The first guitar Mamie Minch ever repaired was a beat-up 1930s Gibson Kalamazoo, and it was her own. The downhome fingerpicking blues guitarist and singer had it beside her in the loft bed of her first apartment. During a particularly active dream, in which she was ballroom dancing, Minch unwittingly kicked it to the floor. A gnarly gash in one side was a potent reminder that sometimes it’s better to sleep alone.
Since then, her musical career has grown in two directions. Earlier this summer, Minch played the Brooklyn Americana Music Festival at Brooklyn Bridge Park and opened for Ricky Skaggs at the BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn! Festival. As a young master of the restorative arts for stringed instruments, her shop, Brooklyn Lutherie – which she co-owns and operates with Chloe Swantner, a violin maker – is celebrating its fifth anniversary. Located in the Old American Can Factory in Gowanus, it’s the only female-owned instrument repair shop in New York City.
This month at Jalopy Theatre, Minch is set to lead a brand new ukulele-building summer camp for girl-identified kids. During a recent interview in her shop, she talked about luthiers, listening parties, and how to run a successful business.
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: Brooklyn is at the forefront of a resurgence of crafts people. As someone who sings traditional music and restores instruments, do you feel like you fit in?
MAMIE MINCH: I almost feel like an unwitting participant. It makes for audiences who are primed to hear you, which is cool. But there are some things about that scene that don’t necessarily fit with me. Like it’s gentrified. It’s a little bit twee.
You mean you don’t think of yourself in the same category as the people making artisanal kimchi or felted narwals?
Or homemade aioli. Who doesn’t love aioli? But that’s the rub of this kind of thing. You have to find what actually feels helpful, what the world needs.
What does the world need?
The world needs music and art—and connection. That’s at the root of what a business like this does. We were both interested in doing something that was built around our community and creating the kind of place where you’d want to spend time.
As far as I know, we’re the only woman-owned and run instrument repair shop in New York City. We’re turning five this year, which feels like a great accomplishment. We’ve been lucky and diligent. You have to pick your partner wisely—and there she is [pointing to Chloe] filling the bunghole of a skinny bass. You do your best to stave off burnout because you’re going to have it—especially in the first year. Back then, we were here every day. Now we have an appointment system. We handle between 30 and 50 instruments a week. It’s a ton. We work really hard. We get a lot done. But we’ve also figured out more humane schedules for each of us, with time off built in.
What a concept.
One of us holds down the shop while the other one’s doing her thing. That’s important to having a good life. Chloe just took six weeks off to ride her bike across half of the United States. And I haven’t told Chloe this yet, but I’m getting on a decommissioned Greenpeace ship and traveling around the Caribbean next February.
CHLOE SWANTNER: Shut up!
How did you find yourselves in this line of work?
Chloe and I have some interesting things in common. Both of our dads built boats. My dad’s a house builder and a furniture maker, so I grew up around power tools. I went to school at the Columbus College of Art & Design, and ended up doing sculpture and fabrication. Then I moved to New York. I found myself buying old guitars. It was interesting to think about fixing them, and I got lit up about it. I applied for a job at a vintage shop called Retrofret Guitars and worked there seven years, four as the head of repair. While I was there, Chloe got hired on and eventually we decided to open up this place.
But your dad is also a musician, right?
He’s a guitar player, and he’ll tell you he taught me everything he knows—in about 15 minutes. That’s our little shtick. But he’s good. He plays fingerpicking blues guitar in the way that a lot of college students in the early seventies might have. He only plays around seven songs, but he plays them really well, tunes by Reverend Gary Davis and Mississippi John Hurt. And a killer version of “Teddy Bear’s Picnic.”
You grew up in Delaware, which I don’t think of as being a particularly musical place.
I grew up in the suburbs, which are pretty much the death of culture. We lived a bike ride away from a really good record store off of Route 2 in Wilmington called Bert’s Tapes, which was managed by Chris Vanderloo, who went on to open Other Music. I’d be like, “Listen, I really want the early recordings of Son House.” And he’d say, “It’s going to take me two months to get that in.” And I’d hand over my babysitting money and what I’d earned from my job at the snowcone stand.
I have an image of a teenaged you that’s straight out of the movie Ghost World, where you’re the Thora Birch character infatuated with this old music and surrounded by dysfunctional men in their 40s.
She was cooler than I was, but that’s a pretty good comparison. When I moved to New York at 21, there were listening parties. I didn’t know that other people had the hots for this kind of music. It was incredible. Sherwin Dunner of Shanachie Records – and I had all of the Shanachie records I could get my hands on – invited me to a listening party. [Label co-founder] Richard Nevins was there. It was a mind-blown moment. The highlight of those parties was people bringing their weirdest record. I’ve heard some stuff that I’ll probably never hear again.
