You Break It, We’ll Fix It
A dab of glue and it’s good as new
Stuff happens — it breaks. Often we decide what’s broken is worth fixing — even if in dollars and cents it’s clearly not.
“A lot of times people want things fixed for their sentimental value. Their parents owned it, or it’s been in the home for a long time,” says Nancy Bauer of the Repair Café in Oak Park.
So here is a handy guide to some helpful repair shops around the western suburbs. We’ve focused not on big-ticket or commonplace goods such as cars, major appliances or bikes, as people often already have a preferred place for those items. Instead, we’ve found shops that can salvage less expensive but more precious items as well as products that can drive us crazy when on the blink.
Repair Café, Oak Park
Once a month on a Saturday patrons flock here bearing busted toasters, vacuum cleaners, mixers, clocks and, most commonly, lamps. A crew of 10 volunteers is usually on hand at the Repair Café, part of an international movement that began in 2009 in Holland to limit the stuff that ends up in landfills. “We have nothing to lose by trying to fix things,” explains Mac Robinet of Oak Park, a co-founder of the Oak Park center. Like the other volunteers, he knows his way around a tool box. He retired from Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont after a career in physics.
The repairs don’t cost a cent. But, as co-founder Nancy Bauer of Oak Park likes to say, they are not free. “We are an educational place,” she says. Patrons can’t drop off their items. They need to stick around to perhaps learn a thing or two or at least share the camaraderie of the crew. There is a certain old-fashioned barn-raising spirt to the Repair Café, housed in two small rooms at the Oak Park Arms, a retirement community. When a patron arrives, the crew, many of them retired and eager to share their expertise and a self-deprecating joke or two, gather together and start the problem-solving.
On this day, Tony Nelson, a young adult new to Oak Park, hasn’t been able to fix his voltage sensor. “Does the light go off?” a crew member asks Nelson. “No,” he says. “That’s why. You need to have the breaker off.” Nelson also learns that his electric toothbrush may not be salvageable. “That one is invented to be thrown away. The battery is not replaceable,” a crew member says knowingly.
Boxes of tools sit in the room. But sometimes the solution is MacGyver-like, such as when a microwave door does not close properly. “We used the spring from a ballpoint pen to take care of that,” says Paul Oppenheim. He worked for the RTA, but his fix-it skills come from “living for 25 years in a vintage 1906 Oak Park home.”
Crew member Ramkrishna Mehendale of Oak Park has an entirely different skills background — he’s an OB/GYN at Rush University Medical Center. Medicine is in some ways easier than repair work. “The body in a lot of cases fixes itself. Machines don’t,” he says. He understands why so few people decide to fix a product. “It’s way more expensive to fix than replace because of the time involved. Time is expensive.”
Sometimes a patron is dispatched to a hardware store for a part. That’s an opportunity for the patron to pay it forward. “We ask them buy an extra part and leave one with us for the next guy,” explains Robinet.
The Repair Café in Oak Park was founded after Robinet read an article on the movement in AARP magazine and e-mailed the staff for more information. Bauer just happened to e-mail the magazine at the same time. “Why don’t you two talk to each other?” a staffer suggested.
There are more than 1,000 repair cafés worldwide, with 23 in the United States. The repair success rate at all the cafes is 60 percent. It’s 65 percent in Oak Park. The café does not turn down anyone, even if he drives up in a Mercedes. “We can’t refuse anyone. We can’t discriminate,” says Robinet. In fact, patrons of the cafés tend to come from higher income levels.
A sewing shop occupies the second room of the Repair Café. ‘We’re here to fix a hem, sew a button or fix a tear,” says Bauer. “We don’t do complete alterations. That’s what a tailor is for.”
Nor does the Repair Café fix computers, bikes or products potentially dangerous, such as electric blankets. What it does often fix are seemingly intractable problems that better customer service could have handled. A man once brought in a CD player, which over a year of phone calls, letters and shipping back and forth had not fixed.“It was a problem with the sensor,” says Robinet. “We put a little glue on it, and the problem was solved.”
Cobblestone Shoe Repair, Naperville
This small store located in a strip mall carries a simple red sign in block letters: Shoe Repair. It seems all so suburban and prosaic. But Cobblestone Shoe Repair is a place with character, history and a reputation for quality work.
