Almanac

News - January 13, 2010

In the age of Costco, handling each appliance with care

by Sean Howell

Browsing the shelves and cubbies in the back room of Menlo Vacuum and Fix-it might be something like listening to a Philip Glass composition. It's clear that there is a guiding principle to the arrangement on the shelves of the motors, belts, electrical plugs, lamp pieces, and hundreds of other doodads that most non-mechanics would be hard-pressed to identify. But it's equally clear that attempting to understand how exactly the system came about, or what its basic tenets are, would be beyond even the most seasoned handyman.

Not even store manager George Lynch can explain it, and he's worked there since 1986.

"Somebody just walking in here wouldn't know what was going on," Mr. Lynch said, giving a tour of the cramped workshop in which he and Ron Ballweber, the shop's only other employee, go about their mysterious alchemy. "Some places have a number system, but we don't do that ... I mostly go by sight."

It has taken Mr. Ballweber 10 years to learn the system, and he still has to ask Mr. Lynch questions about where things are located from time to time, he said, laughing.

While the wall of the workshop lined with parts may resemble that of some mad garage-bound inventor, adjacent shelves, lined with toasters, lamps, coffee makers, food processors, heaters, and other electronic appliances, reveal the parts' more humble destinations. Mr. Ballweber and Mr. Lynch come across as the practitioners of a lost art, two men with a hard-wired connection to objects at a time when the universe is being translated into an ever-more-detailed digital replica. The fix-it shop has been reduced to a curiosity, a fact that probably doesn't reflect well on our use-it-and-junk-it culture.

Then again, the shop on El Camino Real is still there, nestled between a barber shop and a shoe repair shop. Vacuums awaiting repair spill out of the workshop and down the hallway, a tangible indicator of the business' current revenue stream. (Mr. Lynch says you could see the effects of the recession immediately upon walking in the door a year ago, with about a third as many vacuums as usual lining the walls.)

And while their customers may not be able to pick out the part their appliance needs from the workshop shelf, they value their products enough to take them in to be fixed, rather than toss them in a dumpster and drive to their nearest Costco.

"It's amazing how much attachment people have" to their products, Mr. Lynch said. "People can be very emotional about their appliances."

While he has a pretty good feel for how your standard toaster or vacuum cleaner functions, "every appliance has its own idiosyncrasies," he said.

He acknowledges that the whole "big box" mentality has probably been partly responsible for the decline of the fix-it shop, but points to a more practical concern as well: the increased importation of products from China. While American laws require manufacturers to keep parts on hand for several years after an appliance's production, those laws don't apply to imports, he says. That means he simply doesn't have and can't get the parts required to fix imported appliances, unless he's able to scrap other defunct items for parts.

While Mr. Lynch says it's true that they just don't make certain appliances like they used to — "nobody really makes a good toaster any more, for any amount of money" — he's not nostalgic for the vacuum cleaners of the 1960s and 1970s. A change in awareness in the late 1980s around asthma and allergies led to more efficient machines and better filtration systems, he asserts, though he still prefers the old vacuums to the recent development of bag-less cleaners. Mr. Lynch compares that trend to the move from vinyl records to CDs in the 1980s.

"The concept is, 'it's bag-less, it's better,'" he said. "What they don't tell you is, you have to buy filters, and they leak all over the place. It's kind of a corporate fraud."

He said he's heartened by the recent vinyl revival — though, true to form, he cautions that the sound quality depends on the quality of the speakers and amplifier. Trading your CD player for a turntable won't necessarily guarantee better sound quality, he said.

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