• After 35 Years in Business Retrofret Moving to New Location

    After 30 Years in Business Retrofret Moving to New Location

    We profiled Retrofret Vintage Guitars about five years ago as part of our visit to the city. Thirty-five years in the business has established the shop and its owner, Steve Uhrik, as among the nation's elite dealers of vintage instruments, both electric and acoustic. And now comes news that the shop is moving to a new location. We asked Brooklyn resident Bradley Klein to check out the new digs.

    Author Bradley Klein is a freelance journalist and an adjunct professor at Columbia University's School of Journalism. His production company Twangbox® makes audio and video content for radio, television and the web. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife and a Vega cylinder-back mandobass named Tubby!

    First of all... New York City musicians needn't worry. Retrofret is moving, but staying in Brooklyn. The move takes the shop from the rough and ready neighborhood of Gowanus — home of the famously polluted canal by that name — to a leafy street in the traditionally Italian enclave of Carroll Gardens, 87 Luquer Street. The street takes its name from a Dutch family who lived there two-hundred years ago. And if you'd like to be 'in the know', it's pronounced 'lu-QUEER' by the locals.

    I met Steve Uhrik for lunch, and even though I've lived within a few miles of the new location for many years, I'd never really noticed this short 4-block street. For a business like Retrofret, there's a lot to like about it. At one end is the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, so there is a major transportation artery for deliveries and visitors. It's a short walk from the F and G subway trains, and some interesting new neighbors. From the rather austere, St. Mary Star of the Sea church which dates back to the 1870s, perhaps reflecting Brooklyn's maritime traditions, to the newly arrived Folksbier Brewery and Tasting Room. They grow their own hops (in Michigan), and their brews feature descriptions like this one. "Our N.E. Pale Ale Series, Recurring Dreams is an ever changing and evolving beer. Double dry-hopped for a burst of tropical aromatics, complimented by a lush, velvety mouthfeel and refreshingly palatable finish."

    Mock the hipsters and the foodies all you want, but the last twenty years have been very good when it comes to dining out in Brooklyn. After showing me around the new building, still under renovation, we passed by the brew pub, and walked to Court Street, the neighborhood's main drag where we settled into a cozy restaurant called Prime Meats to chat, over what's humbly billed as 'The Greatest Chicken Sandwich on Earth.'

    Retrofret's New Location

    87 Luquer Street, Brooklyn, NY. Photo credit: Bradley Klein

    New Retrofret

    In the new building, Uhrik clearly was pleased with how the final steps were going in finishing up the drywall, paint, and electric work. But at the same time he freely admits that keeping the business running at Butler Street, renovating the interior of the Luquer Street location, and preparing to move several hundred instruments is no small task after 30-plus years. "Moving is not fun, but I kind of like the adventure," he says with a smile. "I told a dear friend of mine, you know, 'I want one more big adventure in my life.' And he said, 'only one'?"

    I asked if he was going to take this opportunity to change the business model, and he said that he thought it over and decided to stick with exclusively used and vintage instruments. "I'm not looking to expand and carry a whole variety of new guitars. There are wonderful builders out there, but it's just not what I'm interested in. I just want to make things a little more efficient. Easier on both customer and staff."

    Besides gaining about 20% in floor space over the old location, he says the new layout is just easier. "We were spread out all over, so in the dead of Winter, if somebody bought an instrument in the showroom, you'd have to then walk across the ramp on the roof, down some stairs, up some stairs, go to the case storage, find the right case. The shipping room was down two flights of steep stairs. The break room was also the photo studio. The new location is a chance to make everything a bit more efficient."

    The old saying about business priorities is, 'location, location, location.' But Retrofret is moving from one obscure Brooklyn street to another, and that's fine with Steve. "We never wanted to have a storefront-type operation. We're more of a destination. A place where people in the know can just sit around, play some guitars and maybe leave with something."

    Inside the new Retrofret

    Photo credit: Bradley Klein.

    Inside the new Retrofret

    Of course, there is no denying the effect of eBay and the internet on all aspects of the vintage instrument market. I wonder if that makes customers more reluctant to consign instruments to a brick and mortar shop like Retrofret? Uhrik admits that the commission on consignment pieces can at first look steep, but "essentially it goes to insurance, photography, getting an instrument properly set up, writing about it. And then, of course someone is going to pay for it with a credit card that charges 4.5% to the merchant." And he finds some surprising advantages in the online marketplace.

    For one thing, a fair percentage of Retrofret's own sales come over the internet, and that motivated a recent overhaul of their web site. Uhrik says he found a designer who could update the look while retaining the massive database of previous photos, descriptions, and customer records. "And for the first time, we have real online sales capability." So people do indeed buy, say a 1924 Snakehead Virzi Gibson A-4 with the click of a button? "Some of them do. In the middle of the night they go, 'I better buy it before someone else does,' and they just like that... boom! I come to work the next day and it's time to pack up a mandolin."

    And Uhrik says he likes that the internet has brought him a 'more informed' consumer. "It's a much more educated consumer, and I think that's good. They feel a little more secure about what they're buying because they are able to do their own research." Of course those informed customers come with strong opinions, and Retrofret relies on some of the best photography and descriptions in the industry to be sure they know what to expect. There's a point, he says, where, "if you want a new guitar, you should buy one." Most instruments show some signs of their age, and for Uhrik, that's part of the story. "Maybe the parts are tarnished. But it's 50 years old! People have been sweating on it in bars for the last 50 years." He laughs and I can see he still has a love for a mandolin, a banjo, a guitar with a story.

