Feature writing

New York City

The Death of the Original Apple Store: New York’s Farewell to Tekserve

Website:
The Daily Beast

Date:
August 23, 2016

On Monday morning, there were no customers at Tekserve—most famous among them, Harrison Ford,

Charlie Rose, and Carrie Bradshaw, in an episode of Sex and The City—sitting on the metal chairs, clutching their laptops and personal technology devices as if they were wounded animals.

Instead, chairs empty and Tekserve itself now closed, the floor space was dedicated to the astonishing and striking contents of a century-plus-spanning technology collection owned by Dick Demenus, who co-founded this Apple user’s trusted and much-beloved emergency clinic and store 29 years ago.

On Tuesday there will be an auction at the 23rd Street store of Demenus’s entire “museum” of 35 Apple computers, from the first to the most recent. (The “museum” is being sold as one collection, and the bidding is currently at $30,000.)

Arrayed throughout the 25,000-square-foot space are beautiful, vintage radios, dating back to the turn of the early 1900s, old television sets and record players, a 5-cent Coke machine that still works, vintage radio microphones and telephones, and pieces of arcane medical equipment. There are original “Think

Different” posters too (including an unreleased one featuring Bob Dylan), old Star Wars plates and dishes, and store fittings, too.

For geeks and tech buffs, this is a treasure trove: They may want to head to Tekserve for the auction, or begin bidding online.

All the objects up for auction—anything technical is being sold caveat emptor, i.e., without a guarantee it will work—Demenus used as a backdrop for this Chelsea retail landmark. Worried about your spluttering laptop, you may have neglected to notice the machines in all their vintage glory.

Until the all-conquering advent of the Apple stores—of which there are now seven in New York City—Mac users would deliver their sick and malfunctioning machines to the deft fingers, efficient aid, and warm, concise counsel of the experts of Tekserve.

Worried you had lost your entire novel/multimedia presentation/lifetime’s poetry/master’s thesis, you’d take a ticket and wait your turn as if at a deli and hope for dear life the sweet-natured specialists would be able to cure whatever ill you presented, or recover whatever had suddenly been lost, or defuse that terrifying fizzing bomb symbol, accompanied by “Sorry, a system error occurred.”

The slim and handsome Demenus, who declines to give his age, said he was feeling melancholic. “I love my business, and it’s sad that it can’t make it in this environment,” he said softly. “It’s kind of inevitable.

Rents are going sky-high, and it’s a tough business environment for what we do. We’re bricks and mortar and up against the internet and seven Apple stores. And we started out as the Apple store.

“Now you can buy a Mac almost anywhere, like the Best Buy on the corner,” Demenus added, nodding in that direction. “The internet is the big nail in the coffin. The overhead for that business is so low. They’re in the middle of nowhere. We’re in the middle of Manhattan and we’re one location, so volume is necessarily low, so you can’t compete on price.

“Apple does a good job with servicing now, and computers have become more like appliances, and more reliable and cheaper. There’s less demand for our service. If a computer fails after three years, now you think, ‘Maybe it’s time to get a new one.’”

Gilbert, a “service provider” who helped worried Apple users for six years, said Tekserve’s regulars had been “a little bit thrown off guard” by the store’s closure. “They’re used to our customer service. You don’t get the same at the Genius Bar.” He was giving them printouts with addresses of where to take their ailing machines, a very kind Tekserve thing to do.

Customers had come in with many issues, Gilbert said. The in-store boffins would test the machine, tell the customer what was wrong, offer advice, tell them what needed to be done to fix it, and how long that would be. “It was interaction, personal interaction, tutoring,” he said. “People came in and didn’t know how to use the many features of the Apple computer.”

Most repairs were done in-house, but if the damage to the hard drive had been too severe, data recovery was undertaken by Kroll Ontrack Inc. in Secaucus, New Jersey.

“People were worried when they came in: Would we able to help them? they wanted to know. We’d try to make them feel a bit calm and put them at ease, and hopefully happy. The advice was: Back everything up twice.”

One customer on Monday hadn’t realized the store had closed until he walked in. He oversaw the recycling of his firm’s computers, and now he would have to find a new venue to do so. The Apple Store was not near his office.

Another longtime customer, Mark Forman, a cinematographer and photographer, called Tekserve’s closure “the end of an era, with the most likely competition from Apple itself.” He had been coming to the store since 1994 and said its personal service made it special. “The Apple Store is not going to have any of this on display,” Forman said, smiling, scanning the old telephones, microphones, and odd gadgetry.
Will Roland, special projects director for Roland Auctions, which is overseeing the auction, said the most fascinating objects were late 19th century medical equipment, a Victrola record player, and a pair of robotic dogs.

The “Mac Museum” would be sold whole to prevent it from being “part and parceled out and scattered to the winds,” Roland said. He hoped it would be sold to an institution or “somewhere with young technicians who feel inspired by it. Part of what Dick loves is the intersection of technology and design: the idea that something should be functional and beautiful combined.”

