Beyond Repair? 

click to enlarge Simon Allalunis at the Iron City Clock Hospital - HEATHER MULL
  • Heather Mull
  • Simon Allalunis at the Iron City Clock Hospital

Angelo Spinelli, 84, sits on a padded metal stool, with his head resting on his hand and one of his legs braced against the floor. An AM radio show, the kind with medical experts as guests, drones in the background. Magazines are heaped nearby -- Popular Mechanics, Newsweek, Consumer Reports -- alongside parts catalogs.

It's a typical weekday morning at Spinelli Discount Hardware on Fifth Avenue in East McKeesport, and it's spent waiting for customers.

Spinelli's been in business since 1949 -- making his "the oldest store around," he says. At one time, there were three people in the store "working constantly." Now it's just him. While he once stayed open until 6:30 p.m., he now closes up shop by 4:30 -- 2 p.m. on Wednesdays. 

Keeping the lights on after that is "not even worthwhile," he says.

Shops like Spinelli's -- independent or family-owned hardware or specialty repair -- are struggling to keep their doors open at all. Many have already succumbed, like T&T Hardware in the South Side, whose Carson Street storefront was shuttered in November after 74 years. 

The most obvious reason is the rise of big-box "category-killer" stores. Within 10 miles of Spinelli's store, for example, are three Home Depots and two Lowe's Home Improvement stores. They are open nearly twice as many hours as Spinelli, have oceanic parking lots, and offer their own credit cards. And they are backed by national chains that spent a combined $1.5 billion in advertising in 2009. 

Spinelli's marketing efforts are more modest. Hand-painted signs promote his main selling point -- decades of experience you'd be hard-pressed to find on a big-box floor. "We sell most items for less than large home centers," one sign reads, "plus free expert job guidance."

He offers that help on almost every transaction -- like explaining to one customer how to install her own sink. "One lady, a contractor quoted her $550," he recalls. "I sold it to her for $42 and showed her how to put it in. ... Where else can you do that?"

Spinelli is at the age where he'd "rather keep busy helping people than sitting around and doing nothing." And he's confident in his skills. But on a bitter December morning, he gets just three customers in three hours. Finally, around 12:30 p.m., a familiar face peers around a shelf of door handles, locks and painter's tape. "How's business?" asks Joe Caruso, taking a seat on a nearby stool. 

"Terrible," Spinelli says.

Caruso, a retired painter, once ran his own paint and decorating shop in Verona. It closed in 2002. Opening it "was a mistake," Caruso says. "Business was so-so. [But] once the big stores came in, it went down."

Now he worries about his own neighborhood hardware store, located elsewhere in the eastern suburbs, meeting the same fate. "They have less and less inventory," Caruso says. "That's the beginning of the end."

click to enlarge Howard Reisner at Alef Chair Restoration - HEATHER MULL

The interior of Iron City Clock Hospital, in Brentwood, is a tribute to stopped time. Mint-green wallpaper peels off the wall. The floor tile is chipped. Brown wooden jewelry cases recall the space's original use as a jewelry store. Cuckoo clocks pile on a nearby counter, which is attached to a workbench containing, among other things, a lathe and mish-mash of mallets, screwdrivers and needle-nose pliers. Across the room on a wall-length shelf, plaques and newspaper articles hang behind dusty anniversary clocks. Among the accolades are commendations from his state representative.

Simon Allalunis has presided behind the counter with his eye-loop magnifying glass for 35 years. He got his start in the business in 1937, working in a Forbes Avenue watch shop between Uptown and Oakland. 

"I learned at the bench. I came in as an apprentice and I'm still learning," says Allalunis, 94.

That's not unusual. For many repair-shop owners, formal training was less useful than learning from friends and relatives, or receiving on-the-job instruction from more skilled tradespeople. And like many of those shop owners, Allalunis has spent years acquiring a unique mix of odd products and mismatched parts -- an inventory you can't find in even the largest big-box store. 

