It’s a Wonderful Guitar Shop

Dan Courtenay, proprietor of Dan’s Chelsea Guitars at New York’s fabled Chelsea Hotel. (Photo credit: Julia Crowe)

What a way to close out the year:  Dan’s Chelsea Guitar Store will remain happily ensconced within its current location at The Chelsea Hotel, continuing what will be nearly thirty years in business.  Of course, Dan learned of this in June, and I’ve been under a rock about it until now.

“Originally I told some people about the situation around Christmas last year, when I thought we would have to vacate,” Dan Courtenay says.  “A reporter from the neighborhood newspaper, Chelsea Now, stopped by and proposed writing a story.  After it went to print, I got phone calls from two state senators and nearly every community group on the West side.  They called the owner of the hotel and began to advocate.

“Ira Druckier, the new owner of The Chelsea, stopped by and it turns out he’s a really good guy.  He said to me, ‘Look, I’m so underwater here with all that needs to be done.  My architect said we needed your shop space to create an entrance and, up till this moment, I had no idea what shop was here.  I had no idea how much you contributed to this hotel.”

The Chelsea Guitar shop has now extended their lease and will remain at their current location.  Anyone who is in search of a new or vintage guitar should stop by and feel assured they may learn more than they bargained for, as Dan, in addition to knowing everything to do with guitars, is a font of city history. 

When I stopped by to take his photo, his assistant was removing the last dozen damp-it humidifiers from inside various guitar.  Damp-its are long, spaghetti-like sponges encased in perforated green rubber that are slipped inside a guitar’s sound hole to provide enough moisture to prevent the wood from cracking.  If you check out the logo of this site, I used a damp-it for the letter U in the word “guitar.”

Though he has a humidity gauge inside the shop, Dan can also feel immediately if the balance is just right.  He cleared away a clutch of these long, rubberized miniature pool noodles on the counter despite of my protest that they added to guitar shop authenticity.  “Clutter, you mean!”

When asked what original section of the hotel his shop now occupies, Dan replies, “The lobby.”  This makes sense when you look down and see the worn marble floor tiling beneath your feet.  “Where my shop used to be, in what is now the Doughnut Plant—that was the Chelsea Hotel’s original dining hall where the Nicola Tesla used to have lunch with Mark Twain.”

Shop curios. (Photo credit: Julia Crowe)

This remark lead to a discussion of New York architecture and a nugget I had just learned that Edward Clark, who built The Dakota Apartments, had used The Chelsea Hotel as inspiration.  He took bits and pieces of what he liked and left out what he didn’t.  Clark was a real estate developer and the attorney for sewing machine inventor Isaac Singer.  Though Singer got his start by reconfiguring Elias Howe’s machine to work more efficiently, he quickly realized that creating his own version entailed first buying up various patents on the mechanical processes that he was going to use.  His only miscalculation was turning down Howe’s request for a $6,000 buyout and, instead, offering what seemed like a small royalty.  Howe collected millions.

“See? The money is never in the invention but in the patent and rights,” Dan says.  “Just like how Thomas Edison chased the movie business out of this area and sent it all the way to California by suing anyone who used his cameras and projectors.  They used to film a lot of early movies around here in Chelsea.  The original 1933 King Kong was shot around the corner!”

“You should check out the story on the Empire State Building because it’s a crazy story,” Dan urges.  “Though a bunch of guys died in the process, it was built within thirteen months, and it’s built like a tank.”

And, like that, we turned the conversation swerved to guitar strings.

So go.  Stop by Dan’s store for a congratulatory visit and exult in its continued existence.  If your hair stands on end, it could be from the conversation but certainly not on account of the humidity.

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Dan’s Chelsea Guitar Store
224 W 23rd St, New York, NY 10011
(212) 675-4993