The fix is in decline

Ed Plekavich manages a camera repair shop specializing in film cameras. But the shop had to invest in equipment and training to fix digital cameras because of the low volume of old-school camera repairs.

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Tess Vigeland: A couple of years ago our DVD player went on the fritz. We looked into getting it repaired, but it would've cost about $150. We could buy a new one for less than $100.

Where'd the old player end up? At a nearby hazardous waste drop-off site.

When did fixing things get more expensive than buying the new version? We asked Marketplace's Sean Cole to investigate the demise of the fix-it culture.


Sean Cole: One thing I love about my town, Arlington, Mass., is it's kind of stuck in the 1950's.

There are all these mom and pop businesses here… including an actual five and dime, lots of barbershops with names like Joe's Hairstyling and a surprising number of repair shops.

One of them is right around the corner from my house -- Sanford's Camera Repair. It's run by a guy named Ed.

Ed Plekavich: Hello

Cole: Ed, how are you?

Plekavich: Nice to meet you.

And a just a few blocks up the street is David's Shoe Repair, which is run by another guy named Ed.

Cole: Are you Ed?

Ed Soloway: Yeah.

Cole: I'm Sean Cole.

And they a lot have in common besides being named Ed. For one thing, they were both featured in the same newspaper article, which is now hanging up in both of their shops. Headline: "The Fix is in Decline."

Cole: So, how's business?

Plekavich: It's down.

Ed Plekavich is the camera repair shop manager.

Plekavich: The repair world is shrinking. Certain shops have given up; they just can't take the low volume. And we're lucky that we don't have too much competition in this area.

Their niche is fixing film cameras -- old ones. But that's not what keeps the shop afloat.

Plekavich: We had to get into the digital cameras because otherwise we wouldn't have enough to keep us going, so we were forced into it. Kicking and screaming, you might say but...

Cole: Kicking and screaming?

Plekavich: Because it's expensive to buy all the equipment and send the technicians for training and that type of thing.

Up the street, the other Ed, Ed Soloway at the shoe repair shop, has diversified as well. He's doing a lot of orthopedic work now.

Soloway: What we did with this one is we put in a lift, somebody that has one leg shorter than the other.

And he's started fixing stuff that has nothing to do with shoes.

Soloway: The other part we're trying to develop is the sports repair. I do all types of hockey repair, baseball glove relacing.

Soloway says straight up shoe repair was a big industry two or three decades ago, but it's been fading.

Soloway: Years and years ago, there used to be multiple people working in shops.

Cole: Not anymore?

Soloway: No, you know, with the advent of disposable stuff.

Stuff that costs less but also breaks sooner. And because it's so cheap, it just feeds into this vicious cycle of buy, throw away, buy, throw away -- a cycle that both Eds know well.

Plekavich: It's gotten to the point where many of the smaller cameras are not worth repairing.

Soloway: Shoes are made in a way that's disposable, you know?

Cole: These days?

Soloway: Sure, they're molded soles. They're made in a way that's not always repairable.

Plekavich: So, if our repair charges are, say $125, and it sells for $135, of course you can't convince anyone to have it repaired.

Plus, when was the last time you thought about getting a digital camera fixed in the first place?

Plekavich: This is a lens barrel...

Or a par of shoes for that matter? When was the last time you even passed a shoe repair shop? And if I was a Harvard professor, I would have phrased that last sentence like this:

Stephen Greyser: How many cobblers. as they are traditionally called, can one find walking in neighborhoods?

Stephen Greyser is a marketing professor at Harvard Business School.

Greyser: Now, that doesn't mean one can't find a place to get shoes repaired. It just means that it's not part of walking down the street in a lot of places.

And in a throw-away society, if you have to go out of your way to get something repaired, you're probably less likely to do it.

Greyser: Time is a cost. So you have to go there, you have to park there and then you have to wait or come back. So, you put that all together and you ask yourself, is it easier to say "you know it's time for a new one."

The question is which came first: the lack of available expertise or the lack of demand for repairs? Stuff still breaks, but somehow we've all -- as a society -- stepped away from the proverbial fix-it shop.

But there is one factor that may trump all this economics: sentimental value. Whether you're talking about a camera or a pair of shoes or a piece of sporting equipment.

Soloway: You get a glove ... I did a glove that was like the guy's father's glove and he gave it to him, his father died and just something to remember him you know and he wants to keep the glove in good shape, so I restrung the glove and… yeah.

And maybe that's not enough to keep an entire Arlington, Massachusetts worth of repair shops in business, but it's something. I'm Sean Cole for Marketplace Money.

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