Retrofret Vintage Guitars owner and founder, Steve Uhrik
"Is there a music store on this street?" I inquire.
Two middle-aged Hispanic men on the front steps of a small home near the corner of Butler and Bond Streets in Brooklyn, N.Y. look momentarily bewildered, say something to each other I don't hear, shrug their shoulders and politely reply, "No man, don't think so."
I knew the answer but had to check.
I'm in New York for a few days because Dan Beimborn of the Mandolin Archive is here from the UK for his day job. Dan manages the Cafe's server, and when work calls, we dig in: great food, libations, vintage mandolin chat and more. Grueling, but someone has to do it.
About 50 yards down the block from my inquiry I arrive at 233 Butler Street, nearing my other reason for being in town: a visit to Brooklyn's famed Retrofret Vintage Guitars, founded in 1983 by Steve Uhrik.
The building housing Retrofret has an interesting history. It was built near the turn-of-the-century to house the first ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals ) in Brooklyn, a hand-engraved plaque over the door the only outward evidence. It depicts a horse being beaten by a coach driver. An angel of kindness intervenes. Good thing I'm on a budget for this trip because the demon of MAS (Mandolin Acquisition Syndrome) knows no such angel.
Getting from street to store is an amusing experience for the first-time visitor.
A buzzer is attached to the the door frame. Pressed, a few seconds later the door is remotely unlocked. You enter a stairway, climb to the top, take a right turn and up another flight of stairs where you stand in front of another door, this one with a Retrofret sign. Open the door and you're outside on a roof with a wooden walkway leading to the other side of the building with another door and another Retrofret sign. Clearly, you don't arrive here by accident.
Enter Retrofret Vintage Guitars
I gingerly open the door. Oz reveals itself to Dorothy. Black and white turn to color.
Cue the violins.
I stand momentarily stunned, surrounded by hundreds of valuable (and some not so valuable) vintage guitars, mandolins, banjos, violins, miscellaneous stringed instruments and collections of rare and unusual music memorabilia.
This is going to be fun.
The staff is welcoming, offers to hang up my coat. "Like a cup of coffee?" Owner Steve Uhrik is expecting me and after a brief meet and greet with the staff I'm told to "help yourself and play anything you'd like."
Steve has probably seen the look on my face thousands of times. Almost apologetically he tells me, "Like a lot of musicians I seem drawn to the catch and release game that comes with vintage instruments. I love finding a great old vintage mandolin, banjo, fiddle or guitar, but I don't really need to own a bunch of them.
"The fun is digging them up. I love having them in the store but I'm always happy when I see someone that simply has to have a certain instrument in order to complete what their doing musically."
I waste no time and grab the black-faced 1934 Gibson F-10 discussed on the Cafe's forum. It's a surprisingly responsive instrument with a gorgeous vintage Gibson sound that doesn't particularly surprise, but delights me. Sweet as hell.
1934 Gibson F-10
I feel privileged to be holding and playing what's one of only 15 thought to exist. It could justifiably reside behind glass or protected from general visitors for its price range.
I play several other mandolins, a few guitars and a Martin tenor I'm really digging. Out of nowhere, long-time Retrofret employee Peter Kohman places a shiny Hoffee Carbon Fiber case next to the couch where I'm seated, a huge grin on his face. I have a pretty good idea what's inside.
February 18, 1924 Lloyd Loar signed F-5, #75702
Within 30 minutes of entering Retrofret Vintage Guitars I'm carefully cuddled up with their February 18, 1924 Lloyd Loar signed F-5, serial #75702, described on their web site as Cremona Brown Sunburst varnish finish, flame maple back, sides and neck, spruce top, ebony fingerboard, original black hard shell case. It has a virzi, something not every mandolin player is a fan of, but I love them in a Loar.
It's one of the nicest mandolins I've ever played. I've played my share and while I never speak ill of any instrument that doesn't catch my fancy — there is room for many opinions, many preferences, many tastes — there's clearly no concern with this one. Yes, I would dearly love to own it. It responds and sounds the way I want a mandolin to perform in my hands.
I'll play many fine vintage instruments during this visit here but I'll remember the sound and response of this mandolin for a long time.
I'm impressed enough that I can't help firing up Twitter. Chris Thile already thinks enough of the February 18 batch that he owns two, so why not have a little fun?
