Gus Rubino says he could easily have let time pass him by. It did for many of his colleagues in the TV and stereo repair business.
In the '80s and '90s, every town or neighborhood seemed to have one or two men, who eked out a living fixing TV sets, amplifiers, turntables and speakers.
Some retired. Some could not keep pace with changing technology. Some resigned themselves to a disposable culture in which, as Rubino put it, "people don't even understand the word 'fix.' They think if something isn't working, you throw it away."
"I'm kind of a dinosaur," said Rubino, 75, who works from a cluttered but quaint little shop in Malvern, Pa.
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Last of his kind
A dinosaur, maybe. But not the only one. Even in a world of smartphones and iPads, of Netflix and Hulu, a diminished few diehards plug along in the audio-video repair business.
One of the last of his kind in the area, Rubino stays in a declining business for several reasons, he said. He enjoys chatting with customers, and "it supplements my Social Security." Not the least, he said, it feeds his competitive appetite and keeps him sharp.
"I'm working for the love of the challenge," he said at his shop, Gus Rubino's Audio Video Service. "It's me against the (TV) set, and I enjoy that every day."
A graduate of St. Katharine of Siena School in Wayne, Pa., Rubino learned his craft at the old Radio Electronics Institute in Philadelphia and by working at another man's shop in Paoli, Pa. When he joined the Army Reserve in 1960, he was assigned as a radio repairman.
He has owned his shop -- a stand-alone, yellow-stucco building with a duck and a welcome sign on the door -- since 1975.
Years ago, he said, repairmen used to get together once a month to compare trade secrets. Consumer-electronics manufacturers would offer yearly refresher courses in Philadelphia.
But as their numbers have dwindled, repairmen find themselves pretty much on their own.
Among them is Harry Oswald of Harry's Electronics in Deptford, N.J.
"There's really not many of us left over here anymore," he said of South Jersey. "The last few years, I can think of five places in my area that shut down. There may soon be nobody at all."
Speaking of his shop, he said: "Years ago, this place was loaded with VCRs. We would repair them at $50 or $100 apiece, and we did three, four, five of them a day. That, of course, has completely dried up."
Old TVs just keep going, flat screens not so much
But Oswald agreed with something Rubino said: Not all change is bad for business, especially when it comes to TVs. The old cathode-ray tube sets lasted and lasted. His new customers, he said, are shocked and disappointed to find their latest plasma or LCD models often fail.
If it's a circuit board, he can replace it, he said. If it's the panel itself, even he may tell the customer to get rid of it.
Oswald, 57, said most older dealers find their children aren't interested in taking over the family business.
And why should they? he asked. He has two children: His son is a Lockheed Martin engineer; his daughter is a registered nurse.
At Mort's TV & Video Inc. in Levittown, Pa., brothers Mike and Neil Leipziger took over for their father when he died in 2004.
Both had more or less grown up in the business. Mike Leipziger, 53, said he was old enough to remember the eight-track tape cartridges from the late 1960s and '70s.
"We have adjusted with the times, and I have refused to lay down and die, like everybody else did," he said.
One good thing: "We have no competitors."
Trying to be as up to date as possible, he said, he recently hired a web page designer to put together an internet presence for the store.
But he had trouble communicating over the phone with the designer.
"He was, like, 27 or 30, and he'd never heard of a TV repair shop. He didn't know what a cassette deck was."
He has only one phone line, and no computer. Wilma, his wife of 48 years, "does everything with a lead pencil," he said.
A sign in front lists his business interests -- TV, stereo, VCR.
"Antiquated words," he said.
Best customers are audiophiles
Some of his best customers, he said, are audiophiles who believe analog sound, especially on a vinyl record, is richer than anything on digital media. They bring in their old Kenwood and Pioneer speakers, their Onkyo and Sansui amps to be fixed.
And they are not all baby boomers trying to replay their old Led Zeppelin albums, he said. Some are younger people who have heard the old records for the first time.
"They're hearing sounds they didn't know existed on their parents' turntable," Rubino said.
As he spoke, a customer presented him with a CD player to take in for a repair estimate.
He won't give an estimate on a cheap device, he said, but this was good quality -- a Denon.
"This is the only thing I've ever brought in here before," said the customer, Ruth Grady. "I've always thrown my TVs out. Nobody does this anymore."
Rubino made clear that he was not against change. He might not have a computer in the office, but he does his books on one at home.
"We went through an industrial age, and now we're going through the electronic age," he said. "Technology moves on.
"I'm not saying this is a bad time. It's not that my generation was any better. It's just a different time."