Matt Umanov may have closed his shop at 273 Bleecker Street back in 2017, but he didn’t stop working. Umanov is still selling guitars online and providing essential guitar repair services by appointment. Umanov’s work is known far and wide, and his guitars have likely been to every country in the world. But it’s Bleecker Street that Umanov calls home, and we at Village Preservation continue to appreciate his work, captured in many ways in the fascinating oral history we conducted with us on May 13, 2015.
In addition to that wonderful first-person account of his life in Greenwich Village, Umanov also joined us in a conversation “Musical Musings and Memories” about guitars and music in our neighborhoods, along with his friend and colleague Rick Kelly. The stories, the celebrity anecdotes (after all, Umanov worked on guitars for the likes of Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan) and the reflections on how the neighborhood and Bleecker Street have changed over the years are worth watching. Not to mention Matt’s amazing impression of Johnny Cash’s response to hearing that his credit card was declined. Enjoy the video here:
For some background, Umanov is the founder and proprietor of Matt Umanov Guitars. Since 1965, Matt Umanov Guitars has been buying, selling, and repairing vintage guitars, and has served some of the biggest names in music.
Music first brought Matt Umanov to the Village. Playing, building, and repairing instruments were all intertwined for him. About the life experience that brought him to music, Umanov writes:
It began with fixing everything I could find as a little kid, gaining tool skills and woodworking and machine skills along the way, and knowledge of processing all kinds of natural materials (wood, metal, plastics, glass, and more) for manufacturing processes. Having also grown up in the music world since infancy, building and rebuilding musical instruments came naturally in my teenage years, and by the time I was fourteen or so I had started working on fretted instruments, my first love. Restoring Martins and making electric guitars were natural ways to go and I was off on a tear, doing it professionally by the time I was seventeen.
Matt found a mentor in Marc Silber, who owned a guitar shop called Fretted Instruments for a brief time in the sixties next to the Folklore Center. While Matt was in high school in Brooklyn, he often visited the Village and Marc’s store. In fact, in our “Musical Musings and Memories.” We also learned that another local guitar shop owner, Izzy Young, officiated Matt’s (very Village, very Jewish) wedding — that’s a strong bond. Izzy’s world-famous Folklore Center, which was next door to Marc’s store, is where the wedding was held. Marc and Izzy had an intertwining relationship of the two businesses.
Matt was a staunch advocate for the preservation of the South Village, where his business was located, and where he lived and owned property. He was a member of Village Preservation’s Historic South Village Advisory Board, spoke at our 2007 Columbus Day Salute to the South Village, and did a “Save the South Village” video for us. Thanks to the efforts of Matt and many others, his part of the South Village was landmarked in 2010.
Umanov Guitars was a 1996 Village Preservation Village Awardee and January, 2016, a Village Preservation Business of The Month. Matt also authored a great story about Bob Dylan in our book Greenwich Village Stories, which he does not repeat in his Village Preservation oral history because “I’ve had to tell it so many times…Buy the damned book….because two things will have been served: one since the amount of money from it goes to support GVSHP, you will be giving money to GVSHP, and two, you will save me from having to tell you that story again.”
Although the Dylan story is not part of the oral history, there are plenty of other amazing stories in there, including his family history, the founding of the business, its operations for the past 50 years, and the successful attempts of Village residents to keep out businesses they were united against, such as noisy bars, “cheap” jewelry stores, and large chains.
About the current work of repairing and restoring guitars in his shop, Umanov’s website states:
While we have closed the retail side of the store, our “Best in New York” guitar restoration and repair department remains open, by appointment, serving New Yorkers and musicians from all over the world in the same location that the store had been in for the last thirty-five years. You’re welcome to email firstname.lastname@example.org to arrange for a day and time (Mon-Fri 10am-5pm) to bring your treasured instrument in for anything from bringing the Martin that’s been in your family for over a hundred years back to life, to straight-ahead Strat or Les Paul setups, and everything in between. We’ll take care of you in the same that way we always have, with uncompromising professional attention, since the 1960s.
Umanov’s is one of nearly 60 oral histories we’ve conducted, which you can find in our collection, with prominent preservationists, activists, planners, artists, community, and business leaders. Some others you can find include Jane Jacobs, Rick Kelly, Mimi Sheraton, Ralph Lee, Fred Bass, Peter Ruta, Richard Meier, Merce Cunningham, David Amram, Verna Small, Marlis Mober, Jonas Mekas, Margot Gayle, Wolf Kahn, Lorcan Otway, Frances Goldin, Chino Garcia, Penny Arcade, and James Polshek, among many others. Explore them all HERE.