Colorful owner John Diamantakos, 69, estimates he has fixed “a million” shoes. That is a wild guess. But the number is indicative of his longevity. Over 49 years, he’s run five repair shops — in North Riverside, Bloomingdale, the State of Illinois Center (now the James R. Thompson Center), the Chicago Board of Trade Building and now here in Naperville for 29 years. He began repairing shoes by hand in his uncle’s shop as a 10-year-old boy in Greece. He emigrated to the United States as a teenager in 1961.
He’s from Sparta. So call him the Shoe Warrior.
Diamantakos relocated to Naper Boulevard when the street was gravel. But he saw the potential for growth. Perhaps it’s counter-intuitive, but he also knew that although more affluent people could afford new shoes, they’d often rather repair a pricier shoe than buy a new pair. It has nothing to do with frugality.
“You get very comfortable in your shoes. You want to keep them,” says Diamantakos, plain-spoken and direct, if not politically correct. “It’s like when you have a Lexus. Or you are married to lady for 20 years. You want to keep her.”
The part of the shop open to the public is crammed with luggage, which he repairs and sells. Luggage falls apart — “zippers, handles and wheels,” he explains. He once had contracts with four airlines to fix luggage they had manhandled.
The back of the shop is crammed with shoes in various states of repair and the few tools needed to restore them to prime condition. The Singer stitcher is the primary weapon against battered, bruised and broken shoes. It looks old, even ancient. But it isn’t. It just gets lots of use. There also are a trimmer and a buffer. Repairing shoes is not particularly complicated but it does take attention to detail and a firm grasp of the basics. “I take care of my customers,” says Diamantakos.
Women represent about 70 percent of those customers. Diamantakos points to a pair of high heels as an explanation.
Shoes are made better today than ever, says Diamantakos. He ticks off his favorites: Cole Haan, Kenneth Cole, Bostonian and Ellie. His own shoes, lightweight and comfortable, are rather ordinary, he admits. But he does fix them a few times before trashing them.
On a shelf, a decorative touch, is a huge red shoe — obviously belonging to Ronald McDonald. One of Diamantakos’ daughters has a nice corporate job at McDonald’s in Oak Brook. So shoes can be a springboard for success. The way Diamantakos sees it, success begins and ends with a customer walking away happy, comfortable again in his own pair of shoes.
The Time Center, Westchester
The display cases, walls and floor space at The Time Center are a wonder. Brand after brand of watches are displayed for sale: Rolex, Omega, Accutron and many more. There are massive grandfather clocks, quaint cuckoo clocks, old-fashioned pocket watches, glistening stopwatches, modern wall clocks, gleaming alarm clocks, steely atomic clocks and novelty clocks featuring cats, clowns or circus figures. Some of the clocks are turned off, but it’s an experience to be here at noon and hear the cacophony announcing the midday.
Repair work is the bread-and-butter
of The Time Center. For the customers, it’s often not about dollars and cents. “They bring in heirlooms, keepsakes,” says Laiq Farooqui, 68, who opened the shop in 1978 and once lived above it. “I’ll tell them the resale value. But 95 percent of the time they want it fixed. It’s been passed on from one generation to the next.”
Not long ago a customer brought in a railroad pocket watch well over 100 years old. Farooqui recently worked on a Westminster chiming clock built in England before World War I. He once serviced, not a cuckoo clock, but a quail-cuckoo clock made long ago in Germany. First the quail comes out chirping, then the cuckoo.
We may live in a disposable society. But it’s a different story for clocks, watches and jewelry, which Farooqui also repairs. His chief tool is a lathe as he makes special parts if he can’t locate what he needs.
Farooqui has an innate mechanical talent but has also received extensive training. He learned his craft from the American Watchmakers Institute, Swatch and other watchmakers. He always keeps abreast of industry news and developments. His reading of industry literature led him to a great discovery that put some serious coin in his pocket. A customer had purchased from him a Rolex Explorer for $3,000, only to be told by an appraiser that he overpaid. So Farooqui allowed him to return it. But he learned that the timepiece was a limited edition model and, in fact, was made for Steve McQueen, once the world’s number one box office attraction. Farooqui was able to sell the watch for $17,000.
Watches today are a marvel of quartz technology. Not that long ago the routine vibration-per-second stood at 18,000. That jumped to 36,000 and then to 72,000, which means the accuracy of timekeeping on a wrist has made a quantum leap. “You can make thousands of these quickly with robots,” says Farooqui. “You can get a very good watch today for $10.”
