Mom-and-pop musical instrument retailers had good reason to be nervous when this Florida-based chain moved into Minnesota earlier this year. After all, MARS founder and CEO Mark Begelman presided over the spectacular growth of Office Depot in the mid-'90s, one of the defining successes of the burgeoning superstore movement. Loath though we are to admit it, the superstore concept is not without its virtues. MARS stocks a huge and varied inventory in its 30,000 square-foot showroom, which is located next to the REI co-op on the south side of the intersection of I-494 and Lyndale Avenue. The guitar section--the store's most notable strength--runs the gamut from inexpensive acoustic and electric knockoffs to top-of-the-line Martins and Fenders, with loads in between. MARS sells scads of other instruments as well: trombones, drums, clarinets, cellos, electronic keyboards, even starter kit DJ sets. You won't find a whole lot of bargains in the used department. (Two grand for a vintage cheapie Danelectro? C'mon.) Still, this superstore offers some remarkably attractive deals on new merchandise. As a bulk buyer (the Bloomington operation was the 22nd MARS store to open since the company's 1997 founding), MARS no doubt receives discounts unavailable to smaller independents, so you may feel a little guilty about your sweet deal. Aesthetically, of course, the MARS shopping experience is a mixed bag. On one hand, the instruments are readily accessible and well tended. (When was the last time you picked up a 12-string guitar that was in tune?) Customers are free to try out the merchandise without the annoyance of the hovering and fussy sales folks. That, of course, makes an ideal setting for fuzz-faced teens to perfect their Randy Rhodes licks and thus makes for some damn fine people-watching as well. On the other hand, MARS does seem impersonal, with its stench of newness and bland decor. Weekend visitors run a high risk of encountering a live musical performance on the store's high-tech stage. Doesn't seem like a bad idea until you've been subjected to a synth-pop interpretation of "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina" while trying to figure out whether that double-necked Jimmy Page-model Washburn has a funny


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