Fred A. Bernstein

A Store that Thinks Different

Tekserve lives the Apple slogan

Published in The New York Times, June 20, 2002

On prominent display at Tekserve, a giant Macintosh repair center in Manhattan, is a battery-operated "farm radio" from the 1920's, its vacuum tubes glistening inside a thick glass case. There are also old television sets in wooden cabinets, manual typewriters and mechanical adding machines. "Computers are only the latest technological wave," explained Dick Demenus, one of Tekserve's founders. "There was radio, TV, the telephone - each of those was at least as important."

Nearby, a series of "Mac classics" from the 1980's are no longer processing data; Mr. Demenus is using them as pedestals for Tekserve's new front desk.

The message may be that if you are frustrated, after waiting hours for someone at Tekserve to minister to your computer, relax. In a few years, it too may be obsolete.

I've spent a lot of time at Tekserve. The modem jack on my iBook has come loose five times in the last two years, for which I blame the design, not the repairers. And I have tried to relax while watching employees play Hacky Sack in the aisles when they could be helping me.

That's O.K. with Mr. Demenus, who prides himself on letting his employees, many of whom are in their early 20's, police themselves. "We thrive on chaos," he said. "Besides, if we're going to have fun, the people around us have to be having fun." His partner, David Lerner, whom he met in 1970 at the counterculture radio station WBAI, commented, "We're not very bottom-line-oriented." Apple has used nonconformity as a sales pitch; Tekserve lives the pitch.

That approach has helped Tekserve expand from 1,000 square feet to 20,000, in a succession of four locations on West 23rd Street in Chelsea, in just over a decade. And not surprisingly for an independent store dealing in such volume with one company's wares, there is, in Mr. Demenus's words, a "tortured love-hate relationship" between the folks in Chelsea and the folks in Cupertino.

"We want to be able to fix every Mac product here," Mr. Lerner said, "but it's up to them. Will they pay you to do a warranty repair, or won't they? And will they make the parts available or not?" Still, he said, "they've been moving in the right direction for several years." Mr. Demenus said, "We're finally on their radar." (Perhaps, though an Apple spokeswoman declined to say anything of substance about Tekserve. Apple is planning to open its own store farther downtown, in SoHo, this summer.)

In any case, there were dozens of Apple employees at a party last month celebrating Tekserve's latest move, to 119 West 23rd Street. The brightly lighted 20,000-square-foot storefront, renovated at a cost of more than $1 million, retains the Woodstock-meets-Silicon-Alley atmosphere that the partners have nurtured in their previous locations.

Surviving the transfer are such classic Tekserve accouterments as the vintage soda machine refurbished by Mr. Lerner to sell Cokes in glass bottles for a dime. According to Mr. Lerner, Tekserve takes a loss of 30 cents or so on every bottle. And that's fine, although in the new store the bright red machine is, he admits, "hidden around a corner." It may be his first concession to the bottom line.

Tekserve grew out of an audio business based in Mr. Demenus's 23rd Street loft, which was itself an outgrowth of the partners' work at WBAI. They used Macs to design sound systems, eventually learning to repair the Macs because, according to Mr. Lerner, "what Apple charged for repairs was too high." Soon they were doing what Mr. Lerner admits were "unauthorized repairs" on other people's Macs; that part of the business officially became Tekserve in 1990.

But the partners had to wait out the dry spell in the early 90's, when it seemed Apple might go under - a period when Mr. Lerner says Mr. Demenus was ready to start repairing PC's. "I said, 'If you fix PC's, I'm out of here,'" Mr. Lerner recalled. "Apple, as a company, drives us crazy, but its products and the people who use them are great." (Tekserve still has an audio division, which designed the listening stations at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. It recently added a video division, run by a new junior partner, Matt Cohen.)

Now, with Macs back in style, Tekserve is booming - the flow of customers has gone from 300 a day at the old location to 400 a day at the new one, Mr. Demenus said. He would not discuss sales figures, but said that about a third of the customers are there for repairs, while the rest are looking to buy something, from a single cable to a dozen or more computers.

Sometimes it seems as though everyone with a Mac in New York has been to Tekserve. Mr. Lerner says that in a single day, the company sold computers to the Communist Party, the Trilateral Commission and the Council on Foreign Relations.

And so, at the opening-night party in the new space, there were hundreds of employees and friends - half of West 23rd Street, it seemed, was there, along with representatives of Apple. But not Apple's co-founder and chief executive, Steven Jobs. "We're probably not his style," Mr. Demenus said.