"I've spent good money on this stuff," he says, indicating the sprawling array of watch crystals and batteries, cases of bands, and other hardware of all shapes and sizes.  

On a December afternoon, a steady stream of customers files into his narrow shop; at one point, the line at his counter is three deep. Unlike Spinelli, Allalunis isn't losing business because of competition: "There is no competition," he says. 

But he's losing business anyway -- because most watches are no longer repairable.

Timepiece trends have evolved from wind-up pocket watches in the early 1900s, to battery-operated wristwatches in the '50s and digital watches in the '70s.

Today, Allalunis notes, "everything is plastic," and little can be done to replace watch parts that long ago ceased to be made of metal. His work now is often attaching plastic watchbands to faces purchased at stores like Walmart. Often the task isn't even that complicated: "Changing batteries," he laments. "That is what we do now."

And that's what brings in Rich and Anna Majewski, of Brentwood, on a recent afternoon. Or at least they thought.

"My daughter was in high school when she bought this for me after her summer job, so this has some value," Rich Majewski says of his stopped wristwatch. That was more than 15 years ago, and they've been coming to Allalunis for even longer; Allalunis repaired a clock Majewski brought home from Germany "years and years and years ago." "He has never ripped us off, and he always does good work."

But there's less and less work to do. Allalunis marks his daily customer tally on a nearby calendar; one day he served 10, another 38. On this day, Allalunis determines it's not the battery that's causing Majewski's problem. After separating the watch face from the body with a tiny mallet and screwdriver, he looks inside and tests the battery. Finding it still charged, he sighs and shakes his head: "It's all plastic -- you can't repair these." 

Still, he sprays some cleaning solvent on the working parts, and it seems to work -- at least for now. Majewski's watch will break the next day.

Some argue that not being able to repair an item cheapens not just the object itself, but our entire relationship to it. 

If a $10 watch can't be fixed, "it makes it kind of a rip-off," says Ellen Ruppel Shell, author of the book Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture. What's more, if our possessions can't be fixed, that means "the objects are with us only as long as they perform on their terms." And that, Shell adds, means "We don't really have stewardship of the things we own. We're almost owned by them."

Repair people, obviously, suffer the most. In less than 20 years, Shell's book notes, "the number of electronics-repair shops plummeted from twenty thousand to five thousand" nationwide. "Repair people of all stripes have fallen into obscurity." Perhaps the ultimate insult: "Sesame Street closed its 'fix-it shop' in 1996, stating as its reason that young viewers were unlikely to encounter one." 

On top of those problems, Allalunis' trade faces unique challenges: Many younger people don't even use watches, having replaced them with cell phones and other electronic devices that include clocks.

"Young kids don't even know what time is," Allalunis says. "They don't even talk. They use -- what's it called? Text-its?

"I'm not sorry I went into this," he adds. "I did a lot of service to the community, and people appreciate it."

But he acknowledges he has no pension and no retirement money set aside. "Nobody pays you to go into business for yourself." Then again, while he doesn't foresee anyone carrying on his trade, he wouldn't know what to do with himself if he wasn't plying it.

"I should have retired long ago," he says, "but it's not that simple to walk away." 

click to enlarge Cindy and Cory Sykes of Pittsburgh Upholstery and Classic Computer - HEATHER MULL
  • Heather Mull
  • Cindy and Cory Sykes of Pittsburgh Upholstery and Classic Computer

The rise of cheap goods means that owning a repairable item may be a kind of luxury in itself. Luxury items are among the things keeping Squirrel Hill shoesmith Mario Gigliotti Sr. in business. 

A shopper who drops, say, $695 for a pair of Jimmy Choo heels is more likely to protect the investment by coming to a repair shop for waterproofing, or a new sole. But the same seems to hold true for a $60 or $70 pair purchased at a department or local store for everyday wear. 

Gigliotti says most of his customers "buy better shoes rather than junk. You can get them repaired, and in the long term, it pays off."

