Last Tuesday, while visiting New York, I went to Staten Island—a fact that in itself made most New Yorkers raise their eyebrows in surprise. “What’s in Staten Island?” they asked.
The best guitar shop in the universe, I told them.
Mandolin Brothers. Founded more than 40 years ago by Stan Jay, one of two guys who can legitimately claim to have invented the vintage guitar market and the vintage guitar store. A place so rich in guitars (and banjos, mandolins, ukuleles, etc) that when the BBC wanted me to make a TV series on the history of the guitar I told them, “Bring a camera crew and meet me at Mandolin Brothers.”
Just before I left to catch the Staten Island ferry, though, I got a message from Stan’s daughter Alison: Stan died five months ago.
What a loss. Stan was a musical leprechaun. As infectious in his enthusiasm as he was purple in his prose, he turned the entire place into his living-room and seemed as happy to play along with a customer as to sell him an instrument.
The least I could do to honor his memory was to go across the water and play a few high-end guitars.
Mandolin Brothers is almost camouflaged, a small, beige, stucco building you’d drive past a dozen times without noticing it, and twenty times before thinking of it as a guitar store.
Inside, though, the place is a Tardis of a building, rooms unfolding in each direction like Chinese puzzle boxes.
Having sold off a lot of the inventory on Stan’s death, Alison and Eric now inhabit some rather depleted rooms, the banjo room in particular echoing delightfully with the reverberations of the instruments’ drums.
They have a good array of Martins, large to tiny, and from expensive pre-war 00 bodies to a new 12-string that is a steal at $650. My favorite guitar in the place, though, was a Goodall.
I remember Goodall as a Hawaii-based maker of koa-rich guitars with a good but rather well-behaved sound, like more florid Olsons. He has moved to the mainland, and apparently upped his game significantly.
It had a muscular sound, not booming so much as rich, not the classic silver sound but something shot through with burgundy and purple. Its action was liquid. The sound was strong at top and bottom and even in that eighth-to-tenth-fret middle where many guitars, even good guitars, hollow out a little. It was a guitar that commanded attention; it played not only musically, but with authority.
I played a few Martins, very reasonably priced given their vintage, hung out, swapped a few stories with Eric, simply passing time well in the company of good instruments. A guitar shop is the only place where a man will allow himself to shop like a woman.
Eric and Alison tell me they’re steadily building back up their stock and looking to consign more guitars. I wish them all the luck in the world.
Oh, and on the way back to St. George to catch the ferry, stop off at the Asha, a Sri Lankan restaurant where I had—no exaggeration—the best lunch I’ve ever eaten in New York. For $10. Staten Island, eh?