The old man calls them the “bones of the city”—gangly guitars scraped, carved, and burnt from the discarded lumber of old New York City buildings. He salvages the wood—mostly virgin timber from the Adirondacks harvested over 200 years ago—from dumpsters and construction sites, sometimes tricking cops so he can squirrel away a door or a beam from the site of a fire. The guitars he makes in his tiny Greenwich Village shop are pieces of history preserved for new generations of artists and audiences and will remain long after gentrification strips New York of all its historic flavor and character, from a table from McSorley’s, the oldest Irish pub in New York City to a guitar with a neck made from wood from Trinity Church, a church from when many still thought of the isle of Manhattan not as New York but as New Amsterdam. The guitars themselves are of exceptional quality, winning admirers from folk legend Bob Dylan to indie darling Eleanor Friedberger. Carmine Street Guitars sits on the intersection of history and legend, and its owner and head carpenter Rick Kelly is determined to keep it that way even if the rest of the neighborhood falls prey to greedy, insatiable realtors. Ron Mann’s eponymous new documentary is a touching examination of this shop, these guitars, this man, this neighborhood.
Rick, a reserved yet friendly fellow who always seems to measure his words before speaking, shares his shop with his 93-year-old mother Dorothy who keeps the books and apprentice Cindy Hulej, a 25-year-old Queens native who came into the store one day to ask for a carpentry job and never left. Together the three maintain the store and make the guitars, Dorothy scribbling away at the books, Rick sawing away with his tools, Cindy woodburning intricate designs and posting #guitarporn on Instagram. Mann intuitively understands the oxymoronic quiet of the guitar shop: the pervading silence that falls over the store when customers aren’t auditioning instruments, the kind of stillness that makes one speak in hushed tones while in the shadow of giant amps. It’s a pity that he largely overlooks the physical making of the guitars—there are only a couple scenes of Rick and Cindy actually at work. There’s much talk of the methods, but little demonstration. For that matter, there’s little discussion of what drew Rick to guitars—let alone carpentry—in the first place.
Mann is much more interested in the music, as the majority of the film is a revue of famous musicians dropping by, gossiping, admiring the guitars, and sampling them. The music is, of course, stunning, as are the stories that accompany them. Some are heartwarming, such as guitar tech Stuart Hurwood reminiscing how his friend Lou Reed loved playing drone music with open tunings as he “felt healed in the drones.” Others, inspiring, such as British guitarist Jaime Hince opening up about his difficulties relearning the guitar with only three fingers after a freak infection devoured one the tendons in his left hand. And some are simply so gorgeous they make the heart weep: Friedberger’s impromptu solo performance of her song “I Am the Past” is so heavenly I paused my screener and rewatched it four times. Carmine Street Guitars isn’t so much a documentary as a relaxed hang-out movie. It might not do total justice to Rick, Dorothy, and Cindy and largely sidesteps the thorny issue of Village gentrification, but it didn’t have to be comprehensive. It’s light, breezy, and comforting, much like an afternoon browsing a guitar shop.
It just so happens that I work in the Flatiron District in lower Manhattan, a short subway ride from the Village and Rick’s store. One Monday a few weeks back I dropped by after work. I was saddened but unsurprised that the street-window sign featured in the documentary had been painted over. Perhaps tired of film nerds dropping by to gawk at his life’s work without buying anything, Rick has made the shop nearly impossible to find for those who don’t know exactly where it is. Stepping inside, the store is much smaller and more intimate than it appeared in the film, but the guitars were there, and oh how they shined in the dimming evening light. In the back I could hear Cindy yelling something or other about Instagram and Rick patiently humming and hawing in response. When he finally came out to help me, he looked tired and ready for the long day’s end. I didn’t mention anything about the documentary and merely said I’d heard he made guitars from reclaimed wood and in an instant all the tiredness disappeared from his face as he half-explained, half-reminisced about the city he loves and the guitars he makes from it. I never told Rick that I was a critic—it didn’t seem right. But I left the store with a custom-made bottleneck guitar slide I’d picked up for ten bucks as a trio of lost Italian tourists wandered in and marveled at the instruments. “Que bella,” one of them murmured.