I have to raise my voice to ask him if he sells vocal microphones.
“Kind of,” he responds, getting up to head to the back of the store.
That was a strange answer….
I follow briskly after him, rushing past an electric keyboard that seems abandoned and desperate. The two of us settle in a crowded and tight corner in the back of the store. Among the numerous items on hooks on the wall, there are three microphones, each with its own hook—no boxes. He points to the microphones, says nothing and then rushes back to his circular desk (making one wonder what is sure to be the grave penalty for having deserted it). I stand there for a few moments, taking in the models and prices on display: $19.99 (AV-JEFES AVL516), $29.99 (Sony F-V220 Dynamic) and $39.99 (Sony FV420 Natural Sound). Sony is a recognizable and quality brand, to be sure. But, judging by that guy’s hasty departure, he expects the name alone to sell the product. I glance sideways over at him, and he has forgotten about me already.
I turn and walk toward the entrance. As I pass by the man, I say, “Thank you.”
He, however, does not look up.
Michael’s Plaza, Rte. 33
Hightstown, NJ 08520
The giant floor-to-ceiling exterior windows of the store are plastered with bright multi-colored neon papers with big letters: “Blowout Sale.” Several guitars can be seen hanging from the ceiling. It is a very small store…perhaps 20 feet by 20 feet. As I enter, I am greeted by the sound of a pre-teen girl banging on a metal rack with a pair of drum sticks as her father shoots her a stern look while trying to complete a transaction with the cashier at the register. I walk over to a metal rack on the opposite wall from the drum-stick banger. It is a rack of guitar shoulder straps, which are laid out like skinned animal pelts waiting to be sold by a hunter. As I turn and look around, a dark-haired woman suddenly rises up from behind another rack, like a transcendental spirit emerging from out of the ground. She asks me if she can help me find anything. I tell her what I am looking for, and she points to the glass case upon which the cash register is sitting. Then, she suddenly sinks down out of view below the rack again.
I take the two steps necessary to get me from my current location to the cash register. The father of the noisy drum-stick girl is still trying to complete his transaction as I kneel down in front of the glass case, as though I were praying at his feet. The cashier, a young kid with mop-top hair and glasses, does not even notice me.
The inside of the glass case that I am studying is like looking into a kaleidoscope of colors. There are so many shapes and sizes that it is hard to distinguish where one box ends and another begins. It is crammed full, as though all these items belonged to Johnny Cash himself and customers, no different from me, are meant to kneel before them in their glass coffin and pay our respects. Finally, I manage to spot two microphone boxes along the side wall.
I stand up, seeing that the mop-top cashier is still working on his transaction. I take two more steps toward the rack from which the dark-haired angel earlier appeared. “Will she come again?” I wonder to myself. And, just as suddenly, there she is. I speak to her again, telling her that I see two microphones in the case, but I don’t know what the differences are between them. In the split-second that follows the end of my sentence, she suddenly vanishes from before me and reappears by the cash register. I take the two steps back over, noticing that the mop-top kid has now finished with his customer.
She retrieves from within the glass cabinet two microphone boxes and places them on top of the counter. One is a RØDE, whereas the other is Shure. Then, she vanishes again, just as the young, mop-top cashier finally seems to notice me.
He asks me what I am going to use it for, and I tell him voice-over for films. He explains the relative merits of the products for my particular purposes. Then, with his arms outstretched like a left fielder reaching for a fly ball, he reaches over to another rack and grabs some cables. He then starts in on the kind of adapter I would need to hook these microphones to a computer. I tell him I need to check the budget for my purchase and that I will stop back another time.
Suddenly, a voice—yes, it’s her again—fills the room.
“Don’t we have another, as well?” she calls.
Suddenly, there she is again, behind the glass case. She rises up with a third microphone and places it on the counter, and then goes into the back room behind us. It’s another Shure, but the young clerk seems perplexed.
“I didn’t know we stocked this,” he blurts. “I don’t know anything about it.”
He continues, “It seems like a good product—certainly a good company—but I don’t know anything about it.” Clearly, though, he’s trying to be helpful.
I thank him and start to turn to leave.
“Wait, do you have our number?” he asks. He then picks up a bright orange flyer from a rack on top of the counter and circles the name of this location. It turns out they have four locations in the area.
House of Music
2479 Pennington Rd.
Pennington, NJ 08534
I stand outside for a moment and stare at the standalone building on this rural country road. The bottom half of the building is brick and the top half white shingle. There is a small staircase leading up to the front door with a rickety metal wrought iron railing on either side. Atop the railing at the bottom of the steps, two wrought iron horse heads guard the entrance.
Walking inside the front door feels like I have just stepped into a U.S. Army recruitment office. There is wood paneling on the 1970s walls and several racks of various guitar picks and music books, all of which prominently carry various interpretations of the American flag. A young teen with a crew cut and glasses greets me almost instantly from behind the counter. He is wearing a bright yellow, and obviously very old, T-shirt with the words “Hot Dog Johnny’s.” I glance down what seems to be a short hallway and notice several sterile white rooms, each with its door ajar, on either side of the hallway. Each room contains a music stand and chair.
The crew-cut guy asks if he can help me, and I explain what I am looking for. He takes a slight turn and points over his shoulder to a rack of microphones, each out of its case. There are six microphones on the rack, but he says he can order a wider selection at my request. He invites me to take a closer look at them, and I do. The highest price I see is a G-Track USB Microphone for $224.99. Below that is a Multi-Pattern Condenser Mic for $169.99. The lowest I see is a Dynamic USB Microphone for $74.99. All are made by Samson. I ask him which is best for my purposes, but he is fairly indifferent, telling me that any one will do. I then ask what the difference is, and he pulls out a thick book with black-and-white photos and an overabundance of technical specifics.
He flips through the book as he instructs me that all the specifics of each product are inside. It seems clear that he is not looking for any particular page, but merely giving his hands something to do while he tries to answer my question. I tell him I am tight on time but might come back another day and glance through the book. He hands me a business card with the Manager’s name and says I can call her anytime.
Point Of Sale
Two factors enter my mind when I make my final decision on the store to which I’ll award my purchase. The first is the personality of the salesperson. The second is his or her knowledge of the product. It is immediately apparent that the burly man at Westminster Music didn’t have a super-engaging personality. And, whatever product knowledge he did have, he kept a closely guarded secret. The crew-cut guy at House of Music also didn’t display strong knowledge of the product, making me feel somewhat unsure when making a purchase. At Farrington’s Music, the mop-top cashier seemed to have a strong knowledge of what to do with each product, but not necessarily which product would suit me best, given my specific needs.
Therefore, I will award my purchase to the young scholarly girl at Music & Arts. Although its selection was the smallest of all the stores, offering only a choice of two microphones (one of which was not even in stock), she did take the time to stand with me and answer my questions. In addition, her personality was open and welcoming, and she seemed to have a genuine knowledge of each product. Now, with another mission complete and under my belt, I begin to feel hungry. A single, solitary thought crosses my mind….
I wonder who makes the best burgers around here?