Thursday, November 13, 2008

I Went To Staten Island, Sharon


As a long time Joni Mitchell fan–and active participant on the Joni Mitchell Discussion List website (JMDL)–I was fascinated by a recent post from Chuck Eisenhardt, addressing Joni's "Song For Sharon" and the line, "I went to Staten Island, Sharon, to buy myself a mandolin," off her 1976 Hejira album. In his post, Chuck wrote about “an excerpt
from Tim Brookes' most excellent book, 'Guitar, an American Life':

While [George] Gruhn was getting started in Nashville, Stan Jay–an immensely likable, irrepressibly cheerful guy looking exactly like an elf supervisor in Santa's workshop–was selling instruments out of his apartment on the waterfront in Staten Island. ‘You had to walk up a narrow stairway papered in that deep textured wine red that one generally associates with certain houses in New Orleans. One stepped from the landing into our showroom, that anybody else would call their living room. On the left was the dining room, with the 1920's round oak lion's-claw table. About 50 guitars, banjos, and mandolins hung from three walls. On the outside wall, they were positioned over a circa 1900 rococo upholstered couch, on which Joni Mitchell fell in love with the 1915 Gibson K-4 mandocello that inspired her to write that legendary song to her friend, about going to Staten Island 'to buy myself a mandolin.”’


I was excited to find this true story behind one of my favorite songs. Being an explorer at heart, and always up for a road trip, I decided to retrace Joni’s steps on her visit–and the experience that influenced the song–by visiting the shop on Staten Island myself.
After exchanging a few emails with Stan Jay, President of Mandolin Bros., and talking with him on the phone, I learned some interesting facts:

“Yes, the building that Joni and her photographer, Joel, visited in 1976 is still standing. One room at the old shop address, 580 Bay St.., 2nd Fl., was where my original partner, Hap Kuffner, lived. We had rented a four-room space, a one story walk-up. It had a kitchen, a living room–which was the main showroom–a workshop room and, in the fourth room, Hap’s digs. It was a good place to start a new business. We were there for only 4 years, 5 months. Joni visited at around the 4 years, 2 months point. The entrance was the first door on the side of the building on Union Place. It overlooked Bay Street from the front windows, Union Place from the kitchen. When one walked upstairs from the street, the wallpaper had those large velour flowers with the flat spaces between the petals. For all I know it might still have that wallpaper. Some customers used to whistle “The House of the Rising Sun” as they came up. Stephen Stills and Graham Nash came up that stairway, so did Dave Van Ronk. It is across the street from a freestanding Citibank branch and when we occupied that space, we were upstairs from a Household Finance office. Our customers used to kid us that they could visit, walk downstairs to either institution, get a loan and then come back upstairs to make their purchase. I don’t think, though, that this actually ever happened.”

The lower floor of that building is currently being used by a sign company.
The location is about a third of a mile south of the Staten Island ferry terminal, where Joni apparently landed after boarding in lower Manhattan.
There is also a train station a block away that people could take
from the ferry terminal, if they didn't feel like walking.

Since the 9-11 terrorist attacks, and the destruction of the Trade Center, the ferry no longer takes cars on board (as it did in 1976, when Joni wrote,
"Big boat chuggin' back with a belly full of cars...")
but passengers now ride for free (the biggest bargain in New York City)!

Well, I guess Joni is the only one who will remember if she
actually went there intending to buy a mandolin that day,
but she actually bought two items:
the Gibson Mandocello (described above), which is a
large instrument–the size of a standard guitar–and
a 1913 Martin 000-28 Herringbone guitar.

(A new Norman Blake replication, similar to the
1913 Martin 000-28 Herringbone that Joni purchased in 1976)

(Joni, with her Mandocello;
photo ©1976 by Stan Jay).

Stan gave me (and my friend, Bob) a tour of what he calls his “three cubic acres" of fretted instruments (referring to Uncle Scrooge's money bin, in the old Walt Disney comics). There are a half-dozen rooms filled with guitars, mandolins, banjos and bass's hanging from the walls and on floor racks. There were some beautiful instruments scattered about, all works of art in their own right, but some more spectacular than others. There were several other potential customers throughout the store, inspecting or sitting down to play as the spirit moved them.

(Just a small sample of acoustic guitars at
Mandolin Brothers.)

It’s rare to find someone who actually loves their job but Stan is one of those lucky few who has spent the past thirty years enjoying his passion for music and instruments by making a living from it. Occasionally, Stan–or his friend George Hergen–would take an instrument off the wall or rack and proceed to play a tune for us. They both seemed quite proficient and Stan admits he'll "play out" if someone asks. I wondered if we might convince him to attend the next JoniFest. I'm sure we could coax some rare stories out of him.

(Stan Jay, President of Mandolin Brothers.)

Don Whiteman, another Joni fan from Sydney, Australia, visited Mandolin Brothers in August 2005. He said, “I wanted to buy a Mandolin and Stan (the owner/manager) took time to walk me through the entire building taking down each mandolin and playing a few bars of Rhapsody in Blue (and me a sucker for Gershwin).”

(Mandolin Brothers' current location:
629 Forrest Avenue, Staten Island, NY.
For more information, check out
mandolin@mandoweb.com)

All photos © 2007 by Ken Bausert
unless otherwise noted.

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