A Scruffy Guitar Shop Survives the Chelsea Hotel’s Chic Makeover

Ever since the Chelsea Hotel emerged from a long and costly renovation to become one of Manhattan’s trendiest playgrounds, the old hole-in-the-wall guitar shop on the ground floor has become an unlikely link to the building’s fabled bohemian past.

Opened in the late 1980s, Chelsea Guitars has sold picks and strings to Patti Smith and Dee Dee Ramone. It started out as one of the hotel’s many street-level mom-and-pop shops. Now it’s the last one standing, a cluttered den of rare and vintage guitarsthat seems out of step with its chic surroundings. Hotel guests and out-of-towners who stumble into it, sometimes with one of the Lobby Bar’s signature $28 martinis swirling around in their bellies, are smitten by its scruffiness.

Mr. Courtenay’s store occupies the small street-level space between the red awning of the freshly scrubbed bohemian landmark and the El Quijote restaurant.Credit…Lanna Apisukh for The New York Times

A mannequin of Marilyn Monroe strumming a ukulele sits outside the shop’s entrance on West 23rd Street. The narrow interior has cracked marble floors, a slow-spinning ceiling fan and brick walls lined with pictures of Albert King, Elmore James and other blues greats.

Emerging from one wall, trompe l’oeil style, is the head of a Tyrannosaurus rex nicknamed Stanley — a homage to the Chelsea Hotel’s former manager Stanley Bard, who sometimes accepted paintings in lieu of rent checks from the building’s eccentric tenants.

After the hotel was closed to guests in 2011, the 12-story Gilded Age era building was shrouded in scaffolding and netting for years, as a faction of its rent-stabilized tenants tried to thwart a top-to-bottom renovation. BD Hotels, a boutique hotel firm in New York that operates the Bowery and the Jane, ultimately prevailed, and its sleekly reimagined Hotel Chelsea opened in the summer. The more than 40 tenants who remain in the building can now order room service.

The hotel’s well-scrubbed appearance might have startled the artists who lived there when drug dealers roamed the stairwells and cheap rooms provided sanctuary for Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin and Robert Mapplethorpe. Suites start at around $700 a night.

The elegant Lobby Bar serves the Edie ’67, a cocktail mixed partly with mezcal and Lapsang tea named after the Andy Warhol “superstar” Edie Sedgwick. El Quijote, the Spanish restaurant that was once the hotel’s sleepy canteen, has been overhauled into a culinary hot spot. The Bard Room, named in honor of Mr. Bard, who died in 2017, has been the site of parties for The New Yorker and the British fashion company Mulberry.

Mr. Courtenay walks through the newly renovated lobby.Credit…Lanna Apisukh for The New York Times

When two tourists from Poland, Irena Sierakowska and Przemyslaw Gulda, made a pilgrimage to the Chelsea on a recent day, they saw a doorman in a beanie cap and red gloves who greeted guests carrying shopping bags into the building. But they found the grit they were looking for when they walked into Chelsea Guitars.

“When you live in Poland, your connection to New York is movies,” Mr. Gulda said. “But here, I walk in and feel like I’m in that movie. I think: This is it!”

Ms. Sierakowska said she came to see the Chelsea Hotel because of a Leonard Cohen song, “Chelsea Hotel #2,” a 1974 ode to Janis Joplin written by Mr. Cohen, who lived for a time in Room 424.

Behind the cluttered counter, a 68-year-old-man with long silvery hair and tinted glasses looked up from his bento box lunch. It was Dan Courtenay, the longtime owner of Chelsea Guitars. He told the couple that he once had a customer who recorded a famous cover of Mr. Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

“Jeff Buckley? Yeah, he used to come by here,” he said. “We’d do work on his guitars.”

“Did you meet Marilyn?” he continued, referring to the kitsch statue out front. “I found her behind a trash can in Long Island. She’s pretty helpful, because I can tell anyone trying to find me, ‘Look for Marilyn.’”

