Legendary NYC guitar shop closes after 53 years

At around 3 p.m. on a late-November Tuesday, a visitor walking into Matt Umanov Guitars on Bleecker St. would've found Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna guitarist, 76-year-old Jorma Kaukonen, sitting on a stool playing a 78-year-old Martin guitar previously owned by one of the founding members of The New Lost City Ramblers.

"I've been coming here probably for 40 years," Kaukonen said.

"I will miss the fact that you never know who's going to walk in here," owner Matt Umanov said.

Umanov opened the shop in a different Greenwich Village location with his then wife as an extension of his then-booming guitar repair and restoration business.

"I was the whiz kid in New York when I was a teenager," he said.

Umanov Guitars, later in the smaller room of today's John's Pizza before moving across the street to its current location, soon evolved into a hangout for the neighborhood's young musicians.

"We just hung out here all the time," Kaukonen said, "just talking to people, sitting around playing the guitar."

On this day, Kaukonen and fellow Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna bandmate, bassist Jack Cassaday, stopped into Umanov's, before a City Winery gig later that night, to say goodbye to their old clubhouse. After 53 years, Umanov had announced he was selling everything and retiring to spend more time fishing, repairing guitars and hanging out with his grandkids.

"There's a lot places I have not been, working here for last 50-some-odd years," he said.

"I'm sure the neighborhood will go on," Kaukonen said, "but there's a lot of people who hang out here who are going to miss it."

In a neighborhood that to those who remember it when, might today feel less like a village and more like another growing strip of soulless corporate chains, the departure of the city's preeminent guitar shop represents something of a trend.

"The rent is the biggest problem," Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer said.

Brewer's watched banks and drugstores replace mom-and-pop's in this neighborhood, and elsewhere in Manhattan, for decades now.

"Even in the 70s there were still five bakeries, three butchers, two fish stores, couple of candy stores," Umanov said.

Umanov paid $125 a month for his first Village shop and admits the only reason he's lasted as long as he has in his current and final location is that he owns the building -- one of the few remaining businesses here more than 25 years with a name over the door still run by the original family.

Umanov says he'll miss the any-given-day uncertainty of who might walk through his shop's front door, whether a friend and guitar dealer from Louisville or Rolling Stone's 54th-greatest guitarist of all-time, like Jorma Kaukonen.

The guitar store closed on Dec. 3, 2017 but its restoration and repair department will remain open.