That’s not to say it makes little sense to buy an expensive watch. “The way I look at it is that a good watch is a very nice piece of jewelry for a man,” he says.
Watches and clocks — they are much more than the sum of their parts. They become part of our lives. “A clock is like a living thing. Tick, tick, tick. When it stops working, it’s like a dead body,” says Farooqui. “That bothers people. They don’t want a dead body in their house.”
DuPage Vacuum, Wheaton
It’s a part of life -— you’ll get your heart broken, you’ll get in a fender bender, and one day your vacuum cleaner will overheat, not turn on or, worst of all, emit that choking, metallic death-rattle screech indicating you vacuumed something you should not have. “Oh, yeah — we see lots of pens, paper clips, socks,” says Brad Hoffmann of DuPage Vacuum in Wheaton.
For three generations of the Fussel family, first in downtown Wheaton and now on Roosevelt Road, DuPage Vacuum has turned frustration to relief by fixing what ails vacuum cleaners. “We can fix anything. It may be hard to find a part, but we can come up with something,” says Hoffmann.
Hoffmann is too discreet to point a finger of blame toward customers, but in most cases you can avoid a repair if you are a diligent owner who properly maintains the machine. He bends down to show how easy it is to check a Sebo, the German-made gold standard for vacuum cleaners. Take out the brush roll and clean with scissors. Check and replace the bag and filter if needed. “It’s super-easy,” he says.
Here’s a little secret: those bagless vacuums, though enticing, are made for trouble. If you want to avoid repairs, spend more to buy a better model. “People go to Walmart and buy what they buy, and it lasts two years. They don’t know these other brands exist,” says Hoffmann. “Cheap vacuums are designed to fail after two years.”
A Sebo can last for decades. In fact, on the showroom floor to demonstrate its longevity, stands a decades-old Sebo, not bright and shiny like a new one but still in good working order. Besides Sebo, Hoffmann recommends another German-made brand, Miela. The canister model is sleek and easy-to-use. “It’s lightweight and super strong. It has 360-degree wheels, so you don’t have to lift it,’ he says.
But don’t think America can’t make a decent vacuum cleaner. Hoffmann points to a row of Riccar vacuums, made in Missouri. “It’s a middle-of-the-road brand. But it’s hearty. It’s nothing flashy or fancy. It’s very durable,” he says. Trump has one in the White House, as did Clinton and other presidents, says Hoffmann. So there — in a partisan nation, we can at least agree on the quality of a U.S. vacuum cleaner, which can spare us of that sinking feeling when you vacuum something, well, you should not have.
It’s easy to guess the most common repair done at uBreakiFix, a nationwide chain with 280 locations including Geneva, La Grange, Montgomery, Naperville, Schaumburg and Wheaton. The most frequent problem is a cracked screen on
an iPhone. It’s also easy to guess how this commonly happens. The user drops it. Of course, sometimes phones break under circumstances that perhaps customers ought not share — too much information. But they do. They drop the phones in the toilet, resulting in water damage. Or they even damage the glass because they lose their temper. “One guy told us he threw the phone at his significant other,” says Mark Swistek, Geneva store manager.
People are dependent on their phones and want them back as soon as possible. The shop does same-day repairs, often in less than an hour. Often it’s much more than a cracked screen that bedevils a phone, tablet or iPad. Digital technology can seem impossibly intricate. But a human made it, and a human can fix it. “Our motto is if it has a power button and the parts are available, we can fix it,” Swistek says. On the other hand, it may take a bit of head-scratching, trial-and-error and diagnostic wizardry. “Every great technician gets stumped,” admits Swistek.
Price can be a sticking point. The store lets the customer decide if it’s worth fixing. “The breaking point is about $300. Over that, they don’t get it fixed,” he says.
People don’t get attached to their smartphones like they do to other products. Yet some customers hang on to their phones longer than you might assume. “People get the iPhone 4 fixed. How long ago was that — 2006? It tends to be the older generation,” says Swistek, 36. “They don’t want to learn new things.”
Not surprisingly, Swistek, was an inveterate tinkerer from an early age. “I think the first thing I took apart was a stapler. Then my mom came home to find I had taken apart the brand-new computer she bought for me. I was able to get it back together,” he says. “I had all my friends and family asking me to do things.”
Friends and family — that’s where coming to the rescue of desperate customers becomes especially enriching. “The most heart-wrenching thing is when their phone is dead and they can’t retrieve their photos,” says Swistek. But Swistek and another worker can retrieve the photos and save them on a thumb drive for $50. It’s a recurring repair shop theme: all’s well that ends well.
