In the West Village of New York, numerous blocks down from the uber trafficked and demonstratively commercialized Time Square/Mid-town area, and just before you get to the loud, busy Houston Street (pronounced hows-ton, not hue-ston, like the city), there is an idyllic two-block section called Carmine Street. Or, it used to be an idyllic, quintessential Village street, but like much of Manhattan, it too is slowly being absorbed by yuppies talking about amazing omelets with shaved fennel, over-priced restaurants and compact, but costly apartments. Fortunately, there are at least a couple stores there that are maintaining the standard of the two-block’s bygone era of quirky spaces and mom and pop shops. One such place is Carmine Street Guitars, and it is the subject of a recently released indie documentary of the same name. This is an intimate, week-in-the-life-of story focusing on a store, its owner and his community of talented musician customers.
The small shop, owned by Rick Kelly, has been in existence for decades, and it looks the same as it did when it opened lo these many, many years ago- a cozy too cramped space, covered in floor to ceiling wood, and packed with the one-of-a-kind merchandise he peddles, hand-made guitars. Rick is a sweet, quiet artisan, happily stuck in time. He could care less about cell phones and social media, reserving his energy and passions for his craft, salvaging wood from old New York buildings to use for the instruments, and his very impressive client roster. Sharing his work space and passion are two special people in his life, his 90-something-year-old mother and his young apprentice, Cindy Hulej. Rick’s mom lovingly and dutifully dusts the store photos and answers the phone. Cindy, who looks very punk rock-ish with her platinum blonde, spiked hair and all black attire, is learning and applying the guitar making techniques as handed down from Rick while putting her personal aesthetic to certain projects. Unlike Rick, she is social media savvy, curating artful photos, then regularly posting their latest creations on various platforms.
The business’s history and Rick’s craft is portrayed in the film through real-life encounters he has with regular professional musician clients that stop by to try out new guitars. These customers include Kirk Douglas of The Roots, singer-songwriter/actress, Eszter Balint, Nels Cline of Wilco, Stewart Hurwood who was a collaborator of Lou Reed’s, and filmmaker Jim Jarmusch who is also part of the “enthusiastically marginal” rock band, Squrl. They all, understandably, have an appreciation for Rick’s craft and long-time relationship with him and a shared history with the store. The relationships feel authentic albeit the conversations feel somewhat contrived. Interspersed throughout the film is the subtle implication that the building housing the storefront will be sold to the highest bidder, threatening the store’s very existence.The looming enemy is soaring Manhattan real estate prices. Like many businesses there, Carmine Street Guitars is a rental space in prime real estate territory. Cindy points out that the building next to them just sold for six million dollars, and soon afterwards a young, slick realtor drops in to introduce himself and inquire about the store. Despite that, Rick is resolute his landlord won’t budge and life and work as he knows it, will continue. The audience isn’t as convinced.
As a sort of video capsule of an important part of New York history, “Carmine Street Guitars” is sweet and simple, presenting a necessary message of embracing the arts, while supporting local and independent businesses. Although this is a “New York” story, it is an issue that plagues most mom and pops of urban areas. You don’t have to live there to appreciate what this type of neighborhood business has meant and should continue to mean to a community, as well as an industry of local musicians. As a documentary film, the story is as intimate as the cluttered, yet special store itself. While one can appreciate director Ron Mann and writer Len Blum’s successful exclusion of any talking heads and their obvious resistance to over-produce or over embellish. At moments, however, it feels a bit too spare and lacking energy, even by documentary standards. There is a sense that this could have been part of a more layered, fully realized story. As a result, it may only find a very small, niche audience of guitar enthusiasts and documentary aficionados. If you are among them, you are sure to be impressed by Rick’s unique talent and commitment to his craft. You will be touched by Cindy’s dedication to the old ways of doing things despite her youth, and you will be charmed by the artists coming in and sharing memories and strumming a song.
“Carmine Street Guitars” has limited screenings at various art house theaters throughout the country. It will have a one-night screening at the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael, CA on July 27th. Check local listings for times.