There are 592 lots, and bids for Lot 1 will begin at 11 a.m. sharp on Tuesday. Roland expects to move 70 to 120 lots an hour.

Roland’s mother had popped in the previous day and noted how sad the customers seemed at coming in to find the store non-operational. “Tekserve was a fun place for a lot of tech users,” said Roland. “Artists and engineers really wanted to use technology to make art. They came here find guidance, information, and things to purchase. It has a certain feeling of home to a lot of people that is perhaps not present at the very sterile, very efficient Apple stores. Tekserve has the feeling of those New York institutions that, as everyone knows, are so sadly and rapidly shuttering their doors all over the place.”

As customers browsed the vintage radios and waited to shake his hand, Demenus said he and his wife, Jan Albert, had come from the audio electronics field.

“I started collecting radios when I would walk home from grammar school,” he said. “I would take them home, and take them apart, not knowing what they were, just for fun—so eventually I learned about them.

I fixed teachers’ televisions in high school.” Demenus laughed. “I think that actually got me into college.”

A schoolboy love of science bloomed into a love of technology, and his collecting began at flea markets and yard sales. He met both Tekserve’s other founder, David Lerner, and Jan at WBAI Radio in New York City, where he did “every job,” including chief engineer. He has been in business on the same stretch of 23rd Street in five locations since 1977, and lived there, too, Demenus said.

First, he and Lerner and engineer Mike Edl founded a company that built electronic products, like user interfaces for the Rodgers and Hammerstein collection at Lincoln Center, and listening stations for the public library there too, some of which are still in use, he said.

“We designed things to last. We designed cassette machines for museum tours: 10,000 here in Manhattan. You hear that everything is built in China or Taiwan. We bucked the trend there.”
Demenus and Lerner “fell in love” with the first Mac that came out in 1984, and when those machines failed they fixed them. “Once we realized, ‘We can do that,’ things organically grew from there. We became part of the Mac community, we hosted user groups. It was organic and fun, and out of that grew the business.”

Over a thousand customers a day had come to the store, he said, and as well as whiny Carrie Bradshaw, Law & Order had also filmed there. Demenus said Apple Store representatives had surreptitiously come to Tekserve to see how those with ailing machines had been tended to, when conceiving how to design “genius bars.”

The reaction from Tekserve’s longtime customers to the store’s closure had been “really touching,” said Demenus. “I knew people might miss us, but I didn’t know that many, or miss us so profoundly. There have been so many letters and emails.”

But Demenus is a realist: People also go to the thing closest to them, and with Apple stores in different parts of the city, people no longer need to trek to Tekserve, however personal the service.

Of the 592 lots for sale, Demenus said, “I’ve been collecting for what seems like forever. The apartment is full, so there was no place for this to go, and I don’t want it to go into storage. I want to share it with the world. Let it have a life elsewhere. I sort of had an epiphany. Collecting has been a hobby and fun, and now I’m doing the opposite. I’m divesting. It’s time to move things along a bit.”

His favorite items are the “really esoteric stuff, stuff when I bought it I didn’t know what it was. I had to figure out what it was, obscure technical equipment, things that would be of very little interest to anyone else struck a chord with me.”

He pointed at one object. “That’s an old medical machine, a Macintosh, but not an Apple Macintosh. It’s an early electro-stimulation machine from the turn of the 20th century. The first electro-cardiogram machines are so unusual they come with plaques with doctors’ names on them.”

The “Mac Museum” should stay intact, he said. “Oh, it must. You can buy individual pieces on eBay. That isn’t rocket science. This is a collection. It tells a story which has been carefully edited to give the history of Macintosh and the things around it. The entire collection is an object and tells that story.”

As he surveyed the generations of gadgets around him, Demenus said he still liked to take things apart. “There’s a genius in all good products, and also a beauty in the aesthetics of them, and that’s a joy forever.”

Demenus also critiques new products, observing them ergonomically—and balefully. Light switches “that go left and right” vex him hugely. “If the fuse breaks, which way is ‘on’? Is it this way or that? Up and down is natural with a switch. Left and right is not. It’s totally illogical.”

When I asked what he and Albert will do next, Demenus said, “I don’t know but something exciting, ‘something completely different,’ as Monty Python would say.” Whatever his new enterprise is, it won’t be a store. “I started out at the radio station as a volunteer, and from that grew the rest of my life—so maybe I will do some volunteering.” Is retirement an option? “No, I take great joy in doing things.”

Demenus looked at the store, fitted out for auction day, its last hurrah. “Everybody came through here. It’s been a good ride,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any ‘finally,’ only milestones along the way. It’s melancholy, but that’s how it’s going to be. I’m happy there’s been a good response to the auction. Many things will find a new home, and we will move on.”

This was said with exactly the warm common sense that made many New Yorkers trust and cherish Tekserve.