My Greatest Christmas Present, Manny's Music Store 1935 - 2009

01/05/2011 09:58 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

So, how/why is this story about a store closing Christmas-y?

Well, the greatest Christmas present of my childhood came from Manny's Music Store.

During Thanksgiving break in 1966, my Dad took me to Manny's to try out a Fender Telecaster. This was akin to letting a 13 year old try out... well, a Fender Telecaster!

Late that Saturday morning, we walked into Manny's, made our way through the crowd, and found the head salesman, Henry. My Dad talked to him quietly for a minute, and the next thing I knew, I was being handed a blond-bodied, maple fingerboard-ed Fender Telecaster, the... Guitar of the Gods. At least 8 or 9 other kids immediately gathered round in incredulous envy and awestruck silence. I had to play the guitar, through an amp, no less, with a bunch of my contemporaries gawking at me from three feet away.

After about 3 minutes of E and A chords, and maybe the riff to "Day Tripper" a few times, I handed back the Object of Worship and my Dad told Henry, "We'll see..."

Two weeks later, I found the long box that said Fender Musical Instruments in big blue ink in the back of my dad's closet. As thrilled as I was, it actually made the waiting even more painful.

On Christmas morning, my parents announced that since I knew what was in that box, I should open all my other presents first. I struggled to be thankful and impressed with sweaters and books... and then, finally...

More than anything, I can remember the smell of the lacquer finish when I opened the case for the first time. It was intoxicating.

When I put the guitar on, I inadvertently gasped at the weight. It was heavy! My Dad caught this, took the guitar from me, and declared, "This thing is going ruin your spine. I'm taking it back." Yeah, right!

That's the Christmas connection, boys and girls. Here's the story of Manny's...

At the end of May, 2009, after 75 years, Manny's Music Store on West 48th St in Manhattan closed its doors forever. Obviously, this wasn't even a cigar butt on the world's stage of Economic Fallout these past few years. But, for me personally, and The History of Rock 'n' Roll, this was akin to GM or Apple going under.

Simply put, the WORLD shopped at Manny's. Musicians and bands didn't go to Manny's. They made pilgrimages to Mecca. It was impossibly fabulous.

I first walked into Manny's in 1965, at the age of 12, with my Dad. It was, by any of today's standards, a tiny shop, no more than 20 feet wide and about 100 feet deep, with a two-step drop halfway back, more like a wide corridor, than a retail establishment. The front 40 feet or so was where the reeds and brass were sold, along side the cashiers' stations against the east wall.

Heavy, heavy jazz players would be trying out trumpets or saxes six feet from the front door while stock boys were lugging in thirty Fender guitar amps and three Hammond organs. Older people shopping there would ask for autographs while I had no idea who these horn-players were. God knows who I heard casually riffing at Manny's.

This is where Manny himself, always decked out in a fabulously loud blazer, complete with carnation in his lapel, would sit and dispense pontifical greetings to those worthy.
Manny Goldrich was the absolute favorite musical instrument salesman among the Jazz Giants of NYC. Sadly, there is no list of legends who were playing instruments that Manny just let walk out of the store with, actually meaning "Pay me when you can..."

Seeing someone the likes of Dizzy Gillespie or Barney Kessel (those two I did recognize) shooting the bull with Manny was commonplace.

I have no idea why, but, Mr. Goldrich took a shine to me early on and would introduce me to people who wouldn't have looked at me twice...

"Binky, this Frank Sinatra's guitar player... Tony, this is a good kid..."

"Binky, I'd like you to meet the President of Gibson guitars... This is Binky, Charlie [?]. He just bought his first Gibson here last month, right, Binky! He moved up to his Rolls-Royce." And then Manny would tousle my hair. Magic moments that I just kind of took in as every day occurrences.

Manny was like royalty or an ambassador... maybe even a saint.

And the shop was absolutely all in the family.

His wife, sister, daughters, and granddaughters ran the registers.

Directly behind the cashiers was the dumbwaiter (!) that was used to deliver anything smaller than a monstrous Vox Super Beatle amp from the stock rooms upstairs to the waiting salesmen and customers. The opposite side of the front area was perpetually stacked/cluttered with enormous shipping cartons waiting to go upstairs to the storage rooms.

Various salesmen would be always yelling at each other...

"Bobby, that's Brazil on line one... wants to buy 15 saxophones..."

"Manny, Lionel Hampton is asking to talk to you right now..."

The hubbub was CONSTANT.

Every single available square inch of wall space was covered with framed autographed 8 x10s... It would literally be easier to figure out who wasn't on the wall than who was...

You could walk up and touch autographed photos of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Byrds, The Hollies, The Who, The Kinks, Elvis, Sinatra, Charlie Parker, Vladimir Horowitz, Count Basie, The Doors, Simon & Garfunkel, Johnny Cash, Cream, CSN&Y, Miles Davis, The Grateful Dead, Sly Stone, Bob Dylan, James Brown, Pink Floyd, Elton John, Nina Simone, Black Sabbath, The Mothers of Invention, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ike and Tina...

