By Scott Tichenor
November 17, 2013 - 8:15 pm
"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.
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.
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.
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.
Photo credit: Scott Tichenor
Photo credit: Scott Tichenor
Photo credit: Scott Tichenor
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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