Niche Market | Mandolins and Their Brothers

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

A wall of Mandolins at Mandolin Brothers. The founders chose the name because they felt the Mandolin was under-appreciated.

New York is a city of specialists from foodies to academics, laborers to shopkeepers. Every Wednesday, Niche Market will take a peek inside a different specialty store and showcase the city's purists who have made an art out of selling one commodity. Slideshow below.

Mandolin Brothers
629 Forest Avenue
Staten Island, New York 10310-2576

It started with ads in the the Staten Island Advance newspaper.

One musician placed an ad in search of an acoustic guitar. Another second was looking for an electric. The pair, both in their 20s, had never met. But in December 1971, Hap Kuffner, the electric enthusiast, dialed the number listed in Stan Jay’s advertisement and invited him on a road trip to New Jersey to look at a collection of old Gibson banjos for sale.

Jay agreed. The new friends purchased two bags of disassembled tenor banjo parts from the dealer and split the cost down the middle, paying $112.50 each.

With that initial exchange of cash, Mandolin Brothers on Staten Island was born.

Even though their shop was far from the folk center of Greenwich Village, it quickly became a music Mecca. The partners sold guitars to Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, who even references the shop in "Song for Sharon" (“I went to Staten Island to buy myself a mandolin”).

To this day, musicians make the journey by boat or bridge to reach the unassuming stucco building that Jay, now 68, calls the "Dream Fulfillment Center."

"If you can play music, life somehow takes on a new meaning and a new color and you become expressive in ways you never knew you could be -- and that is why we're here," said Jay, sporting a buttoned shirt pattered with guitars.

The stock is uniformly high-end. The cheapest guitars start around $400. But even if customers can’t afford to purchase the instruments, they’re welcome to play them, so there's always a tune in the background.

"There's lots of music stores in Manhattan but there's no store that has as deep an appreciation or knowledge of acoustic instruments as this one in New York City," said Tim Morehouse, who brought his guitar in for a repair and to shop on Monday. "My brother in law is with us and he came from Minnesota so it's a bit of a pilgrimage."

The layout of the shop is more like a house than a retail outlet, room after room with guitars, mandolins, ukuleles, banjos and hybrids on the wall, and comfortable chairs to sit on and strum away for hours. Some customers fly across the world just to drool in the presence of famed models.

Jay, who bought his partner out in 1983, says Staten Island is the perfect borough for Mandolin Brothers, because it's a place where instruments valued up to $100,000 can sit out in the open.

"You couldn't do that in Manhattan, everything would have to be behind glass,” he said. “I never wanted a buffer between us and the customer. I wanted a retail environment in which there was no tension."

And for the residents of Staten Island, it's simply the corner music store.

"I know it has a worldwide reputation, but to me it's a neighborhood store, to everybody around here," said Dag Dorph, who grew up in Staten Island.

(Stan Jay, owner of Mandolin Brothers. Photo: Sarah Kate Kramer/WNYC)

Interview with Stan Jay, owner of Mandolin Brothers.

What's the most popular instrument here?

Acoustic guitar by far. Then electric guitar. Then arch-top guitar. Then ukulele -- equal to mandolin and open back and resonator back banjo. But guitars are about 80 percent of what we do.

How do you counsel customers on buying an instrument?

If you love it, if it makes you sound good, if it makes you want to play it more, if you think about it when you wake up in the morning and when you come home from work, that's the right one.

Do you get beginners here at the shop?

We do get beginners, and we explain to them, ‘If you start with a great guitar, you will a) learn faster, b) want to practice more, c) enjoy owning something fine’ ... So often you hear about people who say, ‘Oh, I couldn't learn to play guitar. I gave it up. I tried. A) it hurt my fingers … or b) I just couldn't deal with it,’ which means they weren't playing an instrument that was providing them the pleasure that they should have had when they picked it up to play it. I attribute this to insufficient quality in the instrument, so we do not sell any instruments that are not set up perfectly...We frankly believe that you can never be better than your guitar allows you to be, and having a fine instrument that you love, that whenever you open the case you sigh and you say, ‘Oh boy, am I glad I have this.’ That makes you want to play more.

