THIS CARROLL GARDENS SHOP BRINGS THE PAST TO LIFE ONE INSTRUMENT AT A TIME
BY ERIK SCHONING • PHOTOS BY AMANDA DOMENECH
Stand on a Carroll Gardens corner, a few sidewalks from the BQE, and all you hear is the highway. But here is the home of Retrofret, tucked away on Luquer Street, where strumming and plucking make a very different kind of music. The repair shop and showroom, owned by Brooklyn native Steve Uhrik, is a crossroads for vintage acoustic and electric guitars, basses, banjos, mandolins, and more. For musicians in NYC and beyond, Retrofret has long been a necessary destination for repairs, rare instruments, and hard to find parts. Yet the journey to Luquer Street has been a long one, spanning multiple storefronts, beginning for Uhrik as a music inclined kid.
“I had always been a tinkerer,” he said. “I had some aptitude towards mechanical things, and I was always trying to improve my old phonographs and take them apart. So when it came time to go from listening to records to actually playing music, it was sort of a natural extension to start tinkering with guitars.”
After studying at Brooklyn Tech and a stint as an apprentice violin restorer, Uhrik opened his first shop in 1973, Uhrik Luthiers on Mercer Street in SoHo. Ten years later his business now Retrofret moved to the former ASPCA building in Gowanus.
The shop’s philosophy has always been broad minded. On any given day, you might find any number of unique instruments on the Retrofret showroom floor: lutes, double neck guitars, lap steel guitars, a theremin, a Stradivarius violin. The owner and his team don’t shy away from the weird. His favorite guitar is a Wilkanowski archtop, a violin esque instrument from a famous Brooklyn luthier. There’s a museum like quality to the shop, a care for detail that comes from an abiding love of music and the instruments that give it voice.
“I’ve never been much of a retailer in terms of personality,” said the shop owner with a laugh. “I love our clients, but I’m truly in love with a lot of the instruments that we have here.”
Fortunately, Retrofret attracts folks who share the music enthusiast’s predilection for geeking out. The shop’s clientele spans musicians, performers, and collectors of all stripes, and while lots of Retrofret’s clients are local, it’s not uncommon to ship a vintage Fender amp to Scandinavia. Once, Uhrik flew out to California to sell a guitar originally belonging to country legend Lefty Frizzell to another of country music’s megastars: Merle Haggard. And while high profile sales are not unheard of that guitar, a Gibson Bigsby J 200, sold for $350,000 discretion is typically the name of the game. Uhrik doesn’t like to name drop his high profile clients. It’s helped him develop long term relationships with customers who know that, as always, the music comes first.
“Our catch saying is that we treat rockstars like they’re just regular people and regular people like they’re rockstars. But every so often I get totally excited.”
Still, there are big names. The shop has had a public relationship with guitarist RyCooder. Walter Becker of Steely Dan fame was a friend of the shop, and after he passed away in 2017 Retrofret acquired some of his gear at auction. For nearly 35 years, whether for touring musicians in need of a repair or a guitarist seeking a perfect sound in the studio, Uhrik and his team of luthiers were a go to in Gowanus. Then, in 2017, Retrofret moved to Carroll Gardens. The new Luquer Street location was given the 21st century treatment: a computer controlled humidification system, a glass enclosed sound room for electric instruments, and a remote login system. These updates have proved lucky in 2020, with a global pandemic virtually closing Retrofret’s showroom and forcing Uhrik’s team to get creative.
“We’re really fortunate. During a period where a lot of businesses and much larger enterprises in the musical instrument industry have had to shutter their operation, we were pretty well prepared for shifting to handling things by remote, to ship instruments out and still maintain the same level of quality.”
In a year where musical instrument sales are skyrocketing, Retrofret is as busy as ever. (Uhrik compares playing music at home to baking a cake: a simple, joy giving activity.) The shop is currently taking appointments into February, and in the middle months of the year Uhrik was working 12 hour days, seven days a week. A rotating team of luthiers is able to work on instruments safely. Of course, Uhrik misses the sound of strumming in the showroom, when clients, many of whom live in and around Brooklyn, would drop in to play a vintage Martin. Yet he is glad to see growing interest in vintage instruments.
“It’s really driven by an emotional need. I always joke about smelling old instruments. They have a certain aroma to them that you can’t reproduce. There are wonderful new guitars being made to look like old pre washed jeans. You can put a lot of the character, the look, the sound into it, but it is never the same as something that really has been handled for 40 or 50 years.”
In the past months Retrofret has recorded a series of videos of musicians like Katie Battistoni and Bill Frisell playing in its showroom. There’s no audience, yet there is something simply beautiful about it, something sweet. Like Uhrik says: kind of like cake.
87 Luquer Street / 718.237.6092 / retrofret.com