In gentrified Greenwich Village, one link remains to a Jewish folk past
In 2017, Amanda Foley, the location scout for “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” needed a place to shoot a record store scene. It’s a challenge to find interiors that fit the storyline of the series’ main character Midge Maisel, a wealthy Jewish housewife who dives into the Village scene of the late 50s and early 60s. On the outside, preservation laws ensure Greenwich Village looks the same, but step inside and it’s clear: This is not the Village of bohemians and cheap rents.
When Foley walked into The Music Inn — a cramped world instrument shop with a forest of Russian balalaikas, Japanese kotos and African harps dangling from every inch of the ceiling — she knew she found her spot.
“It’s authentic and iconic and perfect for the time period,” she says.
The Music Inn at 169 West Fourth Street opened in 1958, the same year the show was set. It became one of few locations to appear as itself, showing up in several episodes. At most filming locations, the crew must redress the set with period pieces, but not the Music Inn. “It was already there: the instruments, the records, the shelving,” Foley said. “It’s so awesome. Every time I walk in there, somebody’s playing some instrument — just people hanging out, socializing. It’s what I would imagine the Village was actually like.”
Her instincts are right. Suze Rotolo, in “A Freewhellin’ Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties” recalls the shop in 1961 as “an impossibly cluttered store that sold every kind of musical instrument ever made in the entire world.” Rotolo, who was Bob Dylan’s girlfriend, recounts the couple’s time living down the block. According to her, “Musicians would just come and play at Allan Block’s,” a sandal shop next door that was a folk epicenter. “If they didn’t have an instrument, they could go to the Music Inn and borrow one.”
“The store was very successful and booming,” says Jeff Slatnick, 77, the store’s second owner in 63 years. “It was always crowded with people buying records.”
But, even before the pandemic, competition with chains and online businesses had taken a toll on the store and the music business in general. Guitar Center, the nation’s largest music retailer, filed for bankruptcy in November. The landlord has been supportive, but after being closed for three months because of COVID, Slatnick has struggled to pay rent. Nevertheless, he still can be found at the store six days a week, picking at his sitar or repairing an African djembe. Slatnick, with his unkempt white beard, holds court to the regulars and curious passersby visiting the old wise man of the Village.
‘A SECULARIZED JEWISH WORLD’
1958 was an opportune time to be in the folk music business. That year, “Tom Dooley” by the Kingston Trio topped the Billboard charts. Suddenly, folk music didn’t just mean singing around a campfire or passing a hat in Washington Square Park; you could also make a living. Jerry Halpern, the son of Polish Jewish immigrants to the Bronx and a Korean War vet, took advantage. He returned to New York after bumming around the country for two years. Between his GI Bill benefits and savings from his wife (the poet and artist Janet Richmond), he scraped together enough to open his hole-in-the-wall music shop.
Halpern was far from the only Jew on the scene. Next door was Allan Block, the violin-playing cobbler whose sandals became the de rigueur footwear of the 60s. Over on MacDougal, Izzy Young, Dylan’s future mentor, had just opened the iconic Folklore Center after quitting his family’s kosher bakery in Borough Park; Moe Asch, the son of Yiddish writer Sholem Asch, headed the influential Folkway Records; and Ramblin Jack Elliot, a Jew from Brooklyn, passed as a singing cowboy. “Many second-generation Jews tried to escape their fairly insular Jewish families. They escaped that by plunging into what they saw as counter culture Americana,” said Jonathan Karp, a historian who studies the connections of Jews and American popular music, “but the irony was that they were entering into another kind of secularized Jewish world.”
In the early 60s, the folk revival’s focus expanded from Americana to international music, and Halpern established the Music Inn as a world music destination. Slatnick, the son of Jews who had immigrated to Newark, first visited the store in 1967. He had a gig playing sitar at the groundbreaking rock and roll disco, the Electric Circus and he needed strings. Impressed by Slatnick’s knowledge of instruments, Halpern hired him to be a salesperson. For Slatnick, the job was a way to meet other musicians. “I can remember playing with people who were famous like Phil Ochs and David Van Ronk, jamming with them and then getting gigs,” he says.
After a few months, Slatnick moved to California to study Indian classical music under the legendary Ali Akbar Khan. He returned to work at the shop in 1976. By then, Halpern had accumulated an instrument collection worthy of a museum but in a setting akin to a family’s cluttered attic: priceless heirlooms haphazardly mixed with decades-old tchotchkes. “This zarb is probably 450 years old. It’s from the Persian Jewish community of Isfahan,” Slatnick tells me, pointing to an exquisite drum with inlaid turquoise stars of David outlined in gold. It sits next to a Swingline stapler and near child-sized ukuleles. Halpern found the instrument at a flea market. “It was blackened from a fire, and they thought it was a vase,” says Slatnick, who painstakingly restored it decades ago.
