Stan Jay was president-for-life of Mandolin Brothers, a guitar shop he founded on Staten Island that became a destination for serious musicians and collectors around the country. He also ran a one-man Dream Fulfillment Center, as the sign above his office still declares. That's because he dedicated his life to plucking heartstrings.
“If you play music, life somehow takes on a new meaning and a new color,” he told WNYC in 2012. “You become expressive in ways you never knew you could be. That is why we're here.”
But he's not here anymore. Jay died last October at age 71 from mantle-cell lymphoma. His peers felt his loss acutely. A 6-inch stack of condolences piled up at the shop overnight. Guitar Aficionado magazine knighted him “Lord of the Strings.” George Gruhn, who runs a similarly celebrated shop in Nashville, put it this way: “It was like a death in the family for the whole industry.”
When Jay died, the store was passed to his wife, Bea. Mandolin Brothers remained open, and its fans breathed a sigh of relief. But the intervening year has been filled with grief. For the family, the store is a painful reminder of the past and a source of stress more than revenue—which in the past year has declined steeply to $2 million, from between $3 million to $4 million in previous years.
Family businesses are much celebrated in this city and country as the knitting that binds generations to their communities. But inside, the glow of a successful business can singe. How many children or spouses can feel their fullest in the confines of their loved ones' business plan?
“These conversations are tricky to have in family businesses,” said Tim Berry, a business planning expert, author and serial entrepreneur. Many families don't want to pressure their children into the company. Children and parents are also sensitive about wanting to be measured for a job by their merits, not their bloodline. Given those complexities, it's no wonder only 30% of family enterprises survive to the second generation, according to the Family Business Institute.
“Not to be a curmudgeon, but at this time in my life it's very stressful. It was his dream, not mine,” said Bea, 68. “I'm in retirement.”
Buck EnnisThe 1968 RB-175 long-neck banjo is Gibson's version of the Vega longneck made famous by Pete Seeger. It sold for about $1,100.
Before her husband's death, Bea had other plans for her two children. “Alison would like to be a teacher, I think.” (Her 36-year-old daughter used to moonlight as a substitute teacher.) “And Eric has such a head for numbers,” she said.
Quietly, gracefully, as gently as they handle any instrument, they have begun “winding down things, shrinking things down,” said Eric, 34. The shop closes an hour earlier now. Staffers have been moved to freelance status. It is now open by appointment only, and has stopped getting new inventory. Its stock has gone from about 800 instruments to around 130.
In September, the family all took a vacation together. In Jay's day, they would take whirlwind three-day jaunts to Rehoboth Beach—”that's three days, including driving,” noted Alison. This year's Labor Day was a what-are-we-gonna-do-with-ourselves week and a half in Long Beach Island on the Jersey Shore. Afterward, they decided to start talking to buyers, hoping they could cash out, pay off their debt and move on.
What sounded like sighs in Alison's voice increasingly sounded like steeling gasps to buttress her shaking voice. “You have to think like him all the time,” she said. “Where would he put this? How would he do that? What does this Post-it note mean? He made the wheels turn.”
Her voice trailed and Eric spoke up. “What's that phrase? Heavy is the crown. We discovered exactly that. He was the king.”
Then it was his turn to sigh. ”He had a knowledge we could never have,” said Eric. “He could look at a black case and just know, without opening it, that it was a 1947 Gibson L-5.”
Jay couldn't read music, but he played in a rockabilly band with his pals Morty and Guy, using a notation system he devised himself. He and Bea met in 1973, when she signed up for a guitar class Jay was teaching with his first wife. Jay was separated at the time, and by the end of that first two-hour lesson, Bea said, “she told him I'd be good for him.”
Jay conceived of the shop after he traded a mandolin he bought from a pawn store for $10 in exchange for a summer's worth of access to a used Saab in California. Even though he had no brothers and his inventory was mainly guitars, he named the store Mandolin Brothers because the instrument is often overlooked. In December 1971, he began operations out of a second-story walk-up on Staten Island with his business partner, Hap Kuffner.
Aficionados said that at the time only one other store of its kind existed: Gruhn's shop in Nashville. The inventory at Mandolin Brothers was luminescent: a one-of-a-kind 1957 D'Angelico “teardrop” New Yorker archtop, displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's “Guitar Heroes” exhibit in 2011; Elvis Presley's 1958 Gibson LG-1; and a prewar National Style O ukulele that Jay sold to George Harrison during the ex-Beatle's 40-minute shopping spree in 1990. The store's remaining inventory ranges from a $245 mandolin to an Italian import priced at $12,887 (or $12,500 cash), with the oldest stock dating as far back as 1909.
Mandolin Brothers became a destination for famous musicians and collectors. Clientele included Harry Connick Jr., Bob Dylan, Lenny Kravitz, Cyndi Lauper and Bruce Springsteen. In 1975, Joni Mitchell bought a circa-1915 Gibson K-4 mandocello and a 1913 Martin 000-28 herringbone acoustic, then immortalized Jay's store in her 1976 “Sharon's Song,” which begins: ”I went to Staten Island, Sharon, to buy myself a mandolin.”
Paul McCartney sent an assistant to the store with the 1963 Hofner 500/1 violin bass the Beatle had played in the epic band's heyday. “My bass never played in tune, but I brought it to Mandolin Brothers and they set it straight,” McCartney told Bass Player magazine in 1995. When Christopher Guest needed to learn how to play a banjo for his film A Mighty Wind, he made sure to buy it from Jay, whose passion and knowledge galvanized his ability to acquire rare instruments.
In 1983, Jay bought out Kuffner. The shop, which has been in its current location since 1975, became a family operation. In 1995, Bea learned Web design to give it an online presence. The next year, Alison began gofer work—dusting, closing gates, stuffing envelopes—to save up for her prom dress. Then Eric began working as a string changer. While Bea stayed mostly at home (her unspoken contributions were her handmade loud-print shirts her husband sported), both Alison and Eric stayed at the shop. But when their father died, the family business lost its north star.
The siblings co-manage the store, hoping for a buyer before they are forced to close their doors for good.
“We learned by looking over his shoulder,” Alison said. “But so much of what he did was internal. He'd offer. He'd say, 'It's not that hard to learn.' But we never got around to it. We always thought there'd be more time.”