RetroFret, a music shop in Gowanus, Brooklyn specializing in “rare and bizarre instruments,” is a true discovery even before you enter the store. You’d never guess that the hodgepodge block Retrofret is located houses such a rich collection of historic instruments. To get to the shop, located at 233 Butler Street, you have to ring the buzzer to the building, go up a flight of stairs, cross over a rooftop lit with lights and head for the inviting building across the way.
Steve Uhrik, the owner, took us on a behind-the-scenes tour of Retrofret, acknowledging up front that he’s more interested in the unique than anything else regarding his collection. The business began as a repair shop and grew organically into a destination for vintage instrument sales when his clients started inquiring if he knew people who would buy their instruments.
Inside the repair shop at Retrofret
Steve also has a real eye for vintage collectables, whether in high demand or not, and spinning it with a modern take. For example, he bought this Antonius Stradivarius case from August Gemunder & Sons when the company was going out of business. It once contained precious violins, including a Stradivarius, a Guarneri and one of Gemunder’s own–the intent to show that Gemunder’s instruments were on the same level of quality as those of more renown. Today, Steve showcases an electric violin inside.
Walking through the shop with Steve is like walking through the history of stringed instruments. He explains that the early guitars were so experimental, producers were just trying stuff and seeing what worked. Today, styles are much more standardized so you get far less aesthetic variety.
Everything in the shop is laid out to nice visual (and photographic effect). Here’s the wall of mandolins:
A room of electric guitars (note the blue Bud Light guitar!):
A row of vintage radios:
Gibson’s first electric guitar (lap steel) model from 1935 on bottom row of the wall, far left. Only about 100 were made:
These fun instruments with two fretboards are called harp guitars:
Moving onto some of the bowed string instruments, Steve shows us a folk fiddle from Norway–it looks like a violin but it has a lower set of four strings that goes underneath the fingerboard.
Steve posing with the fiddle:
This instrument looks like a cello but is actually a decorative church bass. It also has its origins in the folk movement–this time from the colonial period in the United States.
This is a vertical viola from the mid-19th century. Although it has an endpin, it’s a little too short to be played standing up so it needs to be perched on a table:
This instrument from the late 18th century in France is known as a “6-string Hurdy Gurdy”:
This little ukulele goes for over $10,000!
The building itself also has a fun history–it was the first building to house ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals ) in Brooklyn and you can see the remnants of that function on an engraving over the door which shows horse being beaten by a coach driver. There’s also an amazing space on the floor below the showroom that contains an organ repair shop. We’ll show you these photographs tomorrow, stay tuned!
See more from Retrofret on its website or visit the shop in Gowanus!
Get in touch with the author @untappedmich.