The main reason for including New York on this trip was to visit two iconic guitar stores – one in Greenwich Village and the other on Staten Island. It was more heat mist than fog that shrouds the streets of Greenwich Village but yesterday morning on Bleecker Street was still magical. Paul Simon wrote the eponymous song for Simon & Garfunkel’s 1964 album ‘Wednesday Morning, 3AM’, and it’s long been a hymn to the importance of the street for the ’60’s folk scene.
Matt Umanov has worked in the Village since the early ’60’s and has had a guitar repair shop or retail store there since the very beginning of the folk scene. He has repaired guitars for Dylan, Joan Baez as well as the pioneers of the scene like Dave van Ronk and sold new and vintage guitars to them all. He’s now in his 70’s and while a little curmudgeonly talks about his friends Bobby, Dave and Joanny with an ease that makes you realise he was more than just there.
I’d been participating in a crisp, sometimes ill-tempered, e-mail exchange with Matt for months. He finally agreed to give me an hour on the understanding that he might have to cut that short at a moments notice as he “has a business to run that feeds me, my kids and my two ex-wives”. He phaffed around for half an hour after I arrived… selling a set of strings to a young mandolin player, scolding his sales guy for not putting a guitar back properly and then taking a call from his accountant. I thought he was going to cry off, pleading pressure of work but finally he led me up to his office cum store-room cum kitchen and started talking. Two hours later – and barring a couple of interruptions – he’d told me his and the stores life stories, including how he can only survive in the Village which is now a mix of “boutique ice-cream stores and crappy flag-ship fashion stores” because he bought the building he was renting back in ’79.
The ground floor is the store…
The first floor the repair shop and his office, the top floors where he lives. Only he, the family run pizza place across the street and an Italian butchers two doors up have survived from the ’60’s… but only because they all bought the freehold’s.
I was just about to leave – I thought I’d been dismissed – when he asked if I “wanted to see his pension”?
We went deeper into the store-room and he then showed me the half-dozen guitars he’d acquired to keep over the preceding 50 years… the 1930’s Gibson played by the Green Briar Boys, precursor to The Weavers… that’s a very young Bob Dylan sitting in, the photo taken by another famous Village musician and guitarist with The New Lost City Ramblers, John Cohen.
“Get this photo John… three Jews photographed by a Jewish musician being held by another Jew. “
He had one of Dylan’s early acoustic guitars left to be repaired and never paid for or collected… each of the historic instruments a treasure.
I ran out the door an hour later to get the subway to the Staten Island ferry and my trip across the water to Mandolin Brothers.
If Umanov’s is authentic Greenwich Village history, alongside the legendary jazz and folk music clubs, The Village Vanguard, The Bitter End and The Gaslight, then Mandolin Brothers was the Mecca of guitar stores. Stan Jay ran it for 45 years before he died of a sudden cancer late last year. When I first started exchanging letters with Stan in the early 90’s he had a stock of over 700 instruments – many new but many treasures of vintage acoustic and jazz guitar.
I’ve acquired a couple of guitars with Stan’s help but had never managed to visit the store… but many did. On ‘Song for Sharon‘ Joni Mitchell sings ‘I went to Staten Island… to buy a mandolin’. She actually bought an eight string Mandocello and a guitar but it was a clever play on words alongside a name-check for the legendary guitar store.
Again I’d had a slightly tricky e-mail exchange, this time with with Stan’s daughter who was now running the business…”we might be re-modelling”; “we could be on vacation”; “things are messy at the moment so only call when you get to New York”.
Her last e-mail was more revealing…”to be honest things are not good, we’ve had to shrink the business, lay a lot of long-term staff off and it’s likely that the business will be sold… so I’m embarrassed that you’ll come across and be disappointed”
Mandolin Brothers was “Guitar Mecca” for 30 years. Guitar geeks from all over the world built holidays around a visit. People wanted to buy their dream guitar and they wanted to get it from Stan Jay… he was rightfully a legend. The store was an unimposing stucco building on Forest Avenue… itself a pretty plain street. But when you walked inside it was like Dr Who’s tardis. What you thought was going to be a smallish space opened out so that room after room revealed every guitar brand you could ever want to see. New guitars from all the top US makers but also rare guitars from the beginning of the century, through the Golden Era pre-war years. But the real delight of the store was that you could play anything…. a basic $500 Taylor through to a pre-War Martin Dreadnaught with a $400,000 price-tag.
I got to the store in the early afternoon and met Stan’s son Eric and daughter, Alison. We chatted about how Stan had virtually lived at the store 7 days a week for 30 years. His widow, Bea Jay, must have seen the business as her rival. It seemed that she wanted to sell it, forget it and travel. The children were upset but loyal.
Then Morty arrived!
Morty Jacobi was in his mid-70’s. Had met Stan in grade school and was his closest friend. They’d had morning coffee at Stan’s desk virtually every day for the past 30 years… Morty’s law firm was two blocks up the street. We chatted about old times… how when Paul McCartney’s ‘Beatles violin bass guitar’ came in for repair Stan told Morty to go downstairs to pay his respects… “I went down and there it was sitting on the workbench about to be re-fretted for the very first time. I was overcome, this was THE Beatle bass. So I bent down and kissed it. At which point the bass’s ‘bodyguard’, who had flown it over on Concorde sprang from out of nowhere and screamed at me “what the f*** do you think you’re doing?”… I recall that he was brandishing gun”.
At which point Bea Jay walked in with another family friend… “You telling him that old McCartney story Morty?”
The interview then turned into what felt like something akin to a two hour mass therapy session… Stan stories, difficult looks from the kids when Bea made a forthright statement about how Stan “loved the store more than anything or anyone else”, how Stan had carried too much inventory and never got rid of people.
I suggested a group photo as I packed up my stuff…
That’s Bea the matriarch in the centre, Morty on the far right and the slightly mysterious ‘Pete’ with the hat at the back. Alison and Eric either side of mum. They were all assembled, with Morty as legal advisor, to meet a prospective buyer in about 30 minutes so maybe I was in at the end of ‘The best guitar store in the world’. Alison showed me out with a winsome smile.
I’m off to Nazareth, Pennsylvania tomorrow to visit the world’s longest surviving and still thriving guitar maker. Christian Frederich Martin escaped the tyranny of the German guild system in 1833 and started afresh in New York. It’s still a private, family owned business and there has been a Martin at its head since it started.