What attracted you to instrument restoration in particular?
Restoration is interesting as a concept: if you’re good at it, no one will ever know you were there. You can take something that’s 100 years old and make it work like it would have when it was born, or even a bit better, you know? That feels really good in this age when the objects in our lives are often pretty disposable or designed to become obsolete.
Is it about nostalgia to some extent? When I hear the music you make, which is traditional in its roots, it’s surprisingly unsentimental. You wrote a tune called “Razorburn Blues.” And it kills me when you sing the line from “Don’t Forget Me,” the Harry Nilsson song you covered: “When we’re old and full of cancer…”
There is something sweet about nostalgia, but it’s not like things that are old are good across the board. My guitar’s from 1937. It’s cool to have an old guitar. But 1937 was a horrible time for many people. You could die of appendicitis. Xenophobia was rampant.
Objects that have a history are interesting. With instruments, it gets specific. There’s a tactile sensibility. They smell different. Like the 1920s actually smell different than the 1930s. You can almost approach them like an archivist, drawing on different pieces of knowledge and skill sets to do the work.
I bet there’s also psychology involved, because people have such intense relationships with their instruments.
People carry emotional experiences in their instruments. Sometime they’ll say, “Even if I was having a bad day, I could rely on picking this instrument up to help me feel like things were right with the world, and all of a sudden it’s not behaving like it used to behave.” I get it.
If someone is a really good musician, they tend to be less attached to a preconceived idea of how things are supposed to be. Like Marc Ribot. He’ll say “The action could be a little bit high. It’s okay.” Or “You know, the intonation doesn’t have to be perfect.” It’s almost that he likes a little bit of a challenge. But the rest of us who are maybe good at some things and not others might latch on to the idea that it has to be 5/32nds action at the 12th fret or we can’t play. If I think there’s something off with my Taylor 914, I can Google all the things that go wrong with other people’s Taylor 914s and become convinced that something is wrong with mine.
The same way people diagnose themselves via Web MD? That’s hilarious, though it must make your life more challenging.
You develop a bedside manner. People appreciate it if you’re unruffled. And they should feel good when they leave.
Building ukuleles at a summer camp is a bit of a departure for you. Where did the idea come from?
There aren’t many luthiers, people who do repair and restoration and build stringed instruments. At a convention I was sitting next to Rick Camino, the CEO of Stewart MacDonald, a company that makes lutherie tools. And he asked “How do we get more women and girls involved in this?” Off the cuff I said, “Well, you could donate ten ukulele kits, and I could put on a camp for girls to build them.”
And Jalopy is a perfect match when it comes to hosting it.
Yes, they already have kids’ programming and classes. Our camp is six days long, Monday through Saturday, in the middle of July. So far we have eight girls. I suppose if a boy really wanted to come, we’d probably let the little sucker in. We’ll be building soprano ukuleles from the StewMac kits. Everyone will have a work board. This is what the top looks like with the braces glued down. They not only stiffen it; they also direct the vibration. The sides are already bent, the back and top roughed out, and the sound hole cut. I want them to feel busy and engaged, but not overwhelmed.
On three days, we’ll have short lunchtime concerts with professional ukulele players. I’ll have Ellia Bisker, who goes by the name Sweet Soubrette; Katy Down, who’s a member of The Ukuladies; and Meg Reichardt, from the French chanson cover band Les Chauds Lapins. It’s not too hard to learn how play a tune or two and some of the kids already play the guitar, so it should be very gettable. And the ukulele’s an instrument you can stick in your bag and take with you. George Harrison always traveled with two of them so he could play duets with his friends.
He always knew how to have a good time. What do you hope the girls will take away from the experience?
I advertised it as being for girl-identified kids who are interested in crafts, building things with their hands, or music. I want them to feel like it’s accessible. That tools aren’t scary and it’s really something that you can learn. A few months maybe they’ll get the wild idea that they can build a mandolin, or a table, or whatever they want.
If all goes well, you could be contributing to future generations of Brooklyn artisans.
Yes—and to making sure there’s a strong female presence within them.
Jalopy Theatre hosts Mamie Minch’s Ukulele-Building Camp for Girls on July 16-21, 9am-3pm; jalopytheatre.org
Lara Pellegrinelli is an arts journalist and scholar. She’s contributed to National Public Radio, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Village Voice. She teaches at The New School.
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