Still, Gigliotti, 64, has noticed the broader changes. While his store -- which he now runs with his son, Mario Jr. -- has been a Murray Avenue fixture for 37 years, he can remember better days. "It used to be every other door was a shoe-repair shop," he says. "We had our own union, with a picnic every year. But little by little, the old guys died off." 

Buying habits were changing as well. "People only had two or three pairs of shoes and got them repaired regularly," Gigliotti says. "Everything was leather. A lot have plastic parts now."

As Murray Avenue goes, so goes the nation. According the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment in the "shoe and leather workers and repairs" category is expected to decline by 14 percent through 2018. As reasons, the agency's occupational outlook for 2010-11 cites "growing imports of less-expensive shoes and leather goods and of increasing productivity of U.S. manufacturers. Also, buying new shoes often is cheaper than repairing worn or damaged ones."

None of that comes as any surprise to Scott Paul, who heads the Alliance for American Manufacturing. The Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group of U.S. manufacturers and United Steelworkers takes a skeptical look at U.S. trade policy, and the off-shoring of manufacturing to countries like China. 

Offshoring has been a "mixed blessing" for consumers, says Paul. On the one hand, "there's a lot of cheap stuff to buy. But I think there are real questions about quality and safety." The resulting economic changes are often "horrible" for U.S. workers and communities.

And the products are so cheap, he says, that buying new can end up costing less than repairing what you have. "You could buy a pair of shoes made in China for $10 and they fall apart in three months. You could buy an American-made pair for $50 that lasts two years -- but you could buy that Chinese pair of shoes four times and still be under the cost of one pair." 

At the same time, the BLS predicts job growth for those who refurbish higher-end goods. The agency estimates, for example, that employment of furniture upholsterers is expected to grow 7 percent by 2018 as "consumers seek to restore antique furniture and items with sentimental or intrinsic value."

That's the business model at Alef Chair Restoration on Murray Avenue, in Squirrel Hill. Howard Reisner --"the chair man," as he bills himself -- believes he's one of the last of his kind to reupholster chairs. "I keep this place open because so many people say, 'If you close, there is no one left.'"

Reisner is self-taught, having picked up woodworking in his Morristown, N.J., high school in the 1950s. Customers have found him, thanks to Google, from as far away as England and Germany. And his projects are just as wide-ranging: He's restored family heirlooms, chairs damaged in Hurricane Katrina and a 1,500-year-old chair from Lebanon. 

A lot of furniture sold today is "garbage furniture" not worth saving, Reisner says, noting that much furniture production has been transferred from skilled craftsmen to mass-production factories. Still, he says, there's no shortage of high-quality products out there, like the set of chairs you got "when you got married ... and one breaks and you want to give it to your kids."

Handing down the job of repairing that chair, however, isn't so simple. 

Reisner is 70, and diabetes makes it difficult for him to work much into the afternoon. But it's been hard to find someone qualified to help with his business, he says -- let alone take it over. "I've had 10 people in here in 16 years and no one has lasted," he says. "You have to be more the artist -- you can love to do woodworking -- to do it every day and not get fed up." 

Paul, at the manufacturing alliance, says one reason for the decline in available workers is that public schools have scaled back vocational training. Now, there are fewer students with the kind of trade experience that would prepare them to do repair work. Even Allalunis at the watch shop recalls a school in the South Side that once taught trades, including his. Of the 2,000 watch repairmen enrolled, Allalunis says, "very few stayed with it."

Take 64-year-old Naum Krinberg, of Squirrel Hill Hardware and Locksmith. While he can boast of his skill cutting keys -- "People go get their keys cut at Lowe's, then bring them to me to fix them," he says -- it's hard to find people who value the skill enough to learn it themselves. Even his own kids, he says, "stay away from the business. They don't have interest." 


Ironically, what might save the repair-shop business is economic hard times for everyone else.

When the economy tanked in 2008, says Duquesne University marketing professor Audrey Guskey, it "made people think that 'maybe I don't need this new thing.'" And for much of the past two years since, she says, "People weren't spending. They were making do with everything."