Just hundreds and hundreds of autographs!

Once you got past the front area, you took two steps down and into another 40 foot deep room... The Guitar and Amp section... aka Heaven!

The absolute coolest, most expensive, most famous electric guitars lined up behind glass... the guitars that you saw on Shindig and Ed Sullivan... George Harrison's enormous Gretsch Country Gentleman, Carl Wilson's chrome-infested Fender Jaguar, Paulie's violin shaped Hofner bass, Jim McGuinn's elegant blond Rickenbacker 12 string, Brian Jones' pale green Gretsch Double Anniversary, The Ventures' curvy and off-kilter candy-colored Mosrites, Zal Yanovsky's rocket-shaped Guild Thunderbird... all in gleaming lacquered rows. To a kid, it was Santa's-workshop-wonderful.

Manny's son, Henry Goldrich, was The King of this portion of the shop. A salesman of truly mythic proportions, he on his way to exponentially broadening Manny's Music's reputation and revenue.

Already a legendary and important shop, Henry was the guy who took it all through the roof. A somewhat nerdy pudgy man-boy with acne in his 30s, he waddled like Burgess Meredith's Penguin, yet also had this thoroughly commanding presence. He became a second dad to me... gave me grief every time I came in during school hours, but wouldn't throw me out.

Henry was a unique salesman. He was loud, abrasive, almost rude... and EVERYONE LOVED HIM. In particular, Rock Band guys were just crazy for Henry. He lavished them with attention while he openly gave them shit. The closest I can come to an analogous public figure is Bill Parcells. Even my Dad took to Henry instantly.

That very first visit, my Dad bought me my first amp, an Ampeg Jet, on the spot (very unlike my shop-around Pops) from Henry. A year or so later, Mom and Dad plunked down a whopping $160 for that brand new Fender Telecaster (think Bruce Springsteen) as a combined Xmas/Birthday present for me in December 1966. This guitar that was later stolen from me by a 'friend'... I got it back 4 years later and it sits next to the armchair in my living room now... a 44 year old vintage ax! Yes, I have that story coming very soon.

By the time I was 14, Manny's had become my second living room. And once I figured out that the way to catch real rock stars in Manny's was to go on weekday afternoons, I became damn close to a true truant. In 8th and 9th grade I must've skipped every class after lunch at least twice a week. Somehow I graduated Junior High anyway.

Without wracking my brains, here are some of the stars I met and/or ogled in Manny's...

Dino and Gene from The Young Rascals
Lou Reed
Leslie West
Big Brother and The Holding Company (Naturally, I spent all my time talking to lead guitarist, Sam Andrew... and ignored the bored girl singer)
Stevie Winwood and Jim Capaldi from Traffic (Stevie had to be no more than 5' 2")
Jorma and Jack and Marty from Jefferson Airplane
Vanilla Fudge
Elvin Bishop
Country Joe and The Fish
John Mayall and Mick Taylor
Joe Cocker and a few of the Grease Band
Frank Zappa
Rod Stewart (Forlornly strumming a blond Gibson J-200 alone in the back of the shop... I wouldn't talk to him even though our eyes met about four times because I thought he was an idiot for "leaving" Jeff Beck)
Bob Weir
Johnny and Edgar Winter
Rick Derringer
Jack Bruce
Mitch Mitchell
John Entwistle
ALL of them only dealt with Henry.

My favorite Manny's moment of all time was the day I cut school in the middle of the week and walked in and, to my disbelief, saw my HERO, Pete Townshend standing at the back counter talking to Henry. It was the first time I'd ever seen him anywhere other than onstage... It's unimaginative cliché, but, I felt like I was in a dream as I walked up to Pete and Henry just in time to hear, with my own ears, Pete ordering (and this is verbatim... my brain RECORDED it!)...

"10 Telecasters, 15 Stratocasters, 5 Jazzmasters, 5 Jaguars, 5 of those Corals, 3 Gibson Stereo 355s..."
Henry was scribbling furiously, looked up and said, "You really ought to try the Gibson SG Special, Pete. It's the best buy out there." Pete chuckled ruefully..."Okay, Henry...spend MORE of my money, three of them too then..."

About two and a half years later, Pete would throw me an SG Special from the stage of The Metropolitan Opera House.

It was TRUE... Unlike the rumors I'd heard at the time that he was secretly ruining knock-off pieces of junk, Pete Townshend really was trashing copious amounts of really expensive guitars. Amusingly enough, Henry would only get mad at Pete when he wrecked high-end Gibsons. An actual Henry quote: "Well, Binky, your friend Pete broke another 355 last night in Toronto. Yeah yeah, Go on, laugh, I know you get a big kick out of it... But, it's shameful... disgusting!"