“People from all around the world, just like you guys, come to see the Chelsea Hotel, and then they end up in my shop,” he added. “To them, seeing the magical Chelsea Hotel, it’s like visiting what was once Oz — a downtrodden Oz.”

As the couple, giddy from their contact high with a crustier New York, prepared to leave, Mr. Courtenay scribbled his number on a card and handed it to them.

“If you get lost, or have any problems taking the subway,” he said, “call us.”

If Chelsea Guitars has accrued cultural significance as an unkempt holdout in the newly pristine hotel, then Mr. Courtenay is its resident bard, eager to pass on the building’s mythology to anyone who enters his store, whether or not they buy a $6,000 1964 Epiphone Riviera or the other worship-worthy rare guitarson the walls. If you get him going, he’ll tell tales about what he says he has seen running the shop for more than three decades.

Joan Baez once stopped by and gave him her Chinese takeout leftovers for lunch, he said. When the band Oasis was in town, Noel Gallagher came in and asked to see a rare Gibson acoustic stored away in the back of the shop. Mr. Courtenay was in a grumpy mood that day, so he told Mr. Gallagher to go fetch him a cup of coffee while he retrieved it.

During Patti Smith’s brief residence in the hotel in the mid-1990s, her teenage son, Jackson, used to hang out in the shop playing Green Day riffs. And there was the time Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top dropped in before heading to El Quijote, where a confrontation ensued when the restaurant asked him to take off his signature tasseled cap.

“They told him, ‘You’ve got to take off the hat,’” Mr. Courtenay recalled. “Billy said, ‘I don’t take this hat off when I’m sleeping.’”

There was also the guitar busker named Vlad, who seemingly knew only a few chords and sang about his woes in a thick Eastern European accent at a nearby subway station, becoming known as the Polish Bluesman of Chelsea. There was also the mysterious woman who lived in the hotel, and who was rumored to come from wealth, whom Mr. Courtenay observed for years as she hailed invisible cabs outside the building. And there was the shop’s resident cat, a Russian blue named Boris.

In addition to rare vintage guitars, Chelsea Guitars sells the small necessities.Credit…Lanna Apisukh for The New York Times

“Boris had one tooth, no nails and one ear shot off,” Mr. Courtenay said. “He’d belonged to a troubled lady who lived upstairs. We kidnapped him to save his life.”

“Boris despised dogs,” he continued. “He’d sit atop a Marshall amp and then leap onto any dog that came into the shop. He’d also take the elevator to visit people in the hotel. He’d go into El Quijote to say hello to customers. When I went to Paris, I discovered a postcard being sold to tourists, and to my shock, it was a picture of Boris at the Chelsea Hotel.”

Rosanne Cash lives nearby with her husband, the musician and producer John Leventhal. In an email, she wrote: “We both appreciate the total anomaly Chelsea Guitars is in the current shiny, hip version of what Chelsea has become. We moved to Chelsea in ’96, and Dan’s blessed little hovel was a beacon and still connects us to the glorious grit.”

Mr. Leventhal said: “Dan runs a freewheeling and almost improvisational kind of space. I often go there just to talk with him about life.”

Mr. Courtenay grew up in Queens Village. His father was a police chief, and his mother worked as a secretary. He briefly lived in the hotel, in a terrace apartment just above his shop about two decades ago. “I used to go downstairs in my pajamas with a cup of coffee and I was still late for work,” he said. “I’ve been late my whole life.” He eventually moved to the nearby Penn South co-op houses, where he has lived ever since.

He has no children and lives alone. He walks four blocks to work, rarely arriving before the princely hour of 2 p.m. And as far as he’s concerned, rock ’n’ roll died in 1971, when Duane Allman perished after a motorcycle crash — which explains why he had no clue who Nirvana were when the band walked into his shop at the height of their fame.

