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Archive for Sunday, January 27, 2008

Repair shops offer niche service in a disposable society

Bruce Barlow, of BKB Leather, repairs a boot Wednesday in his shop, 811 Elm St. Barlow has worked with leather for 22 years. He now repairs boots, purses, belts and most any personal items made of leather.

Bruce Barlow, of BKB Leather, repairs a boot Wednesday in his shop, 811 Elm St. Barlow has worked with leather for 22 years. He now repairs boots, purses, belts and most any personal items made of leather.

January 27, 2008

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On the street

What are some things you would take to a repair shop instead of replacing them?

I’ve taken my lawn mower in, and I’ve had a repairman come out to look at my washer and dryer and my stove before. With most electronics, though, I would probably buy a new one if I couldn’t fix it myself.

More responses

Bruce Barlow is one of a kind.

Truly.

BKB Leather, his North Lawrence shoe repair shop, used to have a handful of locally owned competitors around town. But now he's the sole shoe repairman in the phone book.

"I'm the only one in Lawrence who does this," he says. "When there were a bunch of us, there used to be seven of us. Each of us have our own personality and had our own loyal following."

Not now.

These days, it seems rather than "fix it and forget it," it's more "break it and pitch it." Locally owned repair shops often find themselves going against the grain in a society in which disposable is the norm.

Barlow guesses there are 6,500 to 7,000 cobblers in the United States, down from 70,000 a few decades ago.

"Some of us thrive," he says, "and some of us barely make it."

It's easy to see why. Cheap prices and zero wait time make it simple to go the route of replace rather than repair.

Microwave blitz out? Buy a new one for less than $100.

Heel break off your pumps? Time for a new pair.

Watch stop ticking? Slap one fresh out of the box and onto your wrist.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. residents and businesses threw away more than 251 million tons of municipal solid waste - trash - in 2006. That's about 4.6 pounds per person per day.

That 4.6 pounds per day adds up quickly when you consider the number of wrappers, boxes and bags each of us goes through daily just eating, let alone cleaning out our closets or getting fed up with an ineffective dishwasher.

Though, according to the EPA, Americans are recycling nearly 34 percent of our municipal solid waste, people just have to look back a few generations to realize there's huge room for improvement.

Indeed, in 1960 Americans threw away 88 million tons of trash, according to EPA figures - 2.7 pounds per person, nearly 2 pounds less per day than 2006, even though Americans then formally recycled just 6.4 percent of their waste.

"We are a throwaway society, and I think it's important that we teach our kids how to reduce, reuse and recycle," says Carrie Mandigo, Lawrence, one of Bruce Barlow's repeat customers and a recycling enthusiast. "I mean, it's kind of ridiculous how disposable our society is."

Service with a smile

Brad Parsons is co-owner of Marks Jewelers, 817 Mass. The jewelry store has been in business since 1880 and offers repairs among its services. Parsons says that although it's not a huge part of the business' annual take, the repair side is one of the most important.

He says repair jobs aren't a real moneymaker, "but it's a part of the business that creates relationships."

Marks employs five full-time technicians in its upstairs repair shop, where they work on everything from dainty rings to 8-foot-tall grandfather clocks. At 10 a.m. on a recent weekday, every corner of the shop had someone hard at work resetting stones, bringing life to dormant clocks and saving heirloom jewelry.

"We work on things that are monetarily nonjustifiable - the repair is worth more than the piece - but if it's sentimentally valuable, I mean if it's great-grandfather's wedding ring ... sentiment can be a justification," Parsons says.

But sometimes, Parsons says, it's the everyday things that mean the most.

"Somebody can't get new (eyeglass) frames for two weeks, well, that's an unacceptable answer, so we are happy to drop what we're doing, and that's the beauty of in-house repair," he says.

On time and experienced

Mack Price, president and owner of Price's Appliance Repair, has been working on appliances since 1972 and guesses he works on 80 to 100 appliances per week. That's a lot of microwaves, dishwashers and dryers.

But he says it's not his experience that counts most - it's his timing.

"I have a very good, loyal base of customers, but that sometimes is all relative on how fast you can get there, too," Price says, adding he is able to give his customers a much narrower time slot than the bigger guys. Meaning you won't be told someone from Price will be there Thursday; you'll be given a two-hour window on Thursday. This keeps you from waiting all day to hear the company van pull up in the driveway.

And though most folks aren't as inclined to dispose of appliances as other items, Price says his line of work isn't immune to the kick-it-to-the-curb mentality.

"The disposable products are inexpensive as well, and so it has its own turn of events, you know," he says. "They'll go out and buy a cheap dishwasher and it breaks down in three of four years, and instead of paying somebody to repair it, they'll just buy a new, cheap dishwasher."

But, in Price's experience, the Lawrence customer is, for the most part, a different creature.

"The consumer in Lawrence is not only a smart consumer in that they want to protect the environment," he says, "but they also want to support local businesses because they realize they can get better service locally than they can on a national level."

