Houma Shop: Television Repair In A Throwaway World

HOUMA, LA (AP) — Reminders of a different electronic age line the walls of Mike Daigle's business in Houma.

         Boxes of fuses and old electronic tubes sit aside framed antique advertisements featuring Nipper and Chipper, RCA's famous canine mascots.

         Daigle is a craftsman of a fading art as consumers' "throw-away appetite" combines with electronics manufacturers' ability to churn out cheap products destined to fail as the next big thing debuts.

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         These factors have slashed demand for electronic repairs, especially in consumer products like televisions, according to analysis compiled in IBIS World's Electronic and Computer Repair Services Report released in August.

         As products have become more complex and failure-prone, repairmen have also evolved, though not without a helping of nostalgia.

         Daigle's father, Alvin, started in electronics repair in the '40s. One could find the technician in the downtown storefront now occupied by Fabregas Music or making house calls in an RCA-branded Ford Econoline van.

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         He founded Houma Television Service on West Park Avenue on April 1, 1971, when the stretch was Houma's primary commercial artery and big box retailers like Best Buy and Circuit City hadn't taken hold.

         The store was a one-stop shop. In the back, long wooden benches and mirrors lined the walls, allowing technicians to precisely check a television's mechanics while looking at a schematic diagram.

         The front of the store was packed with the latest in American-made TV sets, set in wooden frames that today would be considered dinosaurs.

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         "It was a piece of furniture back then. The women loved that you could put bric-a-brac and lamps and other things on top of it. It was the showpiece of the living room," Mike said.

         Mike used time off from high school as an "antenna monkey," climbing atop homes to help his father install equipment, and working around the shop. He went to work full-time with his father after graduating.

         "Back then, your customers were your friends," Mike said. "We were not setting the world on fire, but it's been comfortable."

         Small retailers like Houma Television had a relationship with both customers and distributors. At its peak, the business employed five or six people selling and repairing stock from distributors in New Orleans.

         "Televisions were a much higher quality in those days," Mike said. "Repair was a big money-maker then. We would rebuild the whole set by putting in a new high voltage transformer, a new picture tube, readjust everything to factory specs, and she was like brand new again. People held on to their sets for a long time due to that fact."

         Mike took over when his father died in 1985. Wood-grained, living room showpieces were replaced by black plastic tabletop models. Eventually, bigger retailers shouldered the sales market tubes and fuses were replaced by the circuit boards and computer chips of today's flatscreens.

         "I joke with people they are making these things so flimsy now you are going to have to start putting a new TV on your grocery list," Mike said.

         According to the Consumer Reports BuyingGuide 2010, flat-panel televisions have an estimated average repair rate of about 3.8 percent, IBIS World's analysis notes.

         In the old days, repairmen worked from detailed schematic diagrams. Distributors' representatives were on call for replacement parts and expertise, Mike said.

         "Today the information provided is zilch, zero," Mike said. "They give a service manual that was probably written for a 6-year-old. I swear it's a joke. They don't want them to be fixed."

         Mike said remaining repairmen throughout the country pool their expertise in online forums. He scours eBay and flat-screens beyond repair for replacement parts. Finding parts is the biggest challenge with modern displays, he said.

         Had it not been for a certain inquisitiveness, Mike and other repairmen might not have survived the transition from picture tube to computer chip.

         "It's too easy to say, 'Oh you need this new circuit board' and just chunk the old one. I want to know what happened and what caused it. It goes back to the old days of troubleshooting … With these new sets, I've replaced parts as small as a flea to fix them," Mike said.

         Beside rows of half-dissected flatscreens, his shop is full with old steel-framed toys, advertisements from the past and stuffed Nipper and Chipper dogs like those once handed out to customers buying new televisions.

         "Electronics gets in your blood and you can't get away with it," he said. "It runs everything. Everything has a microprocessor these days. I guess I have an appreciation of the old, well-built stuff."

         His store now is named Daigle's Television Service so it won't be confused with the local television station. Now 59, Mike said he wouldn't want to pass the business along to his children. Louisiana's certification program for electronic repairmen was dissolved in 2008. He isn't sure how much longer businessmen like him will persist.

         "It is a throw-away world we live in," Mike said. "I'm not from California. I'm not a tree-hugger. I'm not saving the whales. But nevertheless, I'm trying to protect the environment from the big pile of junk. Our land needs to be protected from garbage that will not go away. …

         "Not a whole lot more that one man can do, other than have firm ideas about the way things should be."

         – by AP/ Reporter Xerxes Wilson with The Courier

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