    "I was at the Texas guitar show, it has to be 20 years ago looking at stuff and I come across a mid-sixties Gibson ES-335. And the pickguard is engraved with the name, Dolores. And I said, to the guy, 'who is Dolores?' And the guy goes, 'Son, you don't want to know.'"

    Here's a guy with a heap of work ahead of him in the next few weeks, getting hundreds of valuable instruments and a staff of expert luthiers, sales folks and others settled in a new space. But he still gets excited by the next instrument to come in the door. The next customer to walk out with a purchase, whether they're a well known professional, or more likely, a picker like you or me.

    The Neighborhood

    Visitors to the new Retrofret won't have to walk far for a bite to eat and a fine microbrewed beer. Folksbier is just a few steps away at 101 Luquer Street. Photo credit: Bradley Klein.


    "Hey. If we only sold to professional musicians," he trails off and shakes his head 'no' at the idea. "We're selling..." and he searches for the right word. "We're selling emotion. We're selling a little bit of fantasy. We're selling something you always wanted to own... and this is the time." In an increasingly digital world, that sounds like a business model to me.

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    Comments 16 Comments
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Another great article on the activities in and around New York City and Brooklyn by Bradley. Thanks!
    1. Jim Garber's Avatar
      Jim Garber -
      Nice article, Brad. Steve is a long time friend and back in days, decades ago, worked on all my instruments. Only thing missing from the article is when they are moving. I assume it will happen when it does. Great! Another excuse for a visit.
    1. BradKlein's Avatar
      BradKlein -
      Quote Originally Posted by Jim Garber View Post
      Only thing missing from the article is when they are moving. I assume it will happen when it does. Great! Another excuse for a visit.
      Thanks Jim. I don't think there is an official date when the move MUST be complete, but certainly this Summer - and probably earlier rather than later.
      One of my favorite places on Earth... I will have to check out the new digs when I'm next time in Bklyn...
    1. Dave Bradford's Avatar
      Dave Bradford -
      Looking forward to going to the new location, and thanks for the update!
    1. Ron McMillan's Avatar
      Ron McMillan -
      A fine feature article that informs and entertains. Well done.
    1. BradKlein's Avatar
      BradKlein -
      Thanks for the kind words all. I’m hoping to make a visit to Folksbier next week. If they have one of those tasting flights I’ll try all 6 or 7 brews and report back! That shows my dedication, eh?
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Quote Originally Posted by BradKlein View Post
      Thanks for the kind words all. I’m hoping to make a visit to Folksbier next week. If they have one of those tasting flights I’ll try all 6 or 7 brews and report back! That shows my dedication, eh?
      Such dedication to one's craft!

    1. BradKlein's Avatar
      BradKlein -
      Oooh... they are having a Yard Sale June 30th! That should be fun.
    1. Retrofret's Avatar
      Retrofret -
      Scott & Brad -- Thanks so much for getting the word out! We'll be a few blocks from Jalopy Theater, home of the Brooklyn Folk Festival (http://jalopytheatre.org/), as well. There's also a neat music school right across the street from us on Luquer St. called Key Lab (https://www.keylab.nyc/). Hoping to be moved in by the end of the summer. I'll post some more photos as our new home gets a bit more dressed up... Steve Uhrik
    1. EdHanrahan's Avatar
      EdHanrahan -
      Thanks for the update - been out of the country & away from internet for a while. I WILL miss their quirky "speakeasy-buzzer-to-across-the-rooftop" entrance!
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Retrofret sent out a mass email to their mailing list yesterday. They are closed this week as part of their move and re-open at the new 87 Luquer Street location in Brooklyn on Saturday, September 1.
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Paid a visit to Retrofret today. Love the new location. The interior of the store is much changed, very inviting and they've really created a beautiful space to show off their instruments. Spent a couple of hours and had a great visit, wanted to share some photos of the new space. Highly recommended.

      Front door
      Attachment 171800

      Up the stairs and...
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      Love the dark wooden beams and floorwork
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      Attachment 171796

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      What I privately dubbed the "Stairway to Heaven/Smoke on the Water/Blackbird" lick soundproof room
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      Still some work to be done on the project. For instance, they have not yet displayed ukes and steel guitars but are working on it.

      After you're through, the microbrewery Folksbier is a couple of doors down. Stopped in for a sample and these folks really know what they're doing. Great space to have a brew.
    1. paul dirac's Avatar
      paul dirac -
      Well, I'm obliged to leave a grateful note and notice to all in the neighborhood to go by and check out Retrofret, as they proved to be most gracious hosts to me as a drop-in visitor today. Their lovely shop looks a bit different and even more welcoming from even Scott's photos here posted a few months ago. I was welcomed in and enthusiastically allowed to play any of their fine mandos, though I focused my time on the exceptional Grand Artist, the 38' F5, and a pre-war Martin. The Monteleone's balance and tone stood out, and I was also particularly taken by the 20' H4 'dola. Anyway, great service and outstanding taste in inventory should be noted, so do all you can to visit and support this fine shop.
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Noting today's anniversary of this article by Bradley Klein.
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Nothing the anniversary of this feature article.