Gowanus Guitar Shop Honors Women Who Built Gibson Guitars During WW2

By Leslie Albrecht on March 1, 2013 8:46am 

GOWANUS — When blues guitarist Mamie Minch needed some repair work done on an instrument a few years ago, her first choice for the job was Retrofret Vintage Guitars.

In addition to doing topnotch restoration work, the Gowanus shop was one of the few whose employees treated Minch with respect, she said.

"It's the plague of being a serious female musician," Minch said. "It's hard to get guys to talk to you like you know what you're doing. That was never a problem [at Retrofret], so it was always my favorite place to come."

Later she got to know Retrofret's employees over the course of several months after she bought an expensive 1937 National Duolian guitar that she paid for in installments.

Eventually Minch grew to like the shop so much that she decided to work there. Now she heads the repair department. In fact, she's one of three female repair techs at Retrofret, a rarity in a male-dominated profession.

On Saturday March 2 Retrofret will pay homage to another set of women guitar pioneers when it hosts a book signing for "Kalamazoo Gals: A Story of Extraordinary Women and Gibson's Banner Guitars of World War II" by John Thomas.

The book tells the story of the female workforce that took over Gibson Guitars during World War II, when women went to work in factories whose male employees were off fighting.

Retrofret is a fitting setting for the history-themed event. The shop, home to roughly 700 stringed instruments, is like a mini museum of rare guitars, banjoes, ukuleles, and mandolins.

Aside from repair work, the shop acquires and restores antique instruments, then sells them. Prices for some hard-to-find pieces can be in the six figures. Minch and her co-workers recently spent eight months restoring a 1916 12-string Stella guitar, like the kind Lead Belly played.

Customers have included Merle Haggard, Jack White, Walter Becker of Steely Dan, and Marc Ribot, the guitarist who plays with whiskey-voiced singer Tom Waits.

Despite the big-name clientele, the shop keeps a low profile. It's tucked inside an unmarked building that was once an ASCPA animal shelter on an out-of-the-way block of Butler Street.

"We're kind of a well kept secret," Minch said.

The story of the Kalamazoo Gals is a bit of a secret too. Though Gibson said publicly that its facility in Kalamazoo, Mich. would cease production until its male employees returned, the company turned privately to female workers during the war, according to "Kalamazoo Gals" author John Thomas. The women ended up producing some 10,000 Gibson flat-top acoustic guitars.

"The guitars they made are the cream of the crop," said Retrofret owner Steve Uhirk. "This workforce probably built the best flat-top guitars of all time. It's a great story, and nobody knows about it."

The book signing for Kalamazoo Gals is from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Saturday March 2 at Retrofret Vintage Guitars, 233 Butler St. Space is tight, so RSVP to mamie@retrofret.com.

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