For the past 40 years, legendary musicians and guitar aficionados have been flocking to Mandolin Brothers, the Staten Island mom-and-pop guitar emporium. Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Christopher Guest, Dave Van Ronk, Joni Mitchell, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, Steven Seagal and Conan O'Brien are but some of the big name players who made the trip (or sent their instruments) to SI for a chance to talk shop with deceased owner Stan Jay and try out one of their hundreds of gorgeous vintage and refurbished instruments.
"He loved talking to people and he loved educating people about instruments," Alison Jay, Stan's daughter and one of the current co-managers of the store, told us. "My father had a huge passion for teaching people about instruments. He felt it was his job to educate the person who came into the store, whether it was someone shopping for a $300 guitar or someone who was buying their 60th collection of instruments. He really enjoyed doing that."
But about a year after Stan's death, the store's future prospects are looking very grim: unless something changes in the immediate future, Mandolin Brothers will cease operations by the new year.
"[The plan right now] is to find a new owner or buyer of the company and hopefully that person takes the company into the future in a positive way and maintains the rep we've established for the last 45 years," Alison said. "If we can't find that person, should he or she exist, we'll close the doors. We don't have a specific end date, but January is a good...it's a new year. It gives us time to sell our inventory and to hopefully then shut the doors and do what you have to do when you close a business."
Gothamist toured the famous West Brighton store recently and talked to Alison, her brother and co-manager Eric, and their mother Bea Jay, about the history and legacy of the family business. "I was born and raised in Staten Island, not far from here, and now I spend almost all of my time in this building because I live here," Eric, who lives in an apartment above the store, said. "I started working here when I was 17 years old part time after school as a string changer. That's as bottom as it gets."
Back in 1971 when Stan opened the store, Mandolin Brothers was one of only two vintage instrument dealers in the entire country. It quickly attracted the attention of many music legends, including Joni Mitchell. Bea explained how the store ended up immortalized in the first lines of Mitchell's tune "Song For Sharon" ("I went to Staten Island, Sharon/To buy myself a mandolin"):
I think the way Stan became acquainted with her was, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash came around the same time and Stills bought a guitar, which we delivered to him at a concert that he was doing—it was one of those 12 hour concerts at Roosevelt Raceway—and he gave us backstage passes so we could deliver the guitar to him, and I think there were probably six of us that took this guitar backstage. It was actually onstage, because we got to stand right there while the concert was in progress. And he introduced us to the rest of his group, David Crosby and Neil Young, and also Mike Love was part of the concert, and Joni Mitchell was there. Stan went up to Joni Mitchell and introduced himself and perhaps gave her a catalog of what we offered, and then she came to the shop.
When Joni Mitchell came by here, she expressed an interest in a certain Martin guitar that we didn't have, and I believe we later took a trip to Canada to buy that guitar from some people that had it, which we then got to her.
More musicians and celebrities followed, including heavy-hitters such as Bob Dylan (who had a guitar delivered backstage at a local show in the late 1970s) and Bruce Springsteen (whose wife, Patti Scialfa, picked one up for him). "Conan O'Brien came here because his bandmate Jimmy Vivino was a player and heard about us," Eric said. "Brendan Gleeson was shopping for mandolins, he was playing Irish music, and there are only so many places in New York that have a selection of mandolins. It became kind of a destination."
The store also lent a series of instruments to director Christopher Guest for his film A Mighty Wind. "Oh, I loved it," Bea said of the movie. "We sat there and laughed. Because I mean, you guys are too young to remember what it was like in the sixties with Hootenannies, but I mean, they hit the nail right on the head." Guest was such a fan of the store, he nicknamed one particular guitar showcase area in the back of the store the "Grown-Up Room."
All of the store's managers are struggling to understand why business went down so drastically in recent years: "In a nutshell, these days there's more competition," Eric explained. "When my father founded the company there were very, very few places that did the kind of thing he did. He was one of the pioneers in selling vintage instruments. He's partly responsible for coining the term 'vintage instruments.'"
"Our bread and butter is really middle class people and if that sort of evaporates or their money does, that affects us as well," Eric added. "It happened pretty gradually. The recession was the biggest sudden change...The volume of instruments sold has gone down since then. We still have a good amount of visitors coming through, but most of our business has to do with shipping out. It's not a bad way to buy things as long as you have the ability to return them, which we give them."
For now, they are focused on selling the remaining goods in the store: they still have around 130 instruments total, including 65-75 guitars, along with a handful of mandolins, banjos, and ukuleles. As for what comes next, the family only hopes they find someone passionate enough about music history to keep the business where it is.
"The main thing was that [Stan] passed away and we never had a plan for what would happen if he died," Alison said. "My father couldn't envision a world he didn't exist in. In addition to that, he couldn't imagine a life where he wasn't working in the store. He never wanted to retire; he wanted to stay here 'til he died which is basically what he did. In that way of thinking, we never had a plan for what to do if he died and we really should have."