Gigliotti, at the Squirrel Hill shoe-repair shop, even noticed an increase in business as customers try to increase the shelf-life of their purchases, such as with waterproofing.

"We're getting more shoes than normal," he says, pointing out that "for $30 people can get new soles and heels, and it's like a new pair of shoes." 

Still, repair people face an uphill battle. In fact, some observers say, the decline in repair work may have been the canary in the coal mine of the broader economic collapse. 

While the U.S. manufacturing base began to relocate to China in the 1990s, says Ron Hira, an associate professor of public policy at Rochester Institute of Technology, "the real boom came when China joined the [World Trade Organization] in 2001."

And while that's reduced production costs, much of the economic benefits "are capitalized by the stockholders and executives" who see their earnings increase. In the meantime, domestic jobs were being lost -- as many as 2.4 million lost to U.S. trade with China between 2001 and 2008 alone, according to a briefing by the left-of-center Economic Policy Institute.

And as goods are produced cheaper and farther away, Hira says, "Repair is part of the ecosystem that gets lost." 

But there are small signs, at least, that the pattern may be changing, and that a new generation may be willing to pick up the torch and go into repair for themselves. At Bridge's Sweeper Service in McCandless, for example, new owner Debbie Wiseman, 54, is trying to carry on her mentor's legacy. 

Before retiring for health reasons, Dan Bridge had been in the business of vacuum repair for 40 years. As a boy he worked on bicycles, later learning how to fix things like hydraulic washers. When a new vacuum model was released, he'd spend hours taking it part and putting it back together so he could repair them.

Wiseman took over the business last fall, after a stint in health care.

She took a part-time apprenticeship under Bridge, who offered her a key lesson: "He said, 'Remember kid, everything can be fixed,'" Wiseman says.

Bridge also made an impact on Wiseman's 18-year-old son. He's preparing to go to college, but plans to return to open up a Bridge's II. "He always says, 'When I grow up, I want to be like Dan.'"

Today, the shop's basement is a graveyard for discontinued models and parts -- but it serves as a haven for someone needing a replacement part for a beloved cleaning device. And business is good, Wiseman says; people seem to have "an attachment" to their sweepers.

On one December afternoon just before Christmas, in fact, a technician was fixing an electrical problem on a faded mint-green Hoover Concept sweeper. Wiseman estimated the model was 30 years old. 

But even Bridge's and its four part-time technicians must contend with the changes that have come to the industry. Sweepers that once had cloth bags now have disposable bags or are bag-less, and sturdier, metal parts have been replaced with the oft-scorned plastic.

"If you buy a sweeper for $39, you can expect to get $39 worth of use," Wiseman scoffs.

Just next door to Bridge's, meanwhile, is Classic Computer and Pittsburgh Upholstery, where husband-and-wife team Cory and Cindy Sykes operate adjoining computer-repair and upholstery businesses. Each helps out the other: Cory delivers furniture for Cindy when she's busy; and Cindy answers the phone for Cory when he's tied up working on a laptop.

Surrounded by at least two dozen laptop and desktop units, Cory Sykes acknowledges that he competes with big-box retailers, too. But he says a family-owned local business has some advantages -- especially for customers frustrated with customer-service in the global economy. 

"People like dealing with the local people better when you have questions," he says. "You know you're getting the same person when you call back."

The Sykes family has been in its Perrysville location for five years -- and it hopes to be in business for many more. Both Cory and Cindy are in their 40s, and have been joined by their 22-year-old daughter Ashley, who has foregone formal training to get on-the-job skills at her family's business. 

"This is an alternative to college," says Cory, who boasts that Ashley "knows more about computers than anyone in the industry."

Is it possible that the Sykes family, and a generation of people like it, could help rebuild an economy more like the one Ashley's grandparents knew? One that was less content with -- and less able to afford -- tossing away consumer goods at the first sign of trouble?

Perhaps. As Wiseman at the sweeper-repair store says, "We're going from a disposable nation to a practical nation -- as our parents were."



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