BY ALEX EBRAHIMI | For want of a guitar shop, the guitar was lost. For want of a guitar, the song was lost. For want of a song, the singer was lost. For want of a singer, the band was lost. For want of a band, the music was lost. And all for the want of a guitar shop. And it’s called Matt Umanov Guitars.
He’ll tell you himself the music has changed, the times have changed, but what hasn’t changed is that guitars will always need repairing. And as long as there’s Matt Umanov, there’s the guitar shop.
To this day, it’s still called Matt Umanov Guitars, and since ’77 it’s still at the same old building on Bleecker Street. But no more walk-ins. If you try, you’ll end up walking into a Pilates studio where Umanov used to sell guitars, banjos, mandolins.
“I closed that honky-tonk back in 2017,” he told me as he rummaged through a stack of papers on his desk.
The big gold leaf-lettered sign in the downstairs window might be gone. But the repair bench is still on the second floor. Make an appointment. Press the bottom bell next to the black door with the sign now big enough to fit in your wallet. If you have an appointment, he’ll buzz you in. If you don’t, he’ll probably suggest where you can shove that Stella with the snapped string. If you don’t, you’ll have better luck taking that Stella with the snapped string to the Pilates class downstairs.
“You never knew who would walk in!” Umanov said as he picked four or five pages of legal pad paper from the stack.
Whether it’s a sign you could see from down the street or a sign you could only see with binoculars, at this point, Umanov, who is in his mid-70s, doesn’t need a sign in the window. He’s repaired guitars for everybody from Johnny Guitar to Johnny B. Goode to a story about another famous Johnny.
Sitting down next to me, the legal pad papers secure in hand, he told me the famous story of how Johnny Cash’s card was declined:
How Cash — a regular — came in one day with June Carter. How when he tried buying a guitar with a credit card the screen said “Call.” How the credit card company rep on the other end said, “May I speak to the cardholder, please?” And how Johnny Cash took the phone and said, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.” The crickets on the other end were as loud as the Folsom prisoners’ cheers. Umanov and Carter’s laughter even louder.
And there his name was…
“Johnny Cash” scrawled somewhere on the first page of legal pad paper along with two or three rows of names of regulars both famous and infamous. Names from the days when Umanov was repairing guitars out of various Lower East Side lofts to finally getting his own shop on Bedford Street back when it was just, in his words, “Me, some Gypsies and a wise-guy bar.” That was just the first page.
It turned out to be a career if not life-spanning list with the categories “Musicians, Actors, Artists” and “Others” divided by subcategories of “Dear Friend, Pain in the Ass, Duplicates” and “That’s Another Story.” Umanov simply called it “The List.”
Name by name and row by row he read them off. The names I recognized led us down detours in the conversation. When he said Steve Earle — “a dear friend,” I asked what about Townes Van Zandt: “Not on the list.” When he said Bob Dylan, I asked what about Phil Ochs: “He still owes me 5 bucks.”
The occasional names I didn’t recognize led to the occasional, “Wake the f— up.” Down the list we went. When he got to George Harrison:
“He played a Gretsch, didn’t he?” I asked.
“A Gretsch Duo Jet,” he nodded.
This led us down another detour, dropping off George Harrison, picking up Chet Atkins and his signature Gretsch Country Gentleman, and finally arriving at the Gretsch Building in Brooklyn, where a Northeastern University dropout got his first gig on the repair bench…at 17.
“I was at the bench with guys double — triple — my age!” he told me.
Taking apart radios and TVs at 3 and 4 years old, building a Theremin at 12, building banjos in high school, the Gretsch gig was, he said, “a piece of f—ing cake.” As easy as turning the dial on the radio to the country music station when he was a kid, as his mother, a classical musician, played Chopin. When he wanted a guitar his parents wouldn’t buy him one. Banjos were out of the question.
“S—kicker stuff,” he said, “but I didn’t care. All I wanted to do was play guitar, ride horses and shoot a Colt 45.”
Turning to the next page of the list, another name, another detour, this one to a place inlaid with mother of pearl: Eric Clapton’s Les Paul.
These were the days when Dennis Hopper was searching for America in “Easy Rider,” and director Nicholas Ray — who gave Hopper his debut — was searching for a job. The days when everybody was searching for Umanov for guitar repairs, and Eric Clapton was searching for someone to repair his smashed Gibson Les Paul.
The peghead was smashed to hell but…
“I was 20, I knew everything,” Umanov laughed.
He grafted on a prewar Gibson F-5 mandolin peghead that Umanov made himself, inlaying Eric Clapton’s name in mother of pearl where it usually says Gibson. Just another “piece of f—ing cake” in the bakery, as he put it.
This was years before he opened the Bleecker Street shop in ’77, eventually hiring more staff in the ’80s, and moving from the repair bench to the desk in the ’90s.
“I had a business to run,” he shrugged.
Getting back to the list, getting to the end: “Russell Crowe…sold him a mandolin.”
Then somewhere after Uma Thurman: “Ah! Don’t ever get old,” he groaned as he tried to remember what movie the next name was in. The movie didn’t ring any bells, but suddenly the phone did. It was his tech guy telling him to check his e-mails about a problem that’s been fixed.
“Give me tools, guitars, a V8 engine,” he said, trying to navigate his computer, “but these things I want to hit with a bat.”
Looking around the room, at the relics from all the years, at the old finger-pointing-shaped sign that was in the Bedford window now tucked away, at the porcelain-enamel sign that used to hang downstairs now over his office, looking around…
And my eyes fell back on “The List.” Right there where he left it on the coffee table. And right when I leaned in to read it for myself —
“F—!” He shouted from the computer, “I deleted the wrong e-mail!”
Shortly hanging up the phone. Shortly calling it a day. The sun was sinking in the Village… .
“What’s next?” I asked.
“I’ll make dinner and have a drink,” he said hiding away the list.
On my way out, he told me how Jack Daniels is rubbing alcohol. Spelling out what you should drink instead: “Bulleit Bourbon. That’s B. U. L. L. E… I… T.”
“But these days,” he said just before I left, “a glass of wine is all I need.”