Issue date: April 28, 1999

Repaired with care: Broken appliances have a new life, thanks to Menlo Park's fix-it shop, the focus of a film and community meeting Repaired with care: Broken appliances have a new life, thanks to Menlo Park's fix-it shop, the focus of a film and community meeting (April 28, 1999)

STORY AND PHOTOS By BUD WENDELL

People who are concerned about the environment consider Menlo Park's old-time Vacuum and Fix-it shop as not just a place to get an old toaster repaired but an important alternative to sending broken home appliances to landfill graveyards.

In fact, next Sunday, May 2, at 7:30 p.m., a short documentary film about the shop and its ecological value will be the centerpiece of a community meeting on recycling and reuse in Menlo Park's City Council Chambers. Environmental activists and city officials are expected to participate. The film was directed by Dorothy Fadiman, a local Emmy award-winning filmmaker.

For others, the fix-it business at 1179 El Camino Real is simply a place to salvage a treasured family lamp that won't light or repair a talking bathroom scale that won't any longer sound off about the owner's weight.

A local doctor, on the other hand, went there to get some very fine electrical wires soldered in his delicate, experimental surgical knife that cauterizes as it cuts.

But whatever the motivation, a steady stream of customers come to this home-appliance hospital to get a check-up, some new parts, and other tender loving care for the mechanical and electrical gadgets that help to keep their home life humming.

In today's, mass-merchandising, "use-it-and-toss-it" society, there are just a few of these old-fashioned shops left in the area.

Worth fixing?

Bill Wagner, the owner, George Lynch, the manager, and Greg Page, a part-time repairman, almost always get the question, "Is it worth fixing?" With few exceptions, they start with the idea that they can fix anything.

Vacuum cleaners that need tune-ups or new parts are the largest part of the firm's business: more than 1,500 vacuum cleaners are serviced a year, say Mr. Wagner and Mr. Lynch. They attribute a lot of this business to a decline in the quality of American-made machines. As a result, they recommend Japanese and German vacuums.

Through long experience, they can give quick answers to many problems after a brief inspection of the device. Other problems require longer examination in the workshop, at the end of which they give customers a free estimate of the repair cost.

"My general rule of thumb is if the repair will cost more than half the price of a new unit, it's probably not worth repairing," says Mr. Lynch. "But this is the customer's decision. They may want to fix it regardless of cost, because they have a personal attachment to the item, they like the way it performs, it isn't made any more, or they have an environmental concern about throwing it away."

People in this area tend to buy better-quality products at the beginning, so it's often worth repairing them, Mr. Wagner explains. Sometimes, though, he and his colleagues recommend that it just isn't worth the cost.

According to Mr. Wagner, who was born in the area and now lives in Woodside, the shop's history dates back at least to the early 1960s. He began working there in the afternoons in 1972, when he was a student at Menlo-Atherton High School.

Customer appreciation

After two years majoring in electronics at the College of San Mateo, he decided in 1972 to return to the fix-it shop. The owners, Mr. and Mrs. Larry Cameron, sold him the business in 1983.

"It's worked out really well," he says. "My greatest satisfaction is the appreciation of the customers. I thrive on appreciation; it's nice to be part of the community. You're helping people who want things fixed. You're helping the environment."

Four years later, in 1986, when he lost his helper, Mr. Wagner brought in his friend George Lynch. They were members of a "Friday-night singing group" called the Accapellicans. Mr. Wagner has a background in theater and singing. Two years ago, he was a member of the vocal group Eight to the Bar, which performed at the San Jose Jazz Festival. He also manages concerts.

Classical guitarist

Mr. Lynch is an accomplished classical guitarist with a degree from the Conservatory of Music in San Francisco, as well as a singer. He performs with a group called Heart and Soul and with a church choir.

Why does a classical guitarist enjoy being a vacuum repairman? "I like the business, the people in the community, the contact with customers, and the relaxed atmosphere here," he says. "I feel like I'm making an impact in the community, that I'm important here. And I can listen to music while I work."

He claims that no two days at the shop are exactly alike and that an office job "where you do the same thing day after day, hour after hour would be boring. This keeps me intellectually alert."

One of the interesting aspects of the business is the warm and caring relationship with customers, many of whom have been bringing in their appliances for years. Several of the customers with whom this reporter talked during several visits to the shop appear to have a warm, personal feeling about the help they receive and the way they're treated.

Marcy Elsbree, a designer in Atherton, is a longtime, satisfied customer who brings in small appliances and lamps to be fixed. She says that the fix-it shop deserves every bit of credit it receives. "I don't know how they keep so many parts on hand in that small store. They're fair, always tell you if they can do something or not, and complete jobs promptly."

Ran over hose

While not every item can be fixed, the friendly, understanding fix-it-shop approach soothes unpleasant experiences. On a typical day last week, Ann Drescher from West Menlo Park brought in a vacuum cleaner hose for repair.

"So you were cleaning your car and your automobile ran over your hose," Mr. Lynch said good naturedly without waiting for an explanation.

"Am I the only one who's left a vacuum cleaner in her driveway," Ms. Dresher asked.

"No, we see it often. I can spot them every time," he said while inspecting the flattened hose. "Unfortunately, it can't be fixed, because there are electrical wires running through it and they'll break if I try to straighten them." A new hose and a smile sent the chagrined but satisfied Ms. Dresher on her way.

Tom Mundis of Portola Valley, who has been going to the shop for years, sums up the real nature of the business and its value: "I go there whenever I have anything that needs to be fixed."

That's the way it happens, hour after hour, day after day at one of the few remaining fix-it shops in the area.




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