tampabay.com

TV repair shop still in the picture

Even in today's throwaway world, the Zephyrhills business isn't ready to pull the plug on old-school service.

By Michael Kruse, Times Staff Writer
Published August 2, 2007


IF YOU GO
Huston's TV

37643 State Road 54, Zephyrhills, (813) 782-7041.

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ZEPHYRHILLS - There's an old TV sales and service shop here just outside of town. Huston's started in 1947 on a street corner in Easton, Pa. It's been at its current spot on State Road 54 since '72, and in the back, surrounded by so many wires, tools and parts of dead TVs, is a man named David Bailey. He's worked here since '73.

"Been a while," he said the other day from behind a 25-inch black picture-tube Zenith.

The picture was collapsing into a straight horizontal line in the middle of the screen. Bailey unscrewed the back, took out the circuit board and reached for the long-necked lamp on the desk.

He shined the light on the part that wasn't right.

Bailey is a relic. He has dark, combed-back hair and still, sure hands and wears cowboy-cut shirts. He is a link to a time when things were built to last and we didn't just throw them out when they got dusty or weary or went on the fritz.

We used to go to gas stations to get service. Now we go to gas stations to get Slurpees.

Things change.

In the TV-making business, the sets these days are watch-it, dump-it throwaways, cheaper to replace than to fix. That's no good for guys like Bailey. In 1992, there were 20,014 consumer electronics service centers, according to the Professional Service Association in New York. In 2000 that number was down to 10,649, and last year it was fewer than 6,500.

"What we're looking at is the demise of an industry," PSA executive director Ron Sawyer said, "and you look at those numbers, it's coming pretty fast.

"It's a dead horse."

The early days of TV

Some six decades back, Huston's started as Huston's Radio, then was Huston's Radio and TV, then was just Huston's TV. The shop was a street-level storefront in Easton, and Jim and Frances Huston lived upstairs with their children.

They installed hand-cranked antennas in the local hills and valleys out of a small black truck that said this on the side in painted white letters:

REMEMBER, SERVICE IS AS IMPORTANT AS THE SET.

The sets in the display window at the store pointed out to the street.

"Everybody would just gaze at them," said Frances Huston, 81, who now lives in Indian Rocks Beach with her husband.

Jim Huston Sr. had a column in the local paper called TV Newsreel. It reads like snippets of yellow-edged history.

From Dec. 29, 1952: "We're quite serious about this wonderful new entertainment medium."

From Jan. 5, 1953: "If you are still without a television set in your home . . . don't delay any longer . . . get one now . . ."

From Feb. 21, 1953: ". . . almost round-the-clock engineering is being carried out by WHUM-TV, Channel 61, to perfect its test pattern, which went on the air more than a week ago. The quality of the test pattern is reportedly improving constantly."

And this from April 20, 1953: "We're constantly being asked: what gives with this color TV?"

Color TV came along, of course, and then cable TV, and then satellite TV, and then HDTV, and TiVo and plasma. Somewhere in between, Huston's made the move from Pennsylvania to Florida.

But some things haven't changed.

Still the signs:

"If you can't explain a product's Benefits then you can only discuss its price." That's on the wall in the office.

"The Quality Is Long Remembered After The Price Is Forgotten." That's in the front room.

Still a Huston running it - Jim Huston Jr., 58, who started in '72 after getting out of the Navy.

And still TVs for sale - big screens, flat screens, the newest, fancy models, although the front of the shop is also filled with old consoles and ancient Motorola radios.

They're not for sale.

Part of the past

Some of Huston's phone calls go kind of like this:

Hey Jim.

Bring me over what I've had.

You know what I like.

Zephyrhills' large older, snowbird population makes up a huge hunk of Huston's customer base - although that's changing, too, with time and Tampa's northward suburban surge.

"A lot of our customers are from the Depression era," Jim Huston Jr. said. "You didn't throw stuff out. The idea of a throwaway disposable item was not something they grew up with."

David Bailey's dad grew up that way too. He worked as a welder, a mechanic, a meat cutter and a construction worker.

"He could do anything," Bailey said.

Bailey went to Pasco High in Dade City and in his senior year went to class in the mornings and worked as a TV-fixing apprentice in the afternoons. That meant he pushed a mop and a broom for a while at a shop in Dade City that's long gone and then moved on to working on TVs in a shop in St. Joseph that's long gone.

Then he came here.

Hasn't left since.

Bailey located the bad chip on the circuit board of the plain black Zenith. He used a solder knife to clean up the tiny electronic bits on the board and then put in a good chip. He vacuumed the insides of the back of the TV and then screwed it all together again.

Bailey said he'd be here until he can't think, or can't see, or can't drive, or can't find his way to work. Until then, though, he'll be here, making loose connections tight, fixing what's not right.

Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sptimes.com or 813 909-4617.