Friday, 8 February 2019

Rick Kelly's Carmine Street Guitars

New York is changing. Streets I walk down now are a mere shell of what they were in the 1970’s. Starbucks, CVS and Banana Republic have displaced the bodegas, record & book stores that gave New York its particular stamp.

But when was the city ever different? Surely Walt Whitman railed against the changes he saw on his return from the Civil War. 

Some businesses, however, weather the changes and continue to provide both great service and a much-treasured dollop of hospitality.

Take, for instance, Rick Kelly’s Carmine Street Guitars – it’s like entering a haven from a bygone era when the music business was idiosyncratic and occasionally even fun.

The front room - full to the gills with guitars of all shapes, sizes, vintage and prices - is usually devoid of attendants. You’ll hear laughter leak out from the workshop, and eventually Rick or Cindy Hulej will venture out to offer assistance.

Rick has had a shop in the vicinity since 1976 and if you wish to experience the old West Village then take a hike down to Carmine Street, just west of Bleecker. 

You can browse in the Un-Oppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Bookstore while across the street House of Oldies (no CDs or Tapes sold) flaunts its vinyl, all basking in the considerable shadow of Our Lady of Pompeii Church.

Rick himself hails from Sunnyside Gardens and is from solid Irish-American stock, though he’s not sure from whence his branch of the Kellys originated. “Maybe Dublin,” he offers without too much conviction.

The shop is a delight for musicians, or just the plain curious - any space not occupied by guitars, mandolins, and banjos is filled with pictures of Patti and GE Smith, Lenny Kay, Lou Reed, and the many others who have ventured in.

Rick has a lot of time for working musicians. Tell him you’re in a panic because you have an upcoming gig, and he’s likely to bump you up the line for repairs or a quick set up.

If you have a guitar whose strings buzz or are too high off the neck to play with comfort, Rick’s your man! And he doesn’t charge an arm or a leg, much less a finger.

One of the problems with modern guitars, he feels, is that the wood employed is not what it used to be. It can’t hack the winter heat of apartments or the air-conditioned rigors of summer.

Which brings me to Rick’s main gig. The man makes his own guitars. Bob Dylan owns two and plays his sunburst Eaglecaster regularly onstage. Why - because like all Rick’s guitars it sounds great.

The key is the wood he uses. And that’s where the “old New York” comes in. According to Rick our city was originally built with Eastern White Pine (Pinus Strobus). And that’s what he’s been hunting down since 1976. 

He keeps his eye on old buildings and recently got some beams from the loft of his friend, filmmaker Jim Jarmusch.

Inside his workshop you can witness how Cindy and Rick convert this venerable wood into all manner of “axes.” 

Not only does White Pine sound sweet but it’s one of the straightest trees and thus its guitar necks rarely bend. 

You tell Rick and Cindy what kind of axe you want and they design it for you, and don’t take forever about it either.

Meanwhile Rick’s mother, Mrs. Dorothy Kelly does the books and, like the white pine, keeps the enterprise on the straight and narrow.

Rick is about to lose some of his anonymity. A movie has been made about him and his shop. Carmine Street Guitars debuted at the Venice Film Festival, and Rick himself was persuaded to attend the prestigious Toronto Festival. He’ll soon be traveling to Amsterdam to receive well-earned plaudits there.

In April, this “five days in the life of a unique guitar shop” will hit the nearby Film Forum for a run and will be available in DVD soon, before it ends up on Netflix.

But Kelly’s Guitars will always remain the same – a place where refugees from the pre-Spotify world still drop by for a chat and a laugh, and where their axes will always receive TLC at a decent price. 

Long may you thrive, Rick & Cindy!

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