But Mr. Courtenay’s Lebowski-like demeanor belies the determination that has allowed him to keep his shop in the hotel. He has survived two close calls so far.

A smoker rests a hand on the old Marilyn Monroe statue outside his shop.Credit…Lanna Apisukh for The New York Times
A photo in Chelsea Guitars shows the proprietor’s father, Daniel J. Courtenay, who was a police chief with the New York Police Department.Credit…Lanna Apisukh for The New York Times

Originally, Chelsea Guitars occupied a bigger space a few doors down from its current location. After the hotel’s board ousted Stanley Bard in 2007, however, many of the building’s artistic tenants felt that they had lost their protector. Then the families that had long owned the Victorian Gothic palace put it up for sale, resulting in the chaotic succession of ownership turnovers that transformed the hotel into an embattled construction site.

In 2009, Mr. Courtenay learned that his lease wouldn’t be renewed. After the man who ran the building’s ground-floor Balabanis Tailor shop retired, he brokered a deal to move into the newly vacated space. El Quijote waiters helped carry his wares to the tiny new location.

Four years ago, Chelsea Guitars was imperiled again. BD Hotels, the group that oversaw the renovation, reportedly planned to convert his shop into a building entranceway. This time, Mr. Courtenay took his plight to the press, and the resulting coverage in a neighborhood newspaper, Chelsea Now, created a groundswell of community support for his cause.

BD Hotels offered him a five-year lease and didn’t raise his rent. Mr. Courtenay taped the newspaper’s follow-up article to his shop window. “Chelsea Guitars to Remain in Iconic Location” is the headline.

Nevertheless, Mr. Courtenay — who stressed that he maintains amicable relations with his landlord — wonders what the fate of his shop will be in the chic haven that has risen around him, which is set to include a spa, a Japanese restaurant and a cafe.

“I don’t know what will happen when my lease ends,” he said. “I like to think that they see we come with the hotel, but who knows. People have told me, ‘You could leave and start elsewhere.’ But to me, it’s all about the Chelsea Hotel or nothing.If I went elsewhere, I’d just be a guitar store.”

Ira Drukier, the hotelier who owns the Hotel Chelsea with Sean MacPherson and Richard Born, said that Chelsea Guitars is a welcome holdout in his establishment.

Stanley the T. Rex minds the store.Credit…Lanna Apisukh for The New York Times

“The hotel has a long history, and he’s part of it in his own way,” Mr. Drukier said. “It just seems like the right thing to do is let him stay here and do what he’s been doing for so many years.” He added: “His spot is a tiny hole-in-the-wall. It’s not like I can fit some big restaurant in it.”

One recent evening — not long after Michael Chaiken, who was the first curator of the Bob Dylan Archive, stopped by to drop off his Fender Telecaster — Mr. Courtenay needed to use the bathroom. Because his shop doesn’t have one, he stepped outside and went into the Hotel Chelsea.

As he passed the grand double doors that lead to the Lobby Bar, a rowdy din emerged, so he decided to check out the scene. In the lounge, the host looked on as hotel guests had uni toasts and dirty martini oysters while telegenic 30-somethings waited for a seat at the bar.

Mr. Courtenay’s customers have included Jeff Buckley, Rosanne Cash, Noel Gallagher, John Leventhal, Dee Dee Ramone and Patti Smith.Credit…Lanna Apisukh for The New York Times

As people brushed past Mr. Courtenay’s shaggy and lumbering figure, he mused on how the city’s nostalgists liked to dwell on the ghosts of the Chelsea Hotel.

“There are people who still want this place to be closed up and for it to be the 1950s again,” he said. “Do I wish Stanley Bard was here? And that it was still the zany 1950s and that I was talking to Jackson Pollock? Yeah, I do. But I look at it now, and it’s full of life and people again, and that’s a wonderful thing.”

“I already wept for this hotel’s past a long time ago,” he said. “And you can’t bring back the past.”

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