Sarah Kate Kramer/WNYC
Guitars at Mandolin Brothers.
Sarah Kate Kramer/WNYC
Banjos at Mandolin Brothers.
Sarah Kate Kramer/WNYC
A new "distressed" electric guitar at Mandolin Brothers.
Sarah Kate Kramer/WNYC
Stan Jay, owner of Mandolin Brothers.
Sarah Kate Kramer/WNYC
Timo Hostman, visiting New York from Finland, playing a guitar at Mandolin Brothers.
Sarah Kate Kramer/WNYC
Stan Jay, owner of Mandolin Brothers.
Sarah Kate Kramer/WNYC
The exterior of Mandolin Brothers in Staten Island.
Sarah Kate Kramer/WNYC
Guitars at Mandolin Brothers.
Joe Fox trying out a guitar at Mandolin Brothers.
Joe Fox strumming a guitar at Mandolin Brothers.
A wall of Mandolins at Mandolin Brothers. The founders chose the name because they felt the Mandolin was under-appreciated.


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Comments [7]

Joshua from North Haledon, NJ

What is the name of the theme song for niche market?

Dec. 04 2012 08:58 AM
David Goteiner from 832 broadway

Wonderful show.

Please consider FORBIDDEN PLANET for Niche Market
It is a Union Square Landmark
It is on Broadway between 13th and 12th Street.
Tel: 212 473 1576. The store manager is Rich Bendall.

Sep. 17 2012 06:10 AM

I enjoy Niche Market every Wednesday. My suggestion for a future Niche Market feature is City Quilter, 133 W. 25th St., NYC (212 807 0390). A fabulous shop!

Jul. 05 2012 04:02 PM
Joanne Gleich from New York

My sister came to visit from Europe and one of the places she most wanted to go to was Mandolin Brothers, which a musical friend had recommended highly. She came meaning to look and play only and ended up buying a wonderful guitar. That is what happens when you go to Stan Jay's house of wonderful instruments!

Jun. 23 2012 01:32 AM
Annette from PA

I'm originally from Staten Island, but have lived in PA for most of my adult life, which is...most of my life. I've been "window shopping" at other guitar stores, but always buy my own from Mandolin Bros. I have three (now) adult boys, and their guitars are also from Mandolin Bros, plus we have two banjos from Mandolin Bros. and I'm thinking about buying a uke there. An instrument player can only be as good as the instrument allows, like a painter and a paint brush -- sort of like a mathematical equation. Mandolin has the best! Plus the shop is nothing less than wonderful!

Jun. 21 2012 05:56 PM
George From Georgia from Roswell/Atlanta, GA

I've been dealing with Stan Jay and his staff for over thirty years. I've been to (almost) every great music/guitar shop in the country. There is no other place like Mandolin Brothers. It's very "special", it's true Americana. Warm, friendly, personal, comfortable; what a great place to spend a day (or a lifetime).
Anyone who plays an acoustic instrument should/must make the pilgrimage!

I can't wait to visit again!

Jun. 21 2012 11:24 AM
David S. Bunin from New Jersey

I hadn't bought a guitar since I purchased my Martin D-18 in 1977. A couple of years ago (I had just turned 58) I decided that I would buy myself another acoustic guitar for my 60th birthday. I discussed this with my wife, and she wholeheartedly agreed that this was a great idea.

I had experience only with the usual kind of music stores; Sam Ash, The Guitar Center, and those of that ilk. But I had been hearing about Mandolin Brothers for several years, so last summer I decided to pay a visit there. I knew within the first 5 minutes of arriving there, that this the ONLY place I was going to consider when it came time to make my purchase. Never before had I been to a music store where I was made to feel at home and encouraged to play the guitars to my hearts content with no one looking over my shoulder or pressuring me to make a purchase.

Cut to this past March. My wife, my son and I went to Mandolin brothers to 'begin in earnest' the search for my new guitar. We didn't plan on making the purchase then and there (as my 60th birthday was not until the end of May.) But I played a number of truly great guitars including models from Martin, Taylor, Collings and McPhearson. But when I picked up an unassuming looking, slightly used Lowden, I knew that was it. I played other guitars after that, but none did for me what the Lowden did. We ended up purchasing this fine instrument that day. It is now 3 months later, and I am still just as enamored of my Lowden as I was the day we purchased it.

Cut to 3 weeks ago. I brought my 35 year old Martin D-18 to Mandolin Brother for a complete refurbishing (for nearly 3 times what I originally paid for it new! - but hey, that's inflation for you.) It's going to take some time (Mandolin Brothers is the place to go for this kind of work), but I know that the work will be done by people with a true appreciation and understanding of fine guitars.

David S. Bunin

Jun. 20 2012 01:32 PM

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