By that night we had rented a place together around the corner from his Original N.Y. Folklore Center in Greenwich Village. I called the shop Fretted Instruments. I remember it was November of 1963 and I was painting my shop when I heard John Kennedy was killed. The Folk Revival took off, my shop took off, and I had to learn about repairs and business. I sort of winged it for a number of years. The shop really got out of hand. The number of people in New York, and how naïve I was had a lot to do with it. I would be working and 500 people would come into the shop and start playing at the same time. I thought that was normal. But it was a great scene. I’m very very thankful to have been in on it. I still know hundreds of people from that time.
In the spring of 1968 I moved all of the good stuff to my partner Izzy’s at the Folk Lore Center. We split the inventory. Then it was over. “The scene” had ended. I thought I was out of the guitar business. I gave my tools to Matt Umanov and I thought I was done with it. I was going to be a famous musician of something like that. Maybe the Beatles were going to call and ask me to join, so I had better be free. My pursuit of these guitar studies was pretty egocentric. It was just so I could have a guitar for myself.
In 1968 I took off traveling around the world. It wasn’t until 1970 before I got back to the states. I had a lot of prestige from my shop so I was able to freelance and just kind of be a hippie. I could go to other shops and do repairs. I don’t think I paid rent anywhere for ten years.
In New York I had refined my taste for guitars, pursuing the Martin guitar that I imagined would be the greatest. I became a dealer by getting more and more instruments for my personal playing and not being able to make up my mind which one was my ultimate. My original idea was to be a musician, but I had too many guitars, I was making money selling them, and I had my little shop so I went in that direction.
I had a notion to look at the whole evolution of the steel string in this country. One day in 1964 I was shocked to find myself playing a Stella, which was a factory guitar, and trying to rationalize that it didn’t really sound better than my Martin that I had paid a lot of money for. But it did, to me. It had more of something, some possibilities, that I was attracted to. I kept up that fight with myself for years, trying to get the best Martin, but also finding rather normal guitars that I thought had properties that suited me better. Eventually I wound up with a ridiculous abundance of weird instruments with weird bracing, trying to decide what made a difference. And that’s what we all do. We try to adjust these things toward a greater goal.
In 1975 I moved to Adeline Street in Berkeley and stayed for four years. Sometimes when you work this side of the counter you think you are doing therapy instead of what you are out to do. The guitar players were not as sophisticated as they are now. You would spend two hours feeling like you were conning someone into doing the proper repair. Then they would complain that they would have done something differently. So I burned out and went traveling with my wife. I was out of the Christian zone, in Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. I like to hear music from other parts of the world. Not that I want to play it, but these people are trying to do the same thing that we are, and it comes out completely different.
Then in 1987 I opened a museum down by the Freight and Salvage in Berkeley, about a half a mile from here. I had retail appointments there but the stuff was not displayed. That was a great system, really. I had all of my stuff there except for the very valuable. I kept buying stuff for resale, and then deciding it was too cool to sell. In 1989 I shut down the Museum next to the Freight and moved back to Adeline St. so I could have a museum with regular hours.
Nowadays I have a museum in Berkeley, although most of the stuff is in storage. It’s a little ironic because I’m against collecting instruments in a certain way, and another way, I see reasons to do it.
Something that is not extremely beneficial to everybody is when great instruments are hoarded and kept away from musicians. At the same time being protective of them in this way does preserve the instruments for another generation. Let me clarify this. We cannot tell what the people of the future will want to express in music. Instruments also change with age, as we all know. It is conceivable that a guitar made today will change in fifty years, and also that it will be used in a different situation. It follows that it may then be seen in a different light. I am now making steel string guitars with straight bracing, that is, with a ladder-braced top. If these turn out as wonderful as I have imagined, and musicians agree that these are fine instruments. Then this style may come back into vogue in the future. At that time it would be beneficial if someone collected these so there would be historic examples available. Actually, even if these instruments were judged to be inferior in the future, at least we would still have a chance to judge the results of this type of design.
There are good and bad aspect to collecting instruments. I used to hate collectors because nobody could get to their instruments, including me. Now I have hundreds of instruments in my collection. Some of them are not the greatest. My philosophy is to use it as an archives for myself and my curiosity. It is also available to anyone else who would like to see it, either as a curiosity, or as a resource where they can put a mirror in an instrument, measure a few thing, and have a hands-on experience with other people’s ideas in more or less a completed form. That has been my goal with the museum, and I think it is a great thing to strive for. I would be really happy if just once in my lifetime I could walk into another collection like mine where I didn’t have the responsibilities, but could just visit.
AS OF YEAR 2000 THE MUSEUM AND COLLECTION ARE IN STORAGE, AND NOT AVAILABLE TO THE PUBLIC.
Marc Silber Day
The City of Berkeley honors Marc Silber