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C. Arnholt Smith's Vacuum Cleaner Fixer

A talented fixer remembers doo-dads of the rich and famous

Tom Jones at his Mission Hills repair shop: clock radios, coffeemakers, water filters, vaporizers, humidifiers, computer manuals, an ice cream maker, an Electro-Lux vacuum-cleaner cylinder that is so old it looks like something from Jules Verne's imaginary sketchbook, electric frying pans, racks of extension cords, floppy disks, light bulbs, an electric hot-dog cooker.
  • Tom Jones at his Mission Hills repair shop: clock radios, coffeemakers, water filters, vaporizers, humidifiers, computer manuals, an ice cream maker, an Electro-Lux vacuum-cleaner cylinder that is so old it looks like something from Jules Verne's imaginary sketchbook, electric frying pans, racks of extension cords, floppy disks, light bulbs, an electric hot-dog cooker.
  • Image by Joe Klen

For years, walking around Mission Hills, I would often stop in front of the dusty, almost antiquarian shop at 902 Fort Stockton Drive and peer in through the windows at the kipple and the clutter. It never seemed to be open, but the gadgets (vacuum cleaners, radios, waffle irons) seemed to appear and disappear inside the shop. I resolved to write a short story about the place. It would be a kind of Ray Bradbury story where, should you have the good fortune to arrive at the shop when it was open, a kindly, wizened, and white-haired character could fix anything for you: your TV or your heart, your egg timer or your life.

I never wrote the story, but meeting 62-year-old Tom Jones, the proprietor of the shop for nearly 40 years, I was surprised to find that I wasn't far off. He can also fix just about anything - maybe not your heart or your life, but then, I didn't ask him.

Jones is, in fact, white-haired with a white brush stroke of a goatee; he does indeed have a kindly look about him, though I wouldn't call him wizened. He took time out from his tinkering to pass a part of the morning in conversation.

"A lot of people bring things in here that are 40 years old. Well, there's just no parts available, so I'll just go out and buy another one. I'll keep the rest of the parts in case somebody else comes along that might need one. But as soon as I throw it away, somebody comes in and needs it."

Jones is behind the counter. There is room in the shop for himself and one customer at a time. A narrow path is cleared from the door to the counter. One negotiates the path between vacuum cleaners, disk drives, keyboards, floor lamps, and commercial hairdryers.

Jones shows me a 1985 San Diego Union-Tribune story about him by R.H. Growald. The headline is "Mr. Fix-It's Toughest Job May Be Saying No." The article offers examples of Jones's odd jobs since 1957. A Mission Valley restaurant owner brought in a four-slice toaster that wouldn't work, and Jones immediately pinpointed the problem by removing two thoroughly roasted mice.

Jones has never held another job since his discharge from the Signal Corps in 1958, when he worked for NATO in Turkey keeping Teletype machines functioning for Uncle Sam.

"I kind of switched over to computers nowadays," he says. "I do the older computers. Refurbish and sell them. I don't do laptops because my eyes aren't as good as they were." In the background, on a screen saver, the black and white images of fish scroll across. The sounds of bubbles punctuate the conversation. Can Jones, theoretically, fix just about anything?

"I had this doctor bring in one of these things - I don't even know what it was or what you call it - it was one of those things to listen to a baby's heartbeat or something. Well, I fixed it. A sonogram, that was it. And I had a doctor bring me in some electronic stethoscopes. See, they were amplified because he was hard of hearing. I never know what's coming through that door. I had one lady bring in her shopping cart who said, 'This is too high for me.' She wanted me to cut the handles down. I said, 'I really don't do that, but I'll do it. Just don't tell anybody.' Well, within a week, another lady came in with the same problem and said, 'So and so told me you did hers, so....' If I'd have charged them for the labor, it would have been more than the cart cost originally.

"Most of my customers are my friends. I treat everybody as if they were friends. One family nearby, I've done work for three generations of them." Jones is talking while he is demonstrating an electronic letter folder he had repaired. I'd never seen one. He continues talking as sheets are folded neatly into thirds. "I used to fix C. Arnholt Smith's vacuum cleaner. We [Jones and his children] would get a kick when the chauffeur would pull up in a limousine and pull the vacuum cleaner out. It was always kind of funny."

Jones was born in Rockford, Illinois; we talked about that town for a while and about Chicago, the stockyards, and Maxwell Street. A customer came in, a young woman picking up a big, outdated floppy disk drive Jones had fixed for her. In order for her to come in and pick it up, I had to stand outside the door. I read the posted business hours: "Open most days about 9 or 10. Occasionally as early as 7, but somedays as late as 12 or 1:00. We close about 5:30 or 6:00, occasionally about 4 or 5, but sometimes as late as 11 or 12. Some days or afternoons we aren't here at all and lately I've been here just about all the time except when I'm someplace else but I should be here then too." A sign above Jones behind the counter reads, "If you are grouchy, irritable, or just plain mean there will be a $10.00 charge for putting up with you."

While Jones is engaged with his customer, I scope out the dusty, fake Tiffany lampshade in the window, the row of old radios from the '30s, '40s, and '50s. "An exact replica of that one model," he would point out later, indicating a beautiful but neglected antique, coated with resin and probably worth a small fortune, "was in a John Wayne movie about Corregidor." Figuring it could well have been the exact same radio, assuming the movie scene was shot in L.A., I browse through toasters, blenders, and unnameable parts for God-knows-what, a dozen or more sizes and variations of vacuum-cleaner bags, clock radios, coffeemakers, water filters, vaporizers, humidifiers, computer manuals, an ice cream maker, an Electro-Lux vacuum-cleaner cylinder that is so old it looks like something from Jules Verne's imaginary sketchbook, electric frying pans, racks of extension cords, floppy disks, light bulbs, an electric hot-dog cooker from Hamilton Beach, Xerox machines, irons, gewgaws, gizmos, and gadgets that function in ways only Jones may or may not be able to tell you about.

"Two years ago this September I was up on the roof, and I fell off headfirst onto a cement sidewalk. I should have broke my back, but I cracked my skull and had fluid on the brain, fractured six vertebrae. If it hadn't been for my Welsh hard head I'd be dead."

I joked about another, more famous Welshman named Tom Jones, and the repairman dismissed it. "Yeah, yeah. See, that's one reason I'm kinda slowed down. I'm partially handicapped, semiretired. I don't do as many housecalls for washers and dryers as I used to, but moving those things around, it's a month getting back into shape again."

As a kid, Jones had a knack for taking things apart and putting them together again. His own children are grown and his son has been begging him for years to just "pull a flatbed truck up to the building and haul all of this away." Jones laughs at either the ridiculousness of the idea or at himself.

"This place," I say, "has history...so much." I'm thinking about the lives of all these outdated appliance owners and how you just don't see small neighborhood businesses like this anywhere, anymore. "Well," I try to crack, "you must have made a fortune here."

Jones does laugh. "The Better Business Bureau doesn't even know I exist. I had an albino law student take me to court once because he left something here for six months, and I finally got rid of it. The judge threw it out of court." He talks about customers who seek him out from Tijuana to El Centro, Los Angeles, and even Moscow. His customers are as old as 94. His children all had to go through apprenticeship learning how to install light sockets and attach plugs to electrical cords and will probably not carry on the business when Jones turns, say, 94 himself and retires. When he finally gets around to confessing to the fortune he has made in this business, he says, "My customers become my friends. If I don't hear from [a retired appellate judge] for a few weeks, I call him up and see how he's doing. But as to making money? I sure wouldn't recommend this business to a young man if making money is what he wants to do."

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