PLACE MATTERS (NEW YORK CITY LORE) PROFILE OF MANDOLIN BROTHERS:
By Brendan Garrone
In a modest, brown, nearly windowless building in the heart of Staten Island is a store which many consider to be the center of the American fretted instrument world. Mandolin Bros., located at 629 Forest Avenue in Staten Island is home to some of the world's best guitars, banjos, ukuleles, and, of course, mandolins.
For the last 36 years, Mandolin Bros. has become the authority not only for the purchasing of vintage equipment but of appraising and buying for over 200,000 players and collectors. Moreover, the showroom has become widely known as, among other things, "The Best Guitar Store in New York" (New York Magazine). Having sold instruments to some of the top musicians of the 20th century (Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, George Harrison, among others) Mandolin Bros. has become a fixture in the New York City music scene, and a world authority in the appraising, buying, and selling of fretted instruments.
Mandolin Bros. was founded in 1971 by friends and partners Stan Jay and Harold "Hap" Kuffner, and moved into the store's present location on Forest Avenue in 1976. Thinking that mandolins could use some publicity, and wanting to poke fun at music store owners who often name their stores after themselves, Stan and Hap became the Mandolin Brothers. Kuffner left the store in 1982 (though staying in the music business), but Mandolin Bros. continued on as one of the "largest dealers in the world of vintage and new fretted instruments." (Vintage News) Owner Stan Jay remains the active voice of Mandolin Bros., with his office situated at the entrance of the store. Still playing a dominant role in day to day business affairs, Stan receives emails from all around the world, most of which are questions concerning the value of a particular instrument from potential sellers, or the specifications of a particular vintage item. Stan is more than happy to oblige, and his background in writing (Stan has a Masters Degree in Education/English from Wagner College and was a doctoral candidate at Columbia University's Teachers' College) has helped his now-famous instrument descriptions which, besides providing honest and detailed information about each instrument, are usually good for a laugh or two.
The somewhat unusual shape of Mandolin Bros. showroom provides ample space to display its collection of American fretted instruments, with the store's rooms divided by instrument type. The banjo, mandolin, and ukulele room for example, boasts not only a fantastic selection of instruments, but one of the best sounding rooms around -- the skins of the banjos provide unparalleled acoustics!
While the Mandolin Bros. showroom displays a wealth of fretted instruments, Stan does not carry just anything. He is careful to choose only the best instruments from the best manufacturers, and he has frequently turned down companies trying to sell at his store. Mandolin Bros. is one of the largest dealers of C.F. Martin's in the world. They are considered a Five Star dealer from Gibson and a Marquee dealer from Martin, the highest distinctions that can be obtained by each. In addition to these world famous manufacturers, Mandolin Bros. carries a collection of smaller dealers who create top-notch instruments. The smaller dealer's room inside the store carries instruments from Santa Cruz, Macpherson, and Huss and Dalton, among others. Other display rooms in the store include the "B Room" -- basses and banjos -- and the "G Room" -- Gibson, Guild, and Gretsch instruments. In addition, the store has a "High End Room" which contains the best and most expensive instruments Mandolin Bros. has to offer. From D'Angelico -- a type of archtop guitar -- to a 1954 Fender Stratocaster and a 1963 Telecaster, the room is often used to show celebrities and high-end collectors what the store has to offer.
Though the store carries a wide array of new instruments, the Mandolin Bros. have made their name through vintage instruments. Stan defines a "vintage instrument" as one that was made with, "materials and processes that are no longer in use" (interview). While the term 'vintage' may conjure up images of a musty, dimly-lit store with as many 'do-not-touch' signs as there are guitars, the Mandolin Bros.' friendly and unbelievably knowledgeable staff welcome players to try out any instrument for as long as they please. This just might be the single largest attraction for visitors to the store: it is not everyday that one can sit and relax while strumming a pre-War C.F. Martin acoustic guitar!
Much of the vintage business takes place over the Internet as well. Customers from all over the world can shop on Mandoweb, the store's website, and purchase some of the finest quality instruments right from home. In addition, Mandolin Bros. receives hundreds of inquires a month regarding appraisals of vintage instruments.
The Mandolin Bros. showroom is not just used by New Yorkers, however. Players from all over the United States visit the shop. During our visit, a gentleman from Jacksonville, Florida, playing a Santa Cruz guitar, was enjoying his first visit after twenty years of using the catalog and website. Owner Stan Jay says he gets visitors from all over Europe, South America, and Asia. Indeed, Mandolin Bros. has been called, "One of the best guitar shops in the world" by The Boston Globe and, "One of the world's foremost dealers in new and vintage fretted instruments" by The New York Times. The store is often recommended by Gibson Guitars for appraisal questions. In addition, Mandolin Bros. have "appraised the contents of the C.F. Martin museum for Martin five times, the estate of C.F. Martin III, Roy Smeck, Merle Travis, and the personal collection of George Fullerton."(Vintage News).
Though the Mandolin Bros. business has spread across the globe, the shop remains inextricably linked to New York, and some may think surprisingly, to Staten Island -- the least urbanized of the city's five boroughs. The young partners started the shop in Staten Island because they lived nearby. Stan taught at Wagner College while waiting for the business to bring in enough money to live on. Once Mandolin Bros. caught on, there were other reasons to stay. For one, they liked the environment. Two, they figured that anyone who took the time to get all the way out there -- taking subway, ferry, and bus -- must be serious about music and could be trusted to handle the instruments. If the trust goes, says Stan, so does the welcoming atmosphere, and then the "character of the place would change utterly."
The shop is also central to the New York music scene. Mandolin Bros. has sold instruments to some of the most successful artists in music, many of whom make a point to visit the shop in person during their time in New York. Artists such as Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Bela Fleck, and Jimmy Buffet, among many others, have all entrusted Stan Jay and his staff to provide the perfect instrument (Vintage News). In fact, the wall at the entrance of the store has been converted into a collage of photos and letters of musicians and celebrities who have paid Mandolin Bros. a visit.
One of the business's greatest accomplishments, however, was its addition to a prestigious map of musical landmarks in New York City, dubbed the "New York City Music Trail." Created by the City of New York and the Host Committee for the Grammy Awards, the trail included other 'must-see' New York City landmarks such as the Apollo Theater, Carnegie Hall, CBGBs, the Steinway Piano Factory, and Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts (Music Trades).
The other accomplishment of Mandolin Bros. has been to serve as a training ground for the men and women who staff the music industry. One of Stan's former instrument repairmen is now the best in the field, and there are many stories like his. "People come and go," Stan says," but they stay in the industry." We imagine that like the store's loyal customers, they form part of the worldwide Mandolin Bros. community.
Hours: Mon-Sat. 10am to 6pm; www.mandoweb.com
The Vintage News - Catalog published by the Mandolin Bros.
Personal interview with owner Stan Jay and customer on April 6th, 2007
Collections of media quotes found in Mandolin Bros. 2006 Catalog
Music Trade, issue March, 1994 [posted, April 2007]