Posted by raharris on Sunday, June 26, 2011
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.
Paul R Says:
Sunday, June 26, 2011 @10:42:24 AM
Good visit. You're fortunate to have great stores not far from you. Bet you didn't use the GPS this time!
Sunday, June 26, 2011 @11:08:44 AM
No GPS going there, but turned it on for the way back. I got there in under an hour, and it took more than two to return. Part of that was the commuter traffic, but the &:@-&; GPS mucked me up AGAIN. One definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results. By that standard I'm nuts.
I was afraid to try many of the instruments -- the ones I most wanted to try were the most expensive, and I worried about a. breaking it, or b. falling in love with it. Some rainy day I'll wander back with no other plan but than to play what I will.
Sunday, June 26, 2011 @3:58:59 PM
The photos indicate a very clean treasure. Lots of folks wouldn't hit a hog in the butt with one of these, but they can be made to be quite enjoyable instruments.
Tuesday, June 28, 2011 @12:13:43 PM
Man I got so lost going there the first time! I had to rely on public transportation and got some bad directions. I walked around for about 2 hours with my hard case in my hand. The whole time I was walking my case was bumping my right leg just below the knee. After an hour or so, I started to notice it hurting a bit, but I was more concerned with finding out where the heck I was. By the time I got home and looked at my leg, it was actually a little swollen and a bit bruised, tender to the touch. The next day, it looked like I got hit with a hockey puck!! Definitely my worst banjo-related injury to date!
Tuesday, June 28, 2011 @1:56:25 PM
Mikey at least it's in a flat part of the city -- imagine that same walk around the Washington Heights area! Are you a regular customer there? Ever bought anything, do you have any RetroFret Stories?
Monday, July 4, 2011 @2:30:13 PM
If I ever head over to the States I would like to visit there. The places sounds like a treasure trove.
Monday, July 4, 2011 @3:02:51 PM
Where in Ireland do you live? Are there any good music stores there (where you live)?
Monday, July 4, 2011 @4:11:10 PM
Oh! I am based in England at the moment and have no need to buy a new banjo. What I would like is a holiday and NY has always tempted me but I wonder if I would like it. It is an awfully big city.
Monday, July 4, 2011 @6:07:56 PM
Yes, it is. But you see it in parts. I've been to London a number of times and I don't hardly know the city at all. Sometimes I feel the same way about NY -- go to a neighborhood you've not been to in a while and suddenly all the signs are in a different language. Keeps one on ones toes --
Monday, July 4, 2011 @10:08:04 PM
The problem with London is that it is too easy to go walking in circles and it changes so quickly. The money is good if you can take the pressure. I prefer the more easy going places.
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'Fender Tenor Banjo' 9 hrs