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Vintage stereos keep repair shops busy

| Friday, Oct. 7, 2011

The sagging economy has made Mike Petraglia a big name in music in recent years.

He opened a video store 31 years ago in Bloomfield, then hired his first technician when customers asked about TV repairs.

As calls to fix TVs have grown leaner recently, home-entertainment fans have begun rekindling their love of turntable music.

Petraglia now fixes stereos.

"There's still a love affair with music, with saving the audio unit," says Petraglia, who owns Atlas Audio Repair in Bloomfield. "But with TV, it's not the same. There's no love there."

In the old days, TV owners took their boob tubes to the neighborhood repair shop at the first sign of a fuzzy screen, gimpy vertical hold or not-quite-right audio.

Times have changed in the electronics-repair game.

Snazzier flat-screen TVs, once too expensive for many middle-income families to afford, have dropped in price. That has made them more disposable and less worth repairing when they break down, industry analysts say.

The trend has left repairmen like Petraglia boning up on the innards of old stereos, amps, speakers and other musical electronics.

"This has been going on for about the last 15 years, but has really gotten worse in the last two as the cost of smaller products have been coming down," says Mack Blakely, executive director of the Fort Worth, Texas-based National Electronics Service Dealers Association.

The jury may still be out for some purists on whether CD or needle phonograph music sounds better. One thing they can agree on is that vinyl album sales have been climbing steadily for several years.

More than 2.1 million vinyl records were sold in 2009, an increase of more than 35 percent from the previous year, according to Nielsen Soundscan. By contrast, CDs sales have plummeted by almost 20 percent in the last two years, Nielsen reports. The trend is due mainly with the convenience of downloading digital files of songs from services like iTunes.

The public's affinity with restoring old sound equipment has helped some struggling repair shops, but not enough to fill the void left by a decrease in TV repair, Blakely says. His organization has been urging repairmen to also learn to fix larger, harder-to-dispose-of appliances, such as washers, dryers and refrigerators, and even to find work for municipal governments and school districts.

There are about 5,000 TV-repair businesses in the United States, down from about 20,000 in the 1980s. The Pittsburgh area is home to about 30 TV repair shops; in 2002, there were about 50 such businesses.

Vince Bomba thought he'd always have a steady stream of TV-repair customers when he started working at Galaxie Electronics in Squirrel Hill more than 30 years ago.

Back then, TVs were affixed to large, heavy wooden furniture sets and often were the centerpiece of a living room. Now, a growing number of customers are coming for help to restore old 45 rpm record players and antique phonographs.

"People are digging turntables out of the trash, out of grandma's attic and at garage sales, from everywhere, trying to get us to fix them," says Bomba, 56.

As people switched to CDs, they didn't think about recycling their old systems, making parts harder to find. Shop owners sometimes have to hook up with suppliers in Germany, Russia and China to find some equipment.

"Some of the stuff we get comes in so beat up. It takes a lot of work to get them working again," Bomba says. "But it doesn't matter to some of them. They want that sound."

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