Another hour or two pass all too quickly. Time gets away from you here. Customers come and go while I work my way through the massive vintage acoustic guitar stock. Although I'm primarily a mandolin player, I've played guitar since I was big enough to hold one.
Where a seasoned journalist might glean additional information to describe the experience of the visit, I'm lost in a fog of vintage lust, whiling away my time dreaming of owning the instruments I play.
Entering the serene, light-filled showroom, you are greeted by rows of Martin acoustic guitars propped on stands on a large Oriental rug. To the right is a wall of banjos, and to the left a room of electric guitars, where Fenders and Gibsons hang from the walls like so many lacquered lollipops.
— The New York Times
It's getting late in the afternoon and I have an early evening appointment in Manhattan. Shortly before departing Bradley Klein arrives. Brad is the author behind some of our Chris Thile interviews and works part-time at Retrofret. We try to get together every time I'm in the city and today's visit serves that purpose.
Brad and Steve escort me to the front of the building showing off the storage and repair department while discussing the history of the building.
Steve tells me, "I didn't start with the intent of opening a vintage instrument music store. I was dabbling in instrument repair while in high school and eventually was allowed to hang around the shop of a well known violin repairman in New York City. A lucky break for a young kid interested in old-time fiddle, guitar and banjo. I learned what I could from whatever source was available and eventually moved on and built a small repair business.
"Over the years people I was doing work for would ask if I knew where they could buy a certain instrument or where they could sell one. I started matching buyers and sellers and eventually was drawn into the business of Retrofret by customer demand."
I compliment him on the customer service observed during my visit. He says, "I'm proud of the fact that we're known for that, but honestly, I'm not exactly the best people person myself."
On the walk back to the subway and then during the ride into Manhattan I bask in the afterglow of what is one of those rare experiences. Although I've been around and sought out great musical instruments my entire life, there's still that rush when you walk into a vintage instrument store like Retrofret for the first time.
Later that evening I dine at a small restaurant in Chinatown with friends. Moisture from baskets of freshly prepared soup dumplings and vessels of hot tea steam the windows. The neon signs on the street are a blur.
It's good to be a musician.
Retrofret Vintage Guitars - Mandolins and Banjos
Photo credit: Scott Tichenor
Retrofret Vintage Guitars
Photo credit: Scott Tichenor
Early 233 Butler Street
ASPCA Plaque Over Entrance to Retrofret
Photo credit: Scott Tichenor
If You're Visiting
Retrofret Vintage Guitars is located at 233 Butler Street in Brooklyn, an 8-10 minute walk from Bergen Street (F, G lines) or Union Street (R line) subway stops. From Bergen Street the F line heading into Manhattan enters the Southeast end the city near the Brooklyn Bridge, continues Northwest to Greenwich Village before turning north with plenty of stops up to 57th Street through the middle of the city. Easy access if you're staying in Manhattan. Cab fare from midtown Manhattan will run at least $30 one-way without tip, and fares (and reliability of service) vary wildly depending upon traffic and time of day. Hours: 12:00 - 7:00 p.m. Monday through Friday. 12:00 - 6:00 p.m. Saturday. Closed Sundays. (718) 237-6092.
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A fascinating read! Thanks for sharing that, almost made me feel like I was visiting the store.
November 17, 2013 10:32 PM
I wish I would have known of this place when I went to NY in September. Then again, I spent QUITE a few hours at Mandolin Brothers on Staten Island. My dear patient wife waited for me while I poured myself over the many instruments there. I likely would have been a day later getting home, had I stopped by Retro Fret.
Glad to know more about the place! It will HAVE to be a stop I make when I go back next year.
Thanks so much Scott for sharing your experience, and at length at that.
November 17, 2013 10:34 PM
A really nice portrait of my favorite NYC vintage shop. Lovely job, Scott!
Long before they were a client of mine (I sometimes do social media and PR work for them), Retrofret was just… the coolest place in my neighborhood. Very welcoming and knowledgable - displaying all the qualities that make a great local business so much more than an Amazon.com, or Ebay.
PS Eric, I hope your wife took advantage of the very nice pizzeria across the street from Mandolin Brothers. That helps pass the time! Although it doesn't help the anxiety that can come with a spouse who may be on a big-ticket shopping spree, across the street.
November 18, 2013 06:39 AM
Nice writeup, but... no soundclip of you playing the F-10 and the Lloyd Loar... :disbelief:
November 18, 2013 07:02 AM
Looks like a place I would like if I get to visit NYC!