FixThat4U, Oakbrook Terrace
Have cell phone, will travel. And will break. “We hear all kinds of stories,” says Dan Las, a manager of the FixThat4U store in Oakbrook Terrace, which also has locations in Oak Park, Lisle and Plainfield. “They run over it with their cars. They put it on the roof, and they find it on the highway.”
The iPhone is the number one product brought in for repair. That is not at all indicative of its durability. “There are more Apple users, so we see more Apple phones,” explains Las. (In the digital world, everything — even repairs — is logical and predictable.)
Phones aren’t built to withstand uncommon abuse. “If they were manufactured to be indestructible, they’d cost upward of $1,200,” he says. The component that prevents breakage is “guerilla glass. Most products have some of that added to it,” he says.
Phones are well-made, so it’s not a case of buyer beware. But the fumble-fingered do need to be careful. “Most devices come with a one-year warranty. But physical damage voids a warranty,” says Las. “It’s like a car and a bumper-to-bumper warranty. If you smash the bumper, you are not covered.”
Still, many users, particularly institutions, assume repairs to computers and the like are not worth it. “It’s quite the opposite,” says Las, who fixes Chromebooks and iPads hauled in by school districts. He believes too many schools replace instead of repair computers damaged by mauling students.
With the wave of computers has come a wave of crime or at least wrongdoing. More and more viruses generate pop-up ads and other unwelcome aliens to software. Much worse are the scam artists. “The virus warns you have a problem and need to contact Microsoft, and so you call a number and end up paying x amount of dollars,” says Las.
Technology can be enraging or at the least frustrating. His technicians know that and try to treat customers with kindness, says Las. “We have customers who try to fix the phone themselves and come in with the phone in a big pile,” he says. “We’re very open to helping people and giving them what they need.”
Kagan & Gaines Music Co., Forest Park
Kids do the darndest things. They drop, bang, bump or generally manhandle their violas and violins, their horns and guitars. Or they don’t know how to maintain them — no, not at all. That’s just fine with Kagan & Gaines Music Co. For 87 years, first on Wabash downtown and now in Forest Park for close to half a century, they’ve maintained and repaired all kinds of musical instruments.
The store serves musicians across the spectrum — from student beginners to devoted hobbyists to working professionals. So if a valve is bent or a string is out of whack, they get it right. Or sometimes, at the request of a seasoned musician, they get it exactly as the customer wants. “They know how they want it to sound. It might not be according to specs, but we get it to how they like it,” says staffer Jesse James Marquez.
Like other products — or perhaps even more so — a musical instrument often is repaired even when it makes more sense to just buy a new one. Not long ago, one young musician brought in a trombone and had it cleaned, re-laquered and otherwise reconditioned. So now when he plays, his great-uncle, if he were still here, would appreciate just how great his instrument still sounds in the hands of his beloved great-nephew.
So what do we get fixed and what can’t be fixed?
The Repair Café in Oak Park recorded the goods brought in for repair in 2016. Clothing was first (the café had an 85 percent success rate in repairing the items), followed by lamps (72 percent success rate), small appliances (51 percent success), kitchen appliances (50 percent), and electronics (35 percent).
Cobblestone Shoe Repair: 1512 N. Naper Blvd., Suite 148, Naperville, 630 955-1550
DuPage Vacuum: 806 E. Roosevelt Rd., Wheaton, 630 668-4062
Repair Café: Senior Citizens Center, 414 S. Oak Park Ave., Oak Park, 708 848-5251
FixThat4U: 1107 Maple Ave. B, Lisle, 630 324-6827;
17W418 22nd St., Oakbrook Terrace, 630 828-2976
1101 Lake St., Oak Park, 708 848-4140;
and 2316 S. Illinois Rt. 59, Plainfield, 815 267-6801
The Time Center: 9848 W. Roosevelt Rd., Westchester, 708 343-7731
uBreakiFix: 1096 Commons Dr., Geneva, 630 402-0171;
72 S. La Grange Rd., La Grange, 708 603-2196;
Montgomery, 630 264-0808;
Naperville, 331 472-4292;
and 18 Danada Square West, Wheaton, 630 765-7721
Kagan & Gaines Music Co.: 7655 W. Roosevelt Rd., Forest Park, 708 771-2152Edit Module