(The following article appears in the latest issue of Collectible Guitar | Then and Now magazine.)
By Gabriel J. Hernandez
Let me be completely honest here. This month’s column was going to be about how to buy and sell guitars online – what to do, what NOT to do, what to look for, how to find a good deal, and how to know if the person you’re dealing with is a legitimate and (more importantly) a knowledgeable and reputable dealer.
All of that changed Oct. 23, 2014, when I received word from a good friend that Mr. Stanley Jay, longtime owner and proprietor of Staten Island’s world renowned Mandolin Brothers, Ltd., had finally succumbed to Mantle Cell Lymphoma, a disease he’d been valiantly fighting for the last four years. He died the afternoon of Oct. 22, 2014, and was just 71 years young. Needless to say he left us way too soon.
Personally, I have yet to make the pilgrimage to the Mandolin Brothers, Ltd. store, which first opened in 1971 and has since become the USA’s No.1 mecca for all things fretted (sorry George Gruhn). And I’m genuinely saddened not only to hear of Mr. Jay’s passing, but also because I now may never get the chance to visit his celebrated store.
According to a story published on the Staten Island Advance web site, www.silive.com, which ran the day of Mr. Jay’s death, his family is unsure if the store will continue to remain open. According to the story, Mr. Jay’s daughter Alison Reilly said “…the store has stopped ordering new instruments and has sold much of the existing instruments. The gaps in the walls where instruments used to hang will likely continue to widen unless a new owner buys the shop, she said.” In the same story, the Advance also cited an earlier conversation with Mr. Jay’s son Eric, who said they’re “…hoping to find someone who can take over the business. There has been interest from potential buyers, but nothing concrete.”
I’m being somewhat selfish here, but I hope they find a way to keep it going, and without having to sell it. Because Mandolin Brothers, Ltd is a genuine American institution, and Mr. Jay was its founder, impresario, promoter, governor, head custodian, Big Kahuna, etc. Believe me, I get it. But the field of vintage American fretted instruments without Mandolin Brothers, Ltd., would be like General Motors without Chevrolet, or McDonalds without the Big Mac. You get my point …
Either way, if the family decides to stay open – which, speaking for anyone who knew Mr. Jay or Mandolin Brothers, Ltd., is genuinely hoping this is the case – you can bet I will definitely visit on my next trip to New York City. The funny thing is that when I was thinking about this next column and how I was going to describe going about finding and identifying a reputable online dealer, the very first person and web site that came to mind was Mr. Jay and the Mandolin Brothers, Ltd. web site, www.mandoweb.com.
Even though I never met Mr. Jay in person, in order to understand my sincere appreciation for what he did and how he did it, you have to first understand his background. He graduated from Penn State University in 1965 with a degree in Education and English then earned a Masters degree at Wagner College in 1967 in the same field. He completed two more years of post-graduate work at Columbia University Teachers’ College, where he finished all requirements for an Ed.D in The College Teaching of English, with the exception of his dissertation. From there he not only opened Mandolin Brothers Ltd., in 1971, but nine years later met Ned Steinberger and helped create the Steinberger Sound Corporation in 1980. They sold the company to Gibson Guitars in 1987, and many of the Steinberger instruments created under Mr. Steinberger’s and Mr. Jay’s leadership are considered today some of the most desirable and collectible guitars of their type and style.
Before I continue, though, let me also say this: while I certainly do not and cannot compare myself to Mr. Jay, his accomplishments, and his vast knowledge of vintage American fretted instruments, I believe our backgrounds do have some similarities. And it is those similarities which initially attracted me to his company and web site, and his extraordinary style of presenting instruments for sale online … all of which play a huge part in how I now make my living, and how I actually do it. Let me explain …
I’ve played the guitar for nearly 45 years, but figured out very early in life I wasn’t going to be a rock star. My love for guitars, however, never diminished. On the contrary, it grew to the point where the instrument has played a major role in my life in some fashion for much of the last 45 years. During this time, I also managed to earn a B.S. degree in Journalism from the University of Florida and have worked as a journalist, writer, copy writer, marketer, advertising guru, etc., which eventually led me to Nashville, TN, and Gibson Guitars, where I worked as the company’s web editor until I was laid off in 2009 due to the country’s economic woes. Not being able to land a job as a full-time writer, I began buying and selling guitars – which is something I always dabbled in, though mainly to build up my own collection as opposed to doing it for a living. In a very short time, I was able to turn my passion into a business, and today Blues Vintage Guitars, Inc. manages to stay firmly afloat among a sea full of vintage guitar dealers of all types and sizes.