Later, Halpern amassed a treasure trove of African art. With his long red hair and thick mustache, he fit the profile of a Village musician, but he didn’t play any instrument, make repairs or even socialize with customers. “He was never a schmoozer. He wasn’t a father figure [to young musicians] like Izzy Young,“ Slatnick says, explaining why Halpern is mostly left out of history books. Slatnick, on the other hand, readily jumps into deep and personal conversations, is a talented musician and artisan who skillfully repairs, restores and builds instruments. He filled both a practical and spiritual void of the store.
In the early 2000s, Halpern developed Parkinson’s disease. “His wife passed away, he had no children, I took care of him,” Slatnick said. “He stopped coming to the store and found a new life. He started to write poetry.” As his Parkinson’s progressed, Slatnick brought him large felt markers to continue writing. When he passed in 2010, Halpern willed the Music Inn to Slatnick.
‘LAST MAN STANDING’
By the time Slatnick took over the store, the 1960s folk music revival was just another line in West Fourth Street’s long bohemian resume. Allan Block’s sandal store is now Coppola Café. On display is the album cover of “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,” featuring a young Dylan and Rotolo walking arm-in-arm just 50 feet out the cafe’s front door. Across the street is Amano Café, which serves $5 lattes. A vintage mandolin banjo and a brokedown brass euphonium serve as taxidermied specimens of an off-beat past. Only at the Music Inn do records and instruments have life in them.
“He’s the last man standing.” Mitch Borden, founder of the popular Village jazz club Smalls, says of Slatnick. “It’s unbelievable what Jeff is doing: supplying musicians at the lowest cost with instruments. It’s a very strange labor of love.” It’s not just fair pricing, but the range of options. In 2016, when asked about the more exotic sounds on his album “Stranger to Stranger,” Paul Simon answered: “The Music Inn, down in the Village. They have a lot of unusual instruments… I’ve known that store forever.” And , when Jimmy Fallon played odd instruments for his “Random Instrument Challenge” with Pete Davidson on a recent show, who did he rent them from? Slatnick, of course.
These days, out of work musicians aren’t buying instruments. “It’s terrible. They lost all their gigs,” says Borden, who with his wife, jazz musician Rie Yamaguchi-Borden, started Gotham Yardbird Sanctuary, an organization funding jazz shows for unemployed performers. With less sales revenue, another film shoot could be a lifeline for the store. In recent years, in addition to “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” CBS’s “God Friended Me” and Apple TV+’s “Little Voice” have filmed at the store. But Foley says production companies are still hesitant to shoot in cramped spaces due to social distancing. Only instrument repairs have held steady. “People staying at home find old dusty instruments,” says Slatnick, “or a musician who can’t afford a new guitar just fixes the old one.”
Sales have started to improve, Slatnick says, but the pandemic has highlighted “the digital divide” in the music world. While brick-and-mortar shops suffer, Reverb, the world’s largest online music marketplace, reported record sales. Slatnick, who uses the store’s original 1958 mechanical cash register, says he can’t compete against Amazon, nor does he want to. “Music needs real human connection,” he argues.
“Some guy comes and says, ‘What’s that drum?’ I’ll say, ‘Jansen go play it,’” Slatnick says, referring to Jansen Bennet, a regular who tours playing the Indian tabla and Albanian çifteli, amongst other instruments. “He’ll play and sing in Arabic for 20 minutes. The guy will see what you can really do with the instrument and pick up some tips. You can’t do that online.”
If not Bennet, there’s always someone to strum or bang on the store’s hundreds of different instruments. Neighborhood old-timers come to play tunes and pass time playing chess. Before the pandemic, younger musicians grabbed ouds off the wall or freestyled rap at the weekly open mic. Often, at Slatnick’s side is Chuck Williams, a boxing journalist who hosted a YouTube show from his housing project hallway.
Since Slatnick fell from a ladder a few years ago, the taller Williams reaches for the high-hanging instruments. The two met in the 1990s on the famed West Fourth Street basketball court where Slatnick was nicknamed “Rabbi.” On the weekends, Slatnick and Andy Dowty, a graphic designer, handcraft electric sitars and zarodes with unique horseshoe shapes. Almost daily, Slatnick’s 32-year-old son Coulee and his friends come by.
The Music Inn is more than a clubhouse for musicians and artists. It’s a place of community support. Throughout the pandemic, Slatnick has occupied himself by creating a comic book series about the 10 plagues. He commissions Isaac Bois, a young artist who lives in temporary housing in the Bronx to make the illustrations. It isn’t just pocket money, Slatnick gives the isolated artist a sense of purpose and a creative outlet. The store owner himself, however, is hesitant to ask the community for help. He hasn’t done any fundraising like the GoFundMe campaigns of many small businesses. Borden, who has owned three successful Jazz clubs, isn’t concerned for his friend Slatnick. “Tell him not to worry,” he says with the confidence of a jazz man. “He’s a rich man. Rich with music.”
Andrew Silverstein writes about New York City and is co-founder of Streetwise New York Tours.