By Brian Wise
Once hung with hundreds of rare, new, and used stringed instruments, on an early November 2017 day the walls of Matt Umanov Guitars in New York’s Greenwich Village now held only a couple of dozen guitars and banjos.
Since Umanov announced plans in October to close his store and repair business—which he opened around the corner in 1969—deal-hunters and some longtime denizens of the Village music scene have come for a final glimpse of the store, with its 1953 cash register and walls lined with photographs of notable guitarists.
Umanov’s stated reason for closing isn’t an astronomical rent hike—he owns the building—or a lack of business. Rather, he’s simply had enough. “I’m quite tired of putting in 12-hour days,” he says. “I’m too old. I turned 70 recently and that will be it.”
On a recent afternoon, the gregarious Umanov was characteristically unsentimental, saying he’s ready to spend more time traveling, relaxing, and visiting his grandchildren. But on social media and online forums, guitarists lament the shop’s closing as the latest casualty of a transfigured world in which the internet and chain stores have made survival difficult for independent music shops. The last of the instrument dealers on Music Row (a famed block of W. 48th Street, between 6th and 7th Avenues) closed in 2016, and Mandolin Brothers, the Staten Island mainstay, sold its business in early 2017.
At least one of Umanov’s sales employees says he will stay in the guitar trade, moving to Rudy’s Music Shop, which once operated on 48th Street and now has one store remaining, in New York’s Soho.
Growing up in in Flatbush, Brooklyn, the son of a concert pianist mother and lawyer father, Umanov was a tinkerer and music fanatic from an early age. By the time he was five, he was taking apart radios and clocks, while idolizing guitar-playing cowboys on television. He attended Brooklyn Technical High School, where he excelled at pattern-making and spent off-hours frequenting the Folklore Center and Fretted Instruments, a shop on Sixth Avenue. Accepted into the engineering program at Northeastern University, Umanov got bored and dropped out after a few months (it was the 1960s).
Umanov worked for a year at the Gretsch Guitar factory in Brooklyn, and soon began fixing guitars out of his East Village apartment. In 1969 he opened his first guitar store in a former butcher shop at 35 Bedford Street, where the rent was $125 a month. “Bedford Street was nothing,” he remembers. A fortune–teller and a “wise guy bar” were the only other businesses on the block. In 1977 he moved to Bleecker Street, then mostly a shopping district for Italian immigrants.
“Even into the ’80s, there were still three butchers, five bakeries, two fish stores, a children’s clothing store, a used furniture store, a couple newsstands, and a clothing store—but not boutique-y stuff,” he says. On a July day in 1982, Umanov and his friends carted some 150 instruments across the street to his third location, in a handsome, three-story brick building with a basement (the old shop is now part of John’s Pizzeria).
In a New York Times article that year, Umanov rattled off a list of longtime customers that included Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Judy Collins, Stephen Stills, Lou Reed, “the whole Seeger family,” and Johnny and June Carter Cash, who had just paid $6,000 for an unnamed 1930s guitar.
While Umanov insists, “I never name-drop,” the store has had its share of celebrity clientele, including Steve Earle, Steve Martin, and Richard Gere, who recently stopped by to talk for an hour.
Umanov’s purchase of the building in 1992 enabled his business to survive as renters were increasingly priced out of the neighborhood. It was also an era when middle-aged collectors were snapping up vintage guitars, a trend that has reversed in recent years as Baby Boomers downsize their collections.
Vintage guitar sales have dropped by 20 to 30 percent in the last two years, says Umanov, and young buyers are increasingly shopping online. “To put it in very simple terms, the business model has changed.” “If you want to sell guitars, you have to have less expensive stuff—new or old—which is less expensive for a variety of potential reasons. I’m not interested in it.”
After selling as much of the stock as possible, Umanov announced that the closing date for the retail portion of the Village institution is Sunday, December 3. Umanov’s repair shop will remain open.
“You just never know what you’re going to see or what you’re going to hear—that is what I will miss most about this place,” Umanov says. “It’s what my girlfriend calls my clubhouse. It could be a local drunk walking in off the street and putting on some kind of show. It could be some young kid who’s an amazing player, it could be a famous musician, or it could be nobody, but someone fascinating to talk to.”