The computer that I spent well over a thousand shekels on three years ago started acting very peculiar recently: it would simply shut down for apparently no reason. I should have known something was wrong by the noises that it was making. Like me from old age, it seemed to be groaning a little bit louder everyday over the past year.
Being very emotionally attached to this computer–my wife claims the mouse is an extension of my arm–I searched for a local computer repair shop in the Berlin area. I didn’t want to go to Best Buy’s Geek Squad since I had a horrible purchase experience in that store recently. And anyway, I prefer patronizing the local small businesses here in Berlin, Connecticut rather than some impersonal, huge, national chain, hiring individuals at $8/hour. So I called a few numbers and either received voicemail or a voice struggling with the English language: neither was encouraging.
Talking to a friend of mine about my computer hiccups, he recommended a computer repair shop conveniently located on the Berlin Turnpike, right next door to Snookies, and gave me its phone number. When I called, I reached a very friendly and intelligent individual named Austin Kowaleski, who owns and manages the business, New Life Computers. Like a concerned parent describing the medical symptoms of a child to a doctor over the phone, I recounted the case history of my desktop, describing how it would simply shut down unexpectedly, how it has been groaning a little bit louder over the past year, and how sometimes it would not boot up.
Interestingly, like an old time, cagey family physician who could identify an ailment at a glance, he asked me if I had any cats! At that moment, I knew that I had placed the right call. Yes, I told him: I had six of those furry rascals. It suddenly occurred to me that computers do not like cats: their fur hairs plug the vent openings, creating intense heat inside the computer and causing it to shut down or even worse, burn out. This is a good computer doctor, I thought.
So I brought my computer down for an examination. Entering the shop, I felt immediately a wave of nostalgia. It is a small shop, full of life, several technicians to my left working on a bench underneath a row of video monitors, shelves of computer parts stacked up high to my right, a couple of customers immediately in front of me conferring with the techs, and at the end of the store, Austin delivering his diagnosis and prognosis in a reassuring tone to a patron. I was relieved that I was not the only soul in that emergency room with my family computer.
Shortly a tech waited on me, explaining what he was doing, and allowing me to watch the diagnostic procedures. I waited with baited breath; the suspense was building; I prayed that the techs could save the life of my computer. Burn tests were run; core temperatures were taken; my Dell was opened up; a thorough vacuuming followed, removing dust and cat hairs that had accumulated over three years; fans were removed and cleaned; then Austin, sensing the puzzlement of the technician, interceded, placed a thermometer in different areas of the computer and quickly found the overheated component: a broken video card. Austin saved my computer from the afterlife.
Unfortunately, small businesses like New Life Computers, are disappearing from the American landscape. Big impersonal chain stores have driven many out of business. I love the small businesses, like New Life Computers. One gets the opportunity to talk to the owner of the shop and get to know him. More importantly, he or she gets to know you, what you like, and what you need. That’s what makes them so much more personal, and business is always personal: every successful businessperson knows that business is 90% people.
I never talked to Bernie Markus nor Arthur Blank, owners of Home Depot. Nor to Sam Walton or Brad Smith of Intuit. But I talked to Austin Kowaleski and he knows me. And if I have a problem, I can call him and speak to him directly. To me that’s very reassuring in this era that when I call customer service at the Hartford Courant or Comcast, I am speaking to someone in the Philippines, or when I call AT&T, I am transferred somewhere to India. I often have difficulty understanding what these individuals are saying on the phone. And they ask me all those same questions over and over again, attempting to identify me because they do not have a clue as to who I am. But small shop owners know me, and I have no difficulty communicating with them. I like that.
I guess my experience at New Life Computers was nostalgic. I remember the 1950s in downtown New Britain, when small businesses flourished, and citizens operated small shops like Austin. It was before the era of big chain stores, where faces are unfamiliar, and you sometimes feel lost in endless aisles of inventories. My uncle had opened the first television store in New Britain after World War II and operated it for several decades before being driven out of business by the chain stores. His store, too, was small like Austin’s, bustling with activity, with all work being undertaken in full view of the customers and not in some back room or, more likely, removed from the counter only to be shipped somewhere out of the country for repair. Customers addressed him by his first name: they knew him. They had purchased their first Philco or Emerson television from him, and then were now considering a newer TV or a rotor antenna or a UHF converter. Zenith and Motorola TVs, tube testers, video tubes, transistor radios, and other television parts cluttered the store. If they had a problem, all they had to do was call him. No endless questions or expensive warranty service plans were required. He serviced his customers without question.
Unfortunately, many today never knew that America. Yet it still exists in some small businesses, like that of New Life Computers. Nostalgically, I felt at home again at New Life Computers. There was the personal service of yesteryears, and all at a very inexpensive price. And I know that if I ever have a problem with that computer, all I need to do is pick up the phone and I can speak to Austin Kowalewski, the owner of the shop, about my issue. And that, to me, is very reassuring. I like that.