November 18, 2013 07:26 AM
Thanks for the story Scott! Felt like I was there with ya...what fun!!
November 18, 2013 12:05 PM
Great to know that somebody has figured out what to do with all those trees that grow in Brooklyn!
November 18, 2013 04:52 PM
Wow thanks so much for the great writeup, so glad you enjoyed the shop, Scott! I did warn you about the "hidden" entrance Sorry I wasn't in the day you came to visit but I hope you can come back sometime soon.
November 19, 2013 01:36 PM
Thanks for the post, Scott. Great to get a peak into a wonderful store. They're officially on my list.
November 19, 2013 02:13 PM
Ha! My '17 A-1 used to hang on that wall!
And since it was raining like heck when picking up my Flatiron after setup, Steven U. even offered to drop me off at the subway stop.
February 24, 2017 01:49 PM
Made a return visit to Retrofret today so thought I'd share a few pictures inside of this article I put together 3+ years ago. Had a chance to catch up with my old friend Steve Uhrik which I really enjoyed, as I did my time with Scott and Shira who are just great folks.
Couple of really nice Martin tenor guitars caught my attention. Also, a really spectacular Virzi'd snakehead A-4 that has mismatched tuning buttons. Couldn't tell but they sure look original to the instrument. I find that odd that they would leave the factory like that but who knows? Didn't alter the fact that it sounded marvelous.
Also included, a picture of a vintage Fender electric mandolin. Lastly, in the original article I asked some folks that live about 50 yards from the store entrance if there was a music store in the neighborhood. Retrofret is so well hidden they didn't know it was there. Had to take a picture of the front porch where they were hanging out that day. I didn't make that up.
The Roy Smeck mandolin was something to behold. Unusual for sure. They have a matching ukulele to it and a guitar I was told but didn't check that out. The Gibson A dola there sounded real fine. Would make a great mandolin orchestra instrument.
Enjoy the eye candy. A great place to visit, and if you're looking for an instrument, lots of fun to shop.
February 24, 2017 05:35 PM
Did you try the Roy Smeck mandolin? Last time I stopped in at Retrofret that was the first one I got my hands on. It's a POWERFUl mandolin for such a tiny thing! Definitely not a bluegrass box, but I thought it had a great sound.
February 25, 2017 07:11 AM
Quote from Bslot0622: Did you try the Roy Smeck mandolin? Last time I stopped in at Retrofret that was the first one I got my hands on. It's a POWERFUl mandolin for such a tiny thing! Definitely not a bluegrass box, but I thought it had a great sound. End Quote
Yes, very nice little mandolin. Extremely light and resonant. Believe it was from 1929 so was really something like no other mandolin then and now.
February 25, 2017 07:27 AM
Quote from Mandolin Cafe: Yes, very nice little mandolin. Extremely light and resonant. Believe it was from 1929 so was really something like no other mandolin then and now. End Quote
Hey Scott, Did you get to try out the F-10?, Looks like its in great shape but a way bit pricey in my opinion, I tried to buy that quite a few years ago but they wouldn't budge much in price. I do like the F-7's and have some also the rare 1935 F-12 is in my stable, I'd like the F-10 to have the set but a little too much green!, I know it's no different in sound compared to F-7's but some 7's shine above others in tone/volume, voice etc. I've played quite a few..I know she's no 5 in sound and power but I'm curious,
February 25, 2017 07:37 AM
Yes, I've played it a number of times. I like it a lot. It's a remarkable instrument, but it's a difficult sell in that age and price range. I've talked to Steve about it before and we both know what the issue is with it not selling. It's perception. It's not the 1923-25 range so folks get scared off. Not many great Gibson F mandolins from the 30s floating around for sale or even being played.
February 25, 2017 07:52 AM
I hear ya, I think I'm one of the few that like the 7's.,10's and prewar 12's. I love the 7's and have no issues with converting them with a 5 scale maple neck. I've done this to 3 of em and still have one original, My 12 is original and I'll keep it that way, I'd also keep the 10 that way if I ever get one. I tried to come to a deal with Steve/Shira but they wouldn't go for my offer at the time and well it still sits unplayed and unloved 3 years later. The 7's I didn't mind converting because they were not pristine examples and well it made em a whole lot better and 1 for sure rivals some Loars I've played and some of the "well known Loar guys" agree on that one. Nothing wrong with 30's Gibsons be it the short neck F's or the 5's. Just a bit pricey for em, One 5 I've tried to get is a monster to me anyway and it was just lowered in price by 10G, it still has a ways to go if they want to sell it in my opinion.
