335 Butler, an industrial neighborhood in Brooklyn NY, or online at http://retrofret.com
I visited yesterday, and what a place! It was like my first visit to the Mandolin Brothers in Staten Island (http://mandoweb.com)
I found a reasonably-priced tenor guitar online and traded some emails with the salesperson until it occurred to me that he was in Brooklyn. "Is the guitar in Brooklyn?" I asked. Yes, it was, so I went in the first day I could. What a trip! Yeah, they a huge showroom packed with vintage instruments: guitars, banjos, mandolins, various hybrids of those instruments, and at least one 24-course lute-a-phone (really a 20th century reproduction of a diatonic baroque instrument). Oh yeah, and the head (one of the heads) of Pete Seegers banjo. More on that below.
Located in an industrial area of Brooklyn, Retrofret does not have a storefront. You might walk by the building daily for years without knowing it's there. "Ring the third button and we'll let you up," I was advised. I did as instructed and after a while a gal answered, asking what I wanted. Flummoxed, I told her I was here to meet a man about a horse. She let me in.
Up a narrow, dark stairway, take a right, a left and through a door onto the building's roof. Carefully navigate an unfixed board between that roof and the next, then right through a garden and left to the door of the shop. I met the gal who said "So you're here about a banjo?" I wasn't, really, so I asked "What makes you think that?" She responded: "You said you were here about a horse!"
She was busy with something else, and introduced me to someone who wasn't currently occupied. This gentleman pointed out the guitar, a folding chair in which I could play the guitar, and the instructions that I was welcome to play whatever I wanted to. If you have a question, ask, he said: "We're the opposite of Sam Ash [or slot in your least favorite chain store here] in that we do the opposite of hovering." He was right.
I played the tenor just shortly -- it was a sad, sad excuse for an instrument of any sort -- and then wandered about to play what I would. A quick note about that guitar - later the same guy told me (when he refused to buy the banjo I'd brought) that they only buy the best of the best. A review of the instruments I played there backed up his contention, with the exception of that tenor guitar. I pointed that out and he said "Ahh, well there are some consignment instruments . . . " My experience at the store leads me to take him at his word.
In quick order I found my way to the banjos. They have 5-strings, minstrel, tenor, mando-banjo, guitar banjos. Not as large a collection as the Mandolin brothers, but in many ways a more interesting one. I played a number of late-19th, early 20th century guitar banjos. I'd never played a six-string, and I found them interesting. Some of the tenors had incredible overlays and hardware -- just gorgeous.
Some of that work is re-done, and they'll tell you without your even asking -- "This one was re-plated," I was told, even though a) I'd guessed as much and b) I didn't really care, as it wasn't an instrument I was going to buy. But they don't care if you're going to buy. Later the owner told me that there is value in wandering around a store and playing whatever you want whether you're going to buy it or not, "And I say this as a guy who owns a store that sells vintage instruments." I'm not going to stand by the verb in that quote -- I took him to be the owner, he acted like the owner, and I'm pretty sure he said he was the owner, but i can't swear to it.
As I was looking over the banjo collection my eye was drawn to a lone banjo head with the familiar inscription "This instrument surrounds hate and forces it to surrender." I asked my handler -- "That's not what I think it is, is it?" Sure was. We referred me to Steve, the owner (see the caveat above) who described swapping out Pete's head in the mid-70s. "I asked him if he wanted to keep it," Steve related, "and he told me 'Naw, just throw it away'." I half-jokingly asked if it was for sale, and when he said No I told him "And I don't think I'd trust anyone who =would= sell Pete's head!"
What I found was a 1918 Bacon Professional FF internal resonator banjo-mandolin at a reasonable price, and that little beauty accompanied me home. The expert told me it was considered a low-end product when it was made - well, I thought, that's what they say about David Rawlings' guitar, and he's not complaining! Me neither.