'If it fits, fix 'em'

BKB Leather is like walking back in time - machines from the 1930s jockey for space with boots, cans and dozens of tools lined up on shop-grade lazy Susans on the center island and along the walls. The price list is scribbled on a chalkboard. Guitars and banjos - one painted with Jesus' face - hang about the store. The shop dog, Isadora Duncan, holds court near a 1920s wood-burning stove as lively folk music blares.

Barlow started working with leather 22 years ago after being injured on a construction job. He went to the library looking for a possible profession and came out with a book on leather. Soon after, he began BKB in his laundry room before working up to a full leather shop. And he's not picky about what he'll fix.

"A fine pair of shoes is often $100 or more. Of course you can buy a $15 or $20 pair of shoes, no problem, at Payless, and in fact we do work on $15 and $20 shoes frequently. 'If it fits, fix 'em,' that's our motto," he says. "We can often repair a shoe better than new, frequently for half to a third of the price of a new one. Plus you don't have the break-in time to get it to fit right."

Barlow's business comes from word of mouth. His only formal advertising is just a few lines in the phone book. And though the items he works on can be disposable - goodbye $15 loafers - he says that really it's his customers' loves that keep them coming back.

"I mean, think of it as, 'What are your favorite items in your life?' Your shoes and your purse and your jacket. We work on all those things - put in new zippers and recondition," he says. "I do leather upholstery, all things leather. I also have a saddle business.

"It's pretty thriving, as far as I'm concerned."

- Staff writer Sarah Henning can be reached at 832-7187.

Comments

JackRipper 6 years, 2 months ago

The sad part is people look at it only in the economic sense of efficiency forgetting that by not repairing items we lose skills that require talent and just accept that it makes more sense to buy more junk because it is cheaper and move jobs elsewhere. After machines take over all aspects of manufacturing what exactly will a vast majority of our population be left to do? Will we just be left with more unsatisfying jobs that add nothing of value to people's lives? Do people really think they will be able to live in virtual world? What a pathetic excuse for a life.

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DirtyLinen 6 years, 2 months ago

As pointed out, this is a simple matter of economics. It is often cheaper to replace an item than to fix it. I have a watch that stopped working because one of the little dots came loose from the face and it jams in the hands. I found out a while back (because there's a chip on the crystal) that the cost of taking off the crystal and replacing it on this particular watch is more than it cost. If it was a Rolex it might be worth it. But it's just a nice, dependable (until now), accurate watch I've had for over 30 years, and it just doesn't make sense to repair it.

The fact that it's cheaper to replace than repair is not just because products are being made as cheap throwaways. Because of automated processes and economies of scale, it is simply much cheaper for a factory to manufacture a product than it is to re-build one individually in a repair shop. This applies to virtually everything, even many parts on cars. If you have a torn CV boot, it's cheaper to replace the entire two CV joint and shaft assembly than it is to replace the boot, because of the additional labor involved. It's also cheaper to replace a steering rack than it is to take one out, replace the seals, and reinstall it.

But this is not always a bad thing. In order to get a cheap replacement, you have to return the old "core," a rebuildable part. The axle or rack is then returned to a remanufacturer, who (again through the same cost efficient processes as the original manufacture) turns it into an affordable replacement for the next guy that has a torn boot or blown seal.

The bottom line is that unless you're talking about something with great value (or even sentimental value), it's almost always going to be more cost effective to replace rather than repair.

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hottruckinmama 6 years, 2 months ago

With the price of a good pair of shoes or boots anymore it makes sense to fix them if you can. If, God forbid, this recession/depression gets any worse I would imagine places like Bruce's will really florish.

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OldEnuf2BYurDad 6 years, 2 months ago

Part of the problem is that a pretty good pair of shoes costs just a little more than a full sole and heel replacement. When I was paying $90 for Florsheim shoes, it made sense to spend $50 for new soles (when the shoes still looked good). These days, I can get Bostonians on sale for $65, so anything more expensive than heel replacements isn't worth the money.

I put two new soles, a half sole and I don't know how many heels on those Florsheims. If you have really good shoes (or boots, which can be quite expensive) it makes sense to take care of them and fix them.

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Kathy Gragg 6 years, 2 months ago

Hey Bruce good to see you're still alive & kickin.

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farmgal 6 years, 2 months ago

Two years ago, Barlow fixed a pair of old cowboy boots that I'd had since high school. His price was well worth the investment. He did a great job. Thank goodness for people like him--a real asset to the area.

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americorps 6 years, 2 months ago

Here in Peru you can get anything repaired for a reasonable price, so they use appliances until they literally can not be repaired anymore. Our blender (about 20 years old) recently went out so I told my partner I was going to the store to get a new one and he gave me a look like I had gone insane. He said it is still good and take it to the technician. I did and 2 days and 2 dollars later, It came back good as new.

Much better approach than throwing it in a landfill. Too bad that it is not a viable option most of the time in the USA.

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