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Mandolin Brothers on Staten Island Angles for Graceful Exit Print-ready version

by Colin Moyihan
New York Times
November 22, 2015

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Eric Jay carried a newly delivered guitar case into a display room inside Mandolin Brothers, a musical instrument store on Staten Island. As his mother, Bea Jay, and his sister, Alison Reilly, watched, he unclasped the case and lifted the lid. There, resting on plush, purple lining, was a white Gretsch G7593T Billy Duffy Falcon guitar, named after the guitarist for the Cult.

Ms. Reilly leaned down and inhaled.

"Oh, that new guitar smell," she said. "Some of them smell more like wood, some more like glue. Each manufacturer is different."

For decades, Mandolin Brothers was a place where a discerning eye - or nose - for finely crafted instruments was practically hereditary: a family business where thousands of musicians had bought stringed instruments, brought them in for repair or simply enjoyed the chance to handle one worth several months of rent. But since the death last year of the store's owner, Stan M. Jay, Mandolin Brothers has become something of a burden for his family, which is now hoping to sell the shop and its contents by the end of the year.

The store also does repairs and consignments. Credit Kirsten Luce for The New York Times Although business is not as brisk as it was a decade ago, when the store had more than 20 employees, Ms. Reilly said the amount of work was too much for three people. Ms. Jay agreed, adding, "I'd like to be a retiree."

While the family searches for a buyer, the store is open only by appointment. And with the exception of the white Gretsch, which was ordered for a friend, they have ceased adding to their inventory.

Mandolin Brothers began in 1971 when Stan Jay and a partner, Harold Kuffner, cobbled a selection of odd banjo parts into functioning instruments. They quickly became known as dealers in older instruments, including guitars, mandolins, banjos and ukuleles. Mr. Jay bought out Mr. Kuffner in the early 1980s and took sole ownership of the company, which is housed in a two-story stucco building in the West Brighton neighborhood. The store has long stood out for its wide-ranging selection and its unusually lenient policy of making those instruments accessible to browsers of all skill levels, who were welcome to spend hours strumming.

George Harrison visited the store, Mr. Jay said. Joni Mitchell bought an antique mandolin there and then wrote about the purchase in a song. Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Peter Buck, formerly of R.E.M., are among those said to have ordered instruments from the shop.

Although the family is resolved to sell Mandolin Brothers, there have been occasional pangs. Eric Jay said that he was recently obliged to turn down a consignment arrangement for what he termed "the holy grail of mandolins": a 1922 Gibson F-5 signed by the storied luthier Lloyd Loar, worth $200,000 or more.

There have also been happier moments. While going through the inventory, Ms. Reilly said, she came across an unfamiliar brown 1957 Gibson Les Paul Jr. A short time later, a man called and said he had left such an instrument there for repair in 1991. After an unusual sticker on the body of the guitar featuring a rifle crossed with a long-stemmed pipe helped identify it, plans were made to reunite the instrument and its owner, Don Rogers.

"I was dumbfounded," he said in a telephone interview, describing his reaction upon learning that the shop still had the guitar. "I almost fell on the floor."

On a recent Friday, Mr. Jay took visitors on a tour of the store. Guitar bodies sat among a scattering of tools in a basement workshop, where Mr. Jay said a Höfner 500/1 violin bass belonging to Paul McCartney had once been repaired. Upstairs, in the main room, were classics like a Taylor 914ce acoustic-electric guitar and relative oddities, like a 1947 National Grand Console Model 1050 double-neck lap steel guitar.

A few feet away was a climate-controlled room for particularly valuable instruments. A sign on its door that reads "Christopher Guest calls this the Grownup Room" was a reference to the writer and actor who directed "A Mighty Wind," a comedy about 1960s folk musicians that included several instruments borrowed from Mandolin Brothers, Mr. Jay said.

Inside that room was a row of Gibson mandolins and a guitar that Mr. Jay said was his current favorite: a 1931 Martin OM-28 herringbone, valued at more than $50,000. Next to it hung a Beardsell guitar with a leopardwood back that had once belonged to Mr. Jay's father. Sometimes, Mr. Jay said, his father had hosted hootenannies, cramming a dozen participants or more into the family's living room. Other times, Mr. Jay added, he sat in with the shop's customers.

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