November 17, 2017 02:39 PM
Noting the anniversary of this article we had a lot of fun putting together back in 2013.
November 17, 2018 08:33 AM
Another trip around the sun for this feature article from this date 2013. The new Retrofret location is the bomb! Highly recommended. Was just there a couple of months ago and it's a really great space.
January 02, 2019 10:57 PM
Well, I'm obliged to leave a grateful note and notice to all in the neighborhood to go by and check out Retrofret, as they proved to be most gracious hosts to me as a drop-in visitor today. Their lovely shop looks a bit different and even more welcoming from even Scott's photos here posted a few months ago. I was welcomed in and enthusiastically allowed to play any of their fine mandos, though I focused my time on the exceptional Grand Artist, the 38' F5, and a pre-war Martin. The Monteleone's balance and tone stood out, and I was also particularly taken by the 20' H4 'dola. Anyway, great service and outstanding taste in inventory should be noted, so do all you can to visit and support this fine shop.
January 03, 2019 04:34 AM
I like that clean 38 F-5 but priced about 30G to high IMHO! I played a 38 not too long ago and wasn't impressed but in those years they all vary! I don't think there is a bad Monte? Those GA's are something special.
January 03, 2019 10:09 AM
Quote from paul dirac: Well, I'm obliged to leave a grateful note and notice to all in the neighborhood to go by and check out Retrofret, as they proved to be most gracious hosts to me as a drop-in visitor today. Their lovely shop looks a bit different and even more welcoming from even Scott's photos here posted a few months ago. I was welcomed in and enthusiastically allowed to play any of their fine mandos, though I focused my time on the exceptional Grand Artist, the 38' F5, and a pre-war Martin. The Monteleone's balance and tone stood out, and I was also particularly taken by the 20' H4 'dola. Anyway, great service and outstanding taste in inventory should be noted, so do all you can to visit and support this fine shop. End Quote
Hey Paul how was the 38 F-5? How would you describe the sound of it-very curious as its been there a long time but like a ton of Retro's stuff I believe way overpriced in this market. "In 2011-12 I offered a price on the F-10 and she still sits, and it was a very good price!" The 5 looks barely played so it would need some serious playtime to probably set it off?
January 03, 2019 10:50 AM
Quote from William Smith: Hey Paul how was the 38 F-5? How would you describe the sound of it-very curious as its been there a long time but like a ton of Retro's stuff I believe way overpriced in this market. "In 2011-12 I offered a price on the F-10 and she still sits, and it was a very good price!" The 5 looks barely played so it would need some serious playtime to probably set it off? End Quote
Hi William, Good to connect here (and thanks for the cloud tailpiece for my Jr. a while back!).
The '38 sounded solid, to my ears. (I'm always hesitant to describe sound, as it's so subjective, my vocab. is unrefined, and it's so dependent on setup, strings, etc.) I didn't hear anything that would preclude the '38 from consideration and a longer testing session- I didn't play it for terribly long. I'd leave it to others to speculate on the price.
I've played a few other Grand Artists before, and they've all been noteworthy. This one was very even across the strings and neck, just perfect playability, and a very appealing, subtle tone. That's about the best you'll get from me...
I'm embarrassed to say that I did not play the 10 (or the 7?). My wife and daughter were doing the all-too-familiar couch sit/wait as I visited, and I've learned that I've got to plan my time wisely. I also try and be respectful of the proprietor's need to have yet another mando-nut drooling over every fine piece in the store. (It's what caused me to abstain from playing the '92 Carlson Bill Monroe's varnish finish at Fretted Instrument Workshop in Amherst, MA a few days ago, though I did inspect it...).
As I mentioned earlier, I was taken by the '20 H4- not sure if it was the tone or maybe my mood, but I found that it was drawing out of me some droning E string lines that sounded just lovely...
Anyway, highly recommend a visit to Retrofret, if you can!
January 03, 2019 11:58 AM
Oh yeah forgot about the cover, I try and help anyone locate parts and things for their mandolins if possible, that's pry why I have so many replies on adds etc...I reply and tell what I know to be helpful. Ah yes the couch/family wait-I get it! I'd love to go to Retrofret!
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