Anyway, standing there about 4 feet from Pete, who'd pretended to recognize me (whatta marketing genius!), I desperately tried to think of something to say that would make me stand out. I suddenly flashed on the fact that I'd just found a copy of a super rare unreleased-in-the-States Who EP called "Ready Steady Who". I screwed up my courage, and asked Pete why they never performed "Bucket T" onstage (a truly awful old Jan & Dean song... "all the girls wanna take a ride with me but there's only one seat in my Bucket T Bucket T Bucket T Bucket T..." that Keith Moon insisted they record and that, at the time, was only available on "RSW")...

Pete scowled at me and said "You've heard it, you know why!"

For years, all the stock boys were required to wear a white t-shirt that said, in navy blue, Manny's Schlepper. The only other people on earth who were allowed to wear one were authentic roadies. And for years, about 2/3s of the roadies at any show at the Fillmore East or Madison Square Garden were proudly wearing Manny's Schlepper shirts. They were prized. It took me three years to break Henry down and finally give me one. I was at the beginning of my transvestite Glam look and took a skin-tight Small (Dang!)... I still have it but, I haven't been able to put it on for 20 years.

I tried for years to get Henry to hire me as a stock boy.

"Never, Binky, you'll wind up hating me."

And, all the stock boys did occasionally seem to hate Henry, but they rarely quit.

Perhaps the greatest compliments I ever got on my guitar playing came from one of those old cigar-chomping pork-pie hat Jazz guys that Manny had introduced me to. One day, after I'd tried out a guitar for a few minutes before Henry decreed enough, this old guy rasped...
"I played with Django Reinhart, kid. You know who I'm talkin' about!? [I actually did 'cause of my Jazz-hip Mom and Dad] Well, I can tell you, Rock guitar playing is garbage. Insulting. Every goddamn Rock player I've ever heard is shit. But, when you play an A chord, kid, it sounds like a fuckin' A chord... I'll give ya that."

Another great (and still annoying) memory...The Les Paul craze had just started. I got bit BAD! Had to have one. HAD TO! Gibson had discontinued them about 8 years earlier and they were now, thanks to Mike Bloomfield, Keith Richards, Jerry Garcia, Eric Clapton, The Guitar to play. I walked in one day and Henry had gotten a hold of a 1956 black Les Paul Custom... the King of Electrics at that moment. I'd never even seen one in person before. Oh My God!

"Please, Henry, please please please sell it to me. I'll trade you back the Telecaster and the Ampeg amp and I'll get my father to loan me some money and..."

"Binky, this whole Les Paul business is ridiculous. I'm telling you, they're no big deal. I'm not gonna sell it to anyone. I'm just gonna keep in it in that glass case and make all you fools drool!"

Regardless, I dashed home and talked to my Dad for over an hour and wore him down to the point where he said, "Okay, go back to Henry and see how much cash he's gonna want on top of your guitar and amp..."

The next morning I jumped on the subway from Brooklyn and got to Manny's less than half an hour after they opened. I ran to the back area. Henry and Billy (the other guitar salesman, a truly swingin' Sammy Davis Jr.-type ultracool jazz-playing black guy... Billy and I became good friends, but, it took me about 5 years to prove myself worthy of his respect and friendship) were having coffee and bagels.

"Henry, I talked to my father and he... Oh, crap... WHERE'S THE LES PAUL, Henry??? My Dad will lend me the money!"

"Oh, ferchrissake, Binky... about an hour after you left, Jimi Hendrix walked in and demanded that I sell it to him. You know I can never say no to Jimi. Sorry, Bink."

If you ever see a photo of Jimi playing an upside down black Les Paul... that was supposed to be mine, dammit!

Henry, seeing how crushed I was about the black LP, walked me over to one of the lower glass cases underneath the main racks, and pointed to what looked like a Gibson SG Standard (think Angus Young). He said, "Binky, that's the Les Paul you want. Those are the best pick ups Gibson has ever made. That is a knockout, Binky."
"That's not a Les Paul, Henry."
"Oh yes it is."
He took it out of the glass case and showed me the Les Paul logo on the truss rod cover and pointed out the ultra-weird Deco sideways vib. bar and explained that when they were first introduced, the SG series were called Les Pauls.
"Binky, here's how much I want you to believe that those old Les Pauls are just not that big a deal. If you want it, I will sell you this SG-Les Paul for what I paid for it. I won't make a dime. Talk to your father."
Suffice it to say, I got the guitar for $225.
It is, in fact, the Gibson that Manny alluded to when he introduced me the head of Gibson.
"Binky, moved up to his Rolls Royce."

Anyway, Manny passed away in 1968, and soon after, Henry moved the store down the block into a much larger space. The place just exploded, millions were made (I'm sure!) and Henry retired. Then slowly but surely the ride wound down... and now Manny's is just another Rock 'n' Roll Memory... less Mass Pop Culture than say, the loss of CBGB, but, to those of us who were there, just as important.