Toasters to Typewriters: You Break It, They’ll Fix It

Friday August 08, 2003

For many, products like vacuum cleaners, toasters, and shoes are items to eventually be replaced, not repaired. But in Berkeley, several old-fashioned “fix-it” shops are maintaining a customer base of those who want to keep their time-worn appliances and footwear. 

Berkeley boasts more than 10 fix-it shops, which specialize in everything from vacuums and sewing machines to high heels and radios. The number of old-fashioned repair locations is higher in Berkeley than in most other neighboring cities, a fact which many store owners and customers attribute to the city’s reputation for holding on to the past. 

“People around here don’t let anything go,” said Martha Supans, a Berkeley resident for the past 30 years. “So many people have these machines from 1958 or something, so of course there is a business to repair them. It is a very Berkeley attitude toward things.” 

One business that will repair such 1958 models is Berkeley Typewriter, located at 1823 University Ave. The typewriter shop, which now also oversees the adjacent Clark Business Machines, began in Berkeley during the 1930s and has continued to be the primary service location for Berkeley typewriter owners well into the 21st century. 

Berkeley Typewriters staff said that the sales levels have gone down as personal computers become more and more commonplace, but that the number of repair requests has consistently gone up. 

“Old typewriters start to need basic service and cleaning,” said co-owner Joe Lapira. “We’re one of very few places left, so if you want to get a typewriter fixed we’re a place to go. And not everybody likes computers.” 

Lapira, whose shop also repairs fax machines and other office appliances, said that many people have avoided switching to computers altogether because typewriters remain more convenient for printing forms and envelopes. 

“There will always be some need for typewriters,” Lapira said. “Even most offices still have one or two somewhere because it’s a lot faster to type a form that way.” 

Very near the Berkeley Typewriter location is another of Berkeley’s old-fashioned repair shop holdouts, the Berkeley Vacuum Center, at 2108 Berkeley Way. The vacuum repair shop has been in the city since the mid-1950s and says it can fix more than 20 brands of vacuum cleaners. The downtown store, which is still family-run, is popular for its friendly staff and loaner vacuum program, which allows customers to borrow a vacuum while their own is being repaired. 

“I’ve taken my vacuum in there a couple times,” said Oakland resident Cheryl Jensen. “They’re very nice, and I get to take a vacuum home with me while they work on mine, and then mine always comes back in great condition. I much prefer getting service there than sending the product back to the company and not knowing what’s happening with it.” 

Despite the name, Berkeley Vacuum Center sells and services a wide range of products from sewing machines to carpet cleaners and janitorial supplies. The store also rents out professional cleaning equipment, sharpens knives, and makes keys. 

“It’s a very handyman-type place,” Jensen said. “I feel like stores like this are kind of a dying breed, which is sad.” 

For Berkeley residents who cannot stand to replace anything prematurely, Jay’s Shoe Repair at 1869 Solano Ave. can help people avoid throwing favorite shoes away. The shop, which has been in the Bay Area for 20 years, offers a variety of services to keep shoes looking like new. 

“They fix my husband’s shoes when he needs it, and they can really spiff them up,” said Berkeley resident Patricia Larsen. “They do heels, soles, stitching, polishing—the works.” 

Though repairing a pair of shoes is often not vastly less expensive than buying a new pair, Jay’s customers say that getting favorite footwear fixed is the way to go. 

“I don’t want to lose these shoes until I absolutely have to,” said Berkeley resident Dick Goldberg. “If they can fix them, I’ll still wear them. I wear them every day, so to get rid of them would be a major decision that I’m not ready to make yet.” 

At all of the local fix-it shops, customers say they want to preserve their favorite appliances, tools, or footwear as long as possible, a goal that leads to many cross-overs between the different shops. Most customers at Berkeley Typewriter said they have been to Berkeley Vacuum Center, and several said they would seek repairs for a favorite pair of shoes. 

“It’s not about this particular vacuum or typewriter,” Supans said. “We want to save everything that we’ve had for a while. The people who go one place go to all of them. It’s our history.”