Electronic repair industry gets second wind

A growing movement to revitalize analog sound has breathed new life into the flagging electronics repair industry

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Up the stairway entrance to Jerry's Records in Squirrel Hill, past the curved landing stacked with boxes of free records, to the right of a room packed floor-to-ceiling with LPs awaiting purchase, a resurrection is underway.

Whether that is a resurrection of sound, video or a mechanism designed to launch a cuckoo from an antique clock depends on what's come into Galaxie Electronics that week, said owner Vince Bomba. But regardless of the product, a growing movement toward revitalizing and, in some cases, upgrading vintage electronics has breathed new life into an industry that he worried might have been long dead before he opened his doors.

"It was very, very slow the first year and a half. We were worried about how we were going to eat and pay the rent and the bills," said Mr. Bomba, who added that he and his wife, Sue, had to drop their health insurance coverage for several months during the hardest times.

"We're still constantly worried about that. We still don't know what's going to come in those doors from day to day. Right now, it's a little slow, but I have enough work to keep us going."

Requests for working record players, tape decks and even eight-track tape players from the growing number of audiophiles converging upon Jerry's was Mr. Bomba's first sign that the electronics repair industry might not only survive, but thrive in coming years on the backs of consumers seeking the layered depth that came with analog audio recordings of the past.

The long-suffering industry, which saw a 1.5 percent decline in annual growth between 2008 and 2013, is expected to reach a 0.9 percent per year average decrease by 2018, according to an IBIS World's Electronic and Computer Repair Services July report.

And while the report says new and expensive electronics such as flat-screen televisions will help keep the repair industry afloat because they're cheaper to fix than replace, Mr. Bomba says the new spotlight on oldies but goodies is what brings in the bulk of his business.

"I think there is a new interest, and also people are getting tired of those little iPods and iPads. The sound that comes out of those things has just progressively gotten worse and worse," he said.

"Once you hear that old analog sound again, boy, you're in a different dimension more or less. When you're listening to an album, you can feel like you're sitting in that room with that band, you can hear the guy walking to the back of the room carrying his beer bottle or whatever was going on.

"The digital music is right in front of you. It's all flat; it doesn't have that dimension."

Jack Ceney, owner of Millvale-based Ceney Electronics, said his shop is having a similar revival. He said the store had rolled with the tides of the industry during its 55-year existence and suffered the same slowdowns others had during shifts from CDs to MP3s and VHS recorders to DVD players.

In recent years, he said customers from all ends of the age spectrum have been seeking his services to repair new electronics and revive vintage speakers and televisions.

"The economy of replacing electronics before buying new ones has come back and could be even better as people realize some of the older stuff is better," he said.

If you ask Tom Pietropola, who has handled electronics repairs at Laketon TV and Appliance in Penn Hills for the past 35 years, the repair economy never went anywhere.

He said the family business has yet to experience slowdowns related to changes in technology, mostly because it's one of a few retailers that both sells and repairs new electronics. Laketon did stop offering repairs on older televisions that use cathode ray tube displays four years ago, due to difficulties in finding replacement parts.

But Mr. Pietropola said orders pour in steadily for flat-screen repairs because people who buy from big-box retailers can't return to those stores for the fix. Additionally, once people realize they can pay Laketon TV around $250 to repair an $800 television, the idea of replacement loses a lot of appeal.

"Look at the companies that have been here and went out of business -- Sun TV, Appliance TV. None of them did service. We put a lot of those companies out of business," he said with a chuckle.

Howard Neimatz, owner of Howard's VCR Service in Ross, said replacement isn't an option for his clients, mostly older people who see no reason to discard nearly working videocassette recorders in favor of DVD players.

On the other hand, he said repairs can be an uphill battle since manufacturers don't always have replacement parts available. A lot of times, he said, he'll use the remnants of broken VCRs sitting in his shop to replace parts for a unit a client wants repaired. In recent years, he also has made a business of converting footage recorded on VHS tapes to DVDs.

With the number of clients and the number of replacement parts growing smaller by the day, Mr. Neimatz said he relies on income from Social Security rather than his business to survive. Regardless, he said he's not looking to shut down an effort that's become mostly a labor of love.

"Every VCR has a problem and just getting it working, looking up the problem and trying to get a part for it to repair it, I enjoy it," he said. "If I didn't, I wouldn't be doing it for the money. It's not worth it."

Surrounded by a workroom full of both floor models and flat screens, Mr. Bomba couldn't deny the difficulties associated with finding parts for older units. However, he said the chase for elusive nuts and bolts combined with the joy of sparking childhood nostalgia for his clients is all part of the thrill of making what was old new once more.

And while he gets the occasional request to try to attach an iPod dock to a vintage stereo system, he said most clients come hoping to reclaim moments when the word "Jobs" only equaled employment.

"People come in here with old fire trucks, old Teddy Ruxpin dolls that play the tapes. They want to relive their youth, they want them to work again," Mr. Bomba said.

"I actually get a kick out of working on that stuff. Just seeing the smile on their faces when they see it working again is worth its weight in gold."

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Deborah M. Todd: dtodd@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1652.


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