The Audiophile on Vacation

Tell the truth, now: When you're traveling on vacation, and supposedly engaged only in the normal tourist activities of seeing the sights, visiting museums, etc., aren't you also on the lookout for interesting audio stores?

I know I am, and my wife has learned to accept this as something that comes with being married to an audiophile. The most recent occurrence of this sort was a few weeks ago, as we were driving from Bangor, Maine, to Bar Harbor. While passing through Ellsworth (pop. 6456), I spotted what looked like an honest-to-goodness audio store. I just had to stop and check it out—and it turned out to be a fascinating place.

Ellsworth Audio sells some new equipment (I saw some Onkyo components), but the major part of the business is repairing and restoring old gear. Ellsworth Audio's owner—as well as its only salesman and repair technician—is Dennis S. Coffey, whose background as an audio technician goes back to his being employed by Audio Research in the early 1970s. Looking at the array of equipment in Coffey's shop, and talking to him about some of the classic gear, I got the feeling that this was a man with genuine affection for classic audio equipment, and that if there's anything out there that he can't fix, it's probably not fixable.

I saw a Harman/Kardon turntable with linear-tracking tonearm that Coffey had just repaired. The most critical part of the mechanism—the rubber ring that controls the tonearm—had deteriorated and, of course, is no longer available. Coffey replaced it with a rubber ring that had been part of a tape deck, and that happened to be the same size. In the front of his shop is equipment that's for sale now (the H/K turntable is in that category), and a large room upstairs holds a veritable treasure trove of vintage equipment. Not all of it is in working order, but if you suddenly develop a nostalgic longing for a component you used to own—or used to dream of owning—chances are Coffey has it, and can fix it so that it's as good as new. Given the store's location, Coffey doesn't get much walk-in trade, and most of his business is through the Internet, with many customers in Asia. He can be reached via email or at (207) 667-8198.

Some general points on the etiquette of being an audiophile on vacation: Most stores welcome visitors even if they're not prospects for sales, but you have to be sensible about how you approach them. The worst thing would be to let them assume you're in the market to buy a certain product and then, after a lengthy demonstration, tell them you're "just visiting." That won't go over well. It's also important to get a sense of how busy a dealer might be before taking up their time with no prospect of a sale. An hour before closing time on a Saturday is probably not a good time to visit, but 11 o'clock on a Tuesday morning may find sales staff much more welcoming. My usual practice is to look around the store, then leave if I find nothing of interest, saying that I was "just looking." If some product does interest me, and I wonder what the sales staff's experience of it has been, then—assuming that it's not a busy time—I tell them that I'm visiting, where I'm from, compliment them on the store and the equipment they carry (if deserved), then ask them about the product. If it's a speaker that's already set up in a demo system, I may ask politely if I can briefly listen to it, but I make it clear that I don't expect a lengthy demo with different kinds of music. And as soon as a "real" customer walks in, I offer to terminate the demonstration. I would never ask them to set up equipment that's not already on demo. (If they offer, that's a different matter.)

Using this approach, I've had nothing but pleasant experiences. Yes, I do tell them that I write for Stereophile—it would be disingenuous not to—but as an audiophile on vacation, I was treated well even before I started writing for the magazine. For the record, Dennis Coffey gave me a tour of his shop and spent a good 20 minutes talking with me; only toward the end of the visit did it occur to me to write up the experience for I think Coffey is just a guy with a passion for vintage audio equipment, and who enjoys talking about it with those who feel the same.