Repair Shops Dwindle In Face Of Throw-Away Culture, Cheap Electronics
By JESSE LEAVENWORTH | Courant Staff Writer
July 19, 2008
Herbert Rubenstein clicks on a 1970s audio receiver in his Hartford store and rolls the tuning dial marker down the long, rectangular dial.
Locking on a pop station, Rubenstein remarks on the clear reception. Some customers, he explains, don't consider digital tuners an improvement.
"They want to see a dial," Rubenstein says. "They want to see the numbers."
So there's still a market for this chunky Fisher receiver and other vintage systems repaired and sold at Herbert Electronics/Star TV and Computers in Hartford's Parkville neighborhood. Business, however, has been slow, and after 61 years repairing and selling electronics, Rubenstein says he's ready to downsize.
The cost of rent and heat at 1477 Park St. is too high, the World War II veteran says, and today's throwaway culture is cutting the fix-it guy out of the picture. So come the cooler weather this year, Rubenstein expects to be in a smaller space in West Hartford.
The slowdown at the Parkville store is not just a problem for an old guy fixing old equipment. Rubenstein also repairs and sells modern electronics, and his partner, Amber Parvez, specializes in computer repairs and sales.
But because of the tendency to replace equipment instead of repairing it, the number of electronic service outfits nationwide has declined by about 10 percent each year for the past 15 years, according to Wayne Markman of the National Electronics Service Dealers Association.
The narrowing gap between the cost of repairs and new equipment particularly affects products in the middle range of price and quality, says Markman, an electronics service technician. For example, a family has a compact stereo system bought new for $250. The system breaks down and the repair estimate is $180. Most people then decide repairs don't make sense, Markman says, so they toss the "old" equipment and buy new.
"The biggest competition we have is replacement — not other service providers," he says.
That's not as true for high-end products such as plasma TVs, Markman says, because the difference between repair and replacement costs is still wide enough to make repairs worthwhile. In fact, much of the work he does for Elwin Electronics of Hamden is on those more expensive products.
Markman says Rubenstein is one of the "very few" people left in the country who still work on equipment from the 1970s and before. Many of Rubenstein's contemporaries have either died or closed their shops.
Ben Cohen, 87, ran a similar store for many years on New Britain Avenue in West Hartford. Cohen says he closed Supreme Radio & Television several months ago, primarily because he could not physically lift the larger TVs. Also, Cohen says, his wife and longtime bookkeeper, Rebecca, died last year. From his start in the business in 1947, Cohen says, his greatest satisfaction always came from the challenge of fixing a broken TV or radio.
Rubenstein has been hooked on electronics since he was a kid growing up in New Britain. He remembers being sick in bed at age 10 and rigging up a bedside buzzer to alert his mother when he needed her.
Rubenstein served in the U.S. Army near the end of World War II and quickly found a job repairing radios and other communications equipment for an infantry outfit's headquarters company. After the war, he worked for a while out of a Hudson convertible, installing intercoms at a country club in Farmington and a medical clinic in New Britain, among other jobs.
The married father of one daughter then ran a repair shop and retail store at several locations — West Hartford Center, Capitol Avenue in Hartford, New Park Avenue in West Hartford and, for the last 3 1/2 years, on Park Street in Hartford.
The Parkville shop is stuffed with TVs, cassette recorders, reel-to-reel players, video cameras, computer monitors and speakers. Along the packed shelves are chunky stereos and clock radios, turntables, transformers and antique parts tucked here and there. Handmade and computer-printed signs are posted all around the reception area. One says, "The bitterness of poor quality remains long after."
Rubenstein says he gets many of the items from estate sales and flea markets. He looks for vintage equipment, such as Acoustic Research speakers, which are known for lasting quality. He then makes any necessary repairs and ties on a price tag.
His greatest satisfaction, Rubenstein says, is making a fix that makes a customer happy. Every once in a while, he says, someone carting a busted, decades-old receiver or turntable will come into the shop and proclaim, "Thank God there's someone like you still around."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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