In the spring of 1976, Joni Mitchell trekked out to the North Shore of Staten Island to the Mandolin Brothers, a vintage American guitar dealership that had opened five years earlier and had already become a well-trodden pit stop for musicians, guitar buffs, and fretted-instrument collectors.
Ms. Mitchell bought a 1915 Gibson Mandocello and a Martin herringbone guitar, Mandolin Brothers President Stan Jay recalled on a recent Friday afternoon. On the ferry back to Manhattan, she penned “Song for Sharon,” beginning with the lyrics: “I went to Staten Island, Sharon, to buy myself a mandolin.”
“Something must have set off an autobiographical memory for her so she wrote this highly personal song… which is the story of her life and the story of her friend Sharon’s life, who she knew in Canada,” Mr. Jay said.
“Sharon took the conventional route, got married and had children and Joni Mitchell took the professional route, though she eventually ended up having children. Something about the 1970s-ness of Staten Island must have reminded her of it. The North Shore really hasn’t changed much since then.”
Other famous musicians had visited Mandolin Brothers before Ms. Mitchell, but Mr. Jay said “Song for Sharon” really catapulted them to “cult status.”
A few years later, Paul McCartney bolstered the store’s reputation further when he told Bass Player magazine that his Hofner violin had never played right until he “brought it to Mandolin Brothers and they set it straight.”
The famous musicians who have made the two-hour trip from Manhattan—by subway, ferry, and bus in our case–to 629 Forest Avenue are pictured on the walls of the cramped office that visitors must pass through to gain entry to the 11-room showroom.
A two-person desk fills all but a sliver of the tiny space, piled high with papers, books, and all sorts of indistinct, bureaucratic clutter, lending it the appearance of a low-budget attorney’s office—in recognition of the incongruous space, Mr. Jay scotch-taped a sign reading “Third Rate Law Office LLC” above his computer—were the disorder not punctuated by photos of everyone from Crosby, Stills and Nash and Sheryl Crow to Robin Quivers and Conan O’Brien (alongside a personalized guitar pick with a caricature of him).
Because only one or two other guitar dealers are comparable to Mandolin Brothers—like Gruhn Guitars in Tennessee—the journey to Staten Island is just long enough to weed out the fairweather hobbyists from those who are truly “obsessed with their guitars, mandolins, and banjos.”
“You know what," Mr. Jay said of his far-flung location, "the people who want to get here, come here."
Last Thursday, three days before Beth Orton performed in Prospect Park, she wandered into Mandolin Brothers “out of the clear blue” in search of a specific, solid-body, 12-string electric. A couple of guitar stores in Manhattan agreed that Mandolin Brothers would be the only dealer aside from George Gruhn who might have such a rare model.
“There’s an expression in real estate, ‘to qualify the buyer,’" Mr. Jay said. "In real estate, you do it by asking questions and getting financial information; but in our case when a person has taken the time to take a subway, a ferry, and a bus or to drive from a distance, the minute they walk in the front door they’re qualified to be here,” he said.
The regular customers who come to Mandolin Brothers “to schmooze” and ogle Mr. Jay’s new finds are not famous people. They are guitar enthusiasts like Ernie Jackson, a professor at Wagner College of Music on Staten Island and at Queensborough Community College, who introduced himself as “the man with a problem” because he visits Mandolin Brothers at least two or three times a month.
“Really, I don’t want to tell you that,” Mr. Jackson said of how often he visits.
“The admission is just too painful.
“I live 10 minutes away which makes it really bad,” he said.
Dawn, a woman Mr. Jay introduced as “the only female guitar finisher on the face of the Earth,” stopped by Mandolin Brothers on the way to the vintage guitar show in Philadelphia to check out the new merchandise and to drop off some freshly baked raspberry linzer tarts.
“This is a Mecca,” said her husband inside the closet-sized banjo room. “It’s where people come to drool.”
Mandolin Brothers doesn’t carry your average, $200 entry-level guitars. The lowest-priced new American models in the central room start at $519 for an entry-level Gibson. Mandolin has a room devoted entirely to boutique guitars; another filled with electric acoustic guitars. Mr. Jay carries high-end “lefty guitars”—which most companies no longer manufacture because there are too few left-handed players—and collectible ukuleles. There’s a “B-room” filled with banjos and basses and a “G-room,” for Gibsons, Guilds and Gretsch guitars.
Nostalgia drives some people to Mandolin Brothers in search of the guitar they grew up playing and lost or one they always dreamed of playing, Mr. Jay said.
Mandolin has an entire room full of new, “reliced” instruments “made to look as if [they were] played in bars six nights a week” for the type of person “who spent most of their youth in a pawn shop looking at a Fender guitar on display, but never being able to afford it in a million years, and saying to themselves ‘someday I’m going to get that guitar.’”
The high-end room is home to the most collectible, limited edition models that were not manufactured in large quantities. The highest-priced guitar Mr. Jay has in stock is an original 1954 Gibson Les Paul Goldtop for $42,500, but he just sold a “Flying V” for $250,000.
It was English, not music, that originally brought Stan Jay to Staten Island in the 1960s, when he moved from New Jersey to get a master’s at Wagner College. Mr. Jay has been based on the North Shore ever since, but explained, “the way it works out here is that if you weren’t born here, you’re really not from here.”
Mr. Jay learned to play guitar as an English undergrad at Penn State by listening to the records of “finger picker players” like Doc Watson, Dave van Ronk, Noel Travis and Chad Atkins, and went on to teach guitar at the College of Staten Island from 1970 to 1976, and to co-found Mandolin Brothers in 1971 with his former partner Hap Kuffner.
“There was such a thing as records,” he quipped during a tour of the store. An hour later, he recycled the same line to reference another obsolete technology—the Polaroid camera.
Mandolin Brothers’ reputation prompts hundreds of calls and e-mails a day from sellers soliciting Mr. Jay’s advice on the valuation of a guitar or collectors looking for a hard-to-find, vintage model.
(Mr. Jay spent three and a half hours Friday morning doing an appraisal for a customer in New Jersey who brought in a 1956 and a 1959 Fender Stratocaster, a Dobro, and a Martin custom-shopped guitar.) Smaller stores and auction houses also turn to Mandolin Brothers for appraisals.
A different store in a similar position might move to Manhattan, acknowledged Mr. Jay, but he’s not budging from Staten Island. “Wouldn’t it make sense to be in Manhattan? I guess it would. I guess it would lead to more business, and I guess they’d drive fancier cars then my Chevy, and they’d probably put their kids in private schools.
“But I live five blocks away, so, for me, the pleasure of having a two-minute commute and being able to come here whenever I need to day and night is much more important than being
in Manhattan and doing more business.”