By Sandor Nagyszalanczy
Anyone who has seen my ukulele collection (450 and counting) might find it hard to believe that when I acquired my first few ukes 30-plus years ago, I honestly didn’t set out to amass a sizable collection. It was the circumstances of my job that really allowed that to happen.
In the mid 1980s, I started working as a magazine editor for a prominent East Coast publishing company. As many of the magazine’s articles were reader written, I traveled all over the country to work with authors and photograph images to illustrate their articles. Whenever I had a little time to myself, I’d drive or walk around whatever town I was in to find the best local eateries and bars, as well as to explore music stores and junk shops. I was always on the lookout for old jazz or blues records and sheet music.
I noticed that many of the shops I wandered into had old ukuleles sitting or shelves or hanging from walls gathering dust. Often labeled as “toy guitars,” they ran the gamut from high-quality instruments (Martin, Gibson, etc.) to cheaply made white-wood and plastic ukes adorned with decorative decals or colorful stencils. One thing they had in common was that they almost always had low price tags: Typically, $25–$75 dollars for the better ukes and as little as $10 or less for cheaply made ukes. Few sellers seemed to think that ukuleles had much value back in the mid-to-late 1980s; I think ukes had yet to recover from the reputation they’d earned as the un-coolest instruments on earth (I’m guessing in no small part because of the silly songs strummed by uke crooner Tiny Tim on TV’s Laugh In back in the late 1960s).
Uncool or not, it didn’t take long for me to realize that collecting ukuleles could provide a whole world of affordable fun (my mother, who ran a successful antiques business in Los Angeles, had taught me that the best time to buy anything is when few wanted it). Sometimes, I’d come back from a business trip with a uke or two packed in my luggage. Other times, I’d buy enough ukuleles that I’d have to pack them up and ship them back home. Searching for interesting ukes became a passion and my regular travel pastime.
On one particular trip to Chicago, I found myself poking around downtown business district. I almost didn’t go into one particular pawn shop, as its window display was disorganized and most items for sale looked like they’d been there for decades. But I did enter, only to be greeted by a smog-like cloud of cigar smoke generated by the shop’s proprietor. To say that this rotund man looked disheveled would be an insult to disheveled people; his clothes were wrinkled and stained and what hair he had left looked like a swirl of brownish cotton candy discarded by a child at a county fair. As I cautiously walked by the counter he sat behind, he didn’t lift his eyes from the newspaper he was reading, but kept puffing his big cigar. His facial expression resembled that of a prison inmate convicted of indecent hygiene.
Scanning the items hanging from the pawn shop walls (which appeared to have been last cleaned sometime prior to the Civil War), I spied an old soprano-sized ukulele that had a top with some nice decorative stenciling done in a tropical motif. It was a “no name” uke made of birch with a painted body and a cool root-beer colored “mother of toilet seat” (MOTS or fake pearl) fingerboard. It had probably been sold as a tourist souvenir back in the 1940s or 50s.
I politely asked the pawn man if I could see it. Without looking up, his terse response came in a raspy voice seemingly powered by thick cigar smoke: “What?” I repeated my request. He then looked at me for the first time and asked “whadaya wanna see??” When I pointed to the ukulele hanging high on the wall covered with other dust-encrusted instruments, his reaction clearly expressed that he was not pleased. Grumbling as he reluctantly rose from his chair, he disappeared into a back room and emerged with an old wooden ladder. After setting it up, he climbed several rungs with all the grace of a boulder rolling uphill. “Which one?” he asked, and I pointed to the little brown uke. He didn’t unhook it as much as wrenched it from the wall. After stepping off the ladder, he took a good look at the instrument. “This is what you wanted to see?” “Yes,” I replied. He clutched the uke as if it were a dead animal found by the roadside, probably wondering why anyone would want to buy such an instrument.
At this point, I really didn’t know what to expect. He was acting as if my interest in that uke was totally unreasonable. I also noticed that his hand was shaking a little.
Then, suddenly and without explanation, he thrust the uke towards me as if he’d realized that the dead critter he held carried the plague. “Take it” he blurted between lips that still clenched his cigar. Before I had a chance to ask how much he wanted for it, he reiterated, nearly yelling this time: “Take it and get outta here.” I considered asking if he was kidding, but as I could plainly see the veins in his neck throbbing (not to mention the small revolver he had in his belt), I decided not to look a proverbial gift horse in the mouth. I grabbed the uke and shot him a simple “thank you” as I scooted out the door and down the street.
I’ll never know why my interest in that ukulele had treaded so heavily on his last nerve, but I’ll certainly never forget that pawn broker or the uke he unexpectedly gifted me. All these years later and that uke still reeks of cigar smoke.
Sandor Nagyszalanczy is a regular contributor to Ukulele Magazine and a woodworking expert, an avid ukulele collector, and a uke club member living in Santa Cruz, California.