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