By Kenny Berkowitz
Joni Mitchell wrote about it in “Song for Sharon.” Judy Collins, Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Ed Helms, Sarah McLachlan, Don McLean, Graham Nash, Bruce Springsteen, Stephen Stills, and Dave Van Ronk all shopped there. Paul McCartney had his Höfner violin bass repaired in the basement. Now, 45 years after Stan Jay opened Mandolin Brothers on Staten Island, a short ferry ride from downtown Manhattan, his children are trying to sell the shop where they grew up.
“In a way, it’s like the death of a person who’s been in the hospital for a year,” says Alison Reilly, 37, who works in the store with her brother, Eric Jay, 34. “This has been going on for such a long time that it sinks in, little by little every day, until you get to the point where you’re expecting it to happen. You’re prepared. You understand.”
In December, a little more than a year after Stan Jay died of lymphoma, his family put Mandolin Brothers on the market, hoping to find a buyer for the store, its inventory, or both before the end of 2015. In its prime, the showroom was filled with 900 instruments, mostly acoustic and mostly high-end, with a focus on guitars, banjos, and mandolins. These days, fewer than 100 remain, including a 1934 Martin 000-28 Herringbone guitar (Eric’s favorite) and a 1919 Gibson F4 mandolin (Alison’s favorite), along with other treasures, like a collection of molds from the estate of luthier John D’Angelico.
As of press time, the Jays had entertained some “serious inquiries,” but hadn’t yet received any offers. That leaves Alison and Eric working in the store four or five days a week, as they have for most of their lives, and packing up some old memories.
And what memories!
There was the time Conan O’Brien stopped by, looking for a guitar. “I was surprised by how tall he is,” says Eric. “And he’s actually a good guitar player, which was nice to see as well.”
There was the time Sheryl Crow asked to have a couple of guitars brought to her Manhattan studio. (“When she was done, I asked, ‘Could we take a picture?’” says Alison. “She brought us over to a microphone and told us to stick our fingers in our ears and pretend we were singing. So now I have this really awesome picture that looks like I’m singing with Sheryl Crow. Which was not the case, but it makes a really great photo.”
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“If we can’t sell the company itself, we still have to sell the stuff that’s here,” says Eric, who lives in an apartment above the showroom. “We’ll be doing that for as long as it takes, essentially. It’s been a daunting thing to come to grips with, but we’ve dealt with the realities every single day for months now, over the whole last year. And if it doesn’t happen, we’ll shut the place down and go our merry way.
“Find some other line of work.”