The reason I bring all of this up is because my inspiration for writing the in-depth instrument descriptions I write today – and ever since I started doing this for a living – came in part from reading the wonderful and incredible instrument descriptions written by Mr. Jay for his Mandolin Brothers, Ltd. web site. If you’ve never read one, simply visit www.mandoweb.com and click on any of the instruments for sale on the site. For me, as a writer and voracious reader, there’s nothing better than to read something written by someone that has a pure, absolute passion for what he or she is writing about.
My favorite writer of all time is Ernest Hemingway, and the sheer emotions and intensity that come across in just about everything he ever wrote are the reasons why. Just like Mr. Hemingway would make you feel like you were standing next to him as he reeled in a 1,000-plus lbs. Blue Marlin aboard his beloved Pilar, Mr. Jay’s instrument descriptions made you feel like you were holding, looking at, and playing the instrument you were reading about. Though I’m sure it’s a pleasure to visit his shop, you didn’t necessarily have to go there to buy an instrument. All you had to do was visit his web site and read his descriptions, and if one of them struck your fancy you could absolutely bank on the fact that that’s what you were going to get when your instrument arrived at your front door.
As I stated previously, I never had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Jay, but I did have the honor of speaking to him on the phone several times over the last few years about some of the instruments that have come across my desk. And I can honestly tell you that every time I spoke to him he was exceptionally gracious with his time, information, knowledge, and (most importantly) his attitude in sharing it all. Additionally, I happen to know many people in this business that have met him and done business with him over the years, and even those that were fortunate enough to call him a friend. Of all these people, I can honestly tell you that not one has ever uttered a bad word about him or his business. And trust me folks, that in itself is an anomaly and absolute blessing in our industry.
The backside of the t-shirts sold by Mandolin Brothers, LTD., say it best: “The World’s Most Comfortable and Complete Acoustic & Electric Guitar, Banjo and Mandolin Store.” I’m sure the majority of the people that have walked through the front doors of Mr. Jay’s little guitar shop on New York’s Staten Island since 1971 would agree, as would the countless number of satisfied clients that have purchased instruments from him over the years. And when you consider the sheer greatness of the superstars that have relied on him for their fretted tools – Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Jimmy Buffett, Judy Collings, The Edge (U2), Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton, Bela Fleck, Lauryn Hill and Lenny Kravitz (to name a few) – you know that Mr. Jay will definitely be missed. But most of all he will be missed by his beloved family, which includes his wife of 40 years, Bea Jay, his sister, Andrea, his daughter, Alison, his son, Eric, and two grandchildren.
In his obituary published by the Staten Island Advance, his wife Bea said, “Stan loved his family above everything else in his life. He was a business person who always put the customer’s needs first. There is a sign over the door to his office that reads ‘Dream Fulfillment Center’ since that’s what he provided guitarists – both famous and casual – who visited from every State and every country on earth. He made people happy.”
Let’s all hope the Jay family can find the resources and strength of mind it will take to keep Mandolin Brothers, Ltd. open without having to sell. They really need to keep making “people happy.” Because I don’t think there are many people in our business that can fathom the vintage American fretted instruments industry without it. I know I can’t.
God speed, Mr. Jay … may you finally rest in peace, sir.
Gabriel J. Hernandez is the owner of Blues Vintage Guitars, Inc., a shop in Nashville, Tennessee, specializing in the buying and selling of vintage and newer high-end guitars and gear. He is also an accomplished writer, having earned a B.S. in Journalism from The University of Florida in 1988. Over a 25-year career he has worked as an investigative journalist for several news organizations and publishing companies, as a staff sports writer for The Palm Beach Post, and most recently as the Web Editor for Gibson Guitars at the company’s worldwide headquarters in Nashville. Hernandez has played guitar since the age of six, and been fascinated (some say obsessed) by the instrument – and music in general – ever since. You can reach him any time at 1-615-613-1389, or visit his company’s web site at www.bluesvintageguitars.com.