Outsmarting Obsolescence

Times Staff Writer

In a throw-away society, how do you avoid becoming obsolete?

Ask Woodland Hills typewriter repairman John Wargnier.

For more than two decades he has reinvented himself each time the latest new thing has threatened to put him out of business.

Wargnier owns Business Machines Center, which began in 1971 as an adding machine repair shop.

Cheap electronic calculators replaced the mechanical adding machine a few years after that. Wargnier rescued the business by turning it into a typewriter repair center.

When desktop computers delivered a knockout punch to typewriters, Wargnier taught himself how they worked and began fixing them. When fax machines became the rage he took one apart, figured it out and began repairing them. These days his workbench is filled with such things as laser office printers and all-in-one scanner-printers.

"Obsolescence? It will never happen to us. No matter what they do, they're going to make something I can fix," Wargnier says. "We don't have college degrees, but there are opportunities for people like us. They're not going to be able to take my skill away from me."

That might seem like bold talk for someone whose well-worn, 800-square-foot shop is surrounded by high-tech retailers whose glitzy storefronts overflow with products such as the latest cellphones and digital cameras -- things designed to be used a few years and then replaced.

Wargnier realizes this.

"You have a printer you purchased for $100 and it breaks, usually just after the warranty period ends," he said.

"The cost of repairing it is $75 to $100. Some people will say, 'I'll just buy a new machine for that.' Yeah, you can. But you can spend the same dollar amount on a repair and your machine is equivalent to a new machine and you haven't thrown it in a landfill. There's no place to put the old stuff other than the trash."

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Wargnier, 48, of Manhattan Beach was working in a machine shop after graduating in 1975 from Venice High School when he heard IBM was seeking repairmen for its popular line of Selectric typewriters. Not only would IBM teach him how to repair intricate office machinery, it also would teach him the intricacies of doing business in a professional way.

There was no such thing as a lowly repairman for IBM in the mid-1970s. Its technicians acted and looked like pros. The image was reinforced by the firm's starchy dress code: white shirt, dark trousers, crisp tie, polished wing-tip shoes.

The company trained Wargnier to fix the rotating-ball Selectric along with copiers and dictation equipment. After two years at IBM, he worked for an independent typewriter repair company for a while before setting out on his own.

He worked for a time out of his home before taking the plunge and buying Business Machines Center in 1984. He rented the space from building owner H.J. "Chop" Suling, who ran a fix-it shop that specialized in Victor brand adding machines -- which by that time were quickly becoming relics.

The shop shared the ground floor of a two-story building at the corner of Ventura Boulevard and De Roja Avenue with a small store that sold tennis rackets.

The site held promise, Wargnier decided. Built in 1950 close to the street in an area where busy Ventura Boulevard gently curves, the tiny building was highly visible to passing motorists even though it lacked a lighted sign. Initially, Wargnier's brother was a partner in the shop. Also IBM-trained, Ray Wargnier, 49, of Chatsworth now works as the second repair technician in the two-man operation.

The typewriter repair business was brisk at first. Electric typewriters were on office desks everywhere and Wargnier had annual maintenance contracts with companies throughout the San Fernando Valley.

Wargnier's tiny storefront soon expanded into the tennis shop and had six technicians working out of it. They handled thousands of typewriter repairs a year.

But as he was getting his repair business off the ground, the personal computer began popping up on the retail market.

Wargnier bought one of the first IBM PCs in the mid-1980s to play Pac Man and other groundbreaking electronic games that were all the rage. He and his brother quickly figured out how to tweak them by adding memory so the games would go faster.

His typewriter period ended with an exclamation point.

"The typewriter industry just died one day in 1990. The bottom went out. It just went poof," Wargnier said. "Our customers were replacing their typewriters with computers."

The early computers, however, were expensive to buy, finicky to use and prone to breakdowns. Soon they began showing up in Wargnier's shop. Their owners wanted them repaired, not replaced. Wargnier learned how to fix them on the fly.

"We were charging customers for an hour's labor when in fact we were spending four or five on a computer figuring out what was wrong. We never charged our customers for our learning," he said.

Wargnier also remembers the first time a customer walked in and asked if the shop repaired fax machines.

"Our secretary said no. From the back where I was working I said yes. IBM had taught us how to teach ourselves to fix machines. With that first fax we were sweating it a little bit. But we figured it out."

When the 1994 Northridge earthquake struck, Wargnier was glad he had mastered the fax fix.

Most office computers were secured to their owners' desks and escaped damage from the magnitude 6.7 temblor. But fax machines were sent flying from their usual perches atop filing cabinets. "Their plastic cases broke, little plastic parts inside snapped off. You can't buy those plastic parts," he said.

So Wargnier repaired them with what he calls "our No. 1 tool": paper clips.

"We use soldering irons to melt the plastic enough to where we can press the paper clip in to hold the two plastic pieces together," he said. When the plastic cools and hardens around the paper clip, the mended piece is rigid once again.

"It might not always have looked pretty, but it kept the machines functional. It kept people from having to go out and spend a lot of money replacing office equipment at that point in time.

"We literally became the body and fender men of office equipment after the earthquake. We kept a lot of people's businesses going."

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Oddly enough, Wargnier has discovered that typewriters are still out there. He repairs about 30 a month.

"We're fortunate. There are lots of writers up in Topanga Canyon. A lot of them use manuals, or have them as a backup because the power's always going out up there," he said. "Typewriters are still used for labels and tax forms. At the holidays all the retired people pull their old portables out of their closets to type their Christmas cards. They have to have that red ribbon on it."

As he pops open ailing machines and examines hard drives and motherboards, Wargnier still uses the same briefcase full of screwdrivers and pliers that he had when he started at IBM. He wears a white shirt and a tie -- another holdover from the IBM days -- and a professional-looking white smock.

The tiny repair shop is modest. Behind shelves crammed with machines waiting to be fixed, fake wood panels left over from the tennis shop days remain. "Ultimately, we should take that paneling off and put in something more modern. It's just that maybe we're not as creative as we should be. We have technical minds, not artistic minds," he said, laughing.

Such lack of pretentiousness sits well with his customers.

"A lot of people trust a small repair shop because of its size," said Simi Valley human relations consultant Cleve Adams, a customer for 15 years.

"The person you're speaking with is the person who is fixing it," Adams said. "There's no doublespeak. I like that."

Former Dodger baseball broadcaster Ross Porter regularly toted in his small manual typewriter to the shop when he was announcing games.

Porter, of Calabasas, credits Wargnier with keeping his battered Smith-Corona going for two decades. On it, Porter banged out the endlessly entertaining trivia that was his on-the-air trademark: batting averages by the month, earned-run averages in night games. Statistics "are the soul of baseball," as he once put it.

"I typed my scripts on it, going back to my days on TV at NBC. I always wrote everything I did," Porter said.

"On road trips, people would say I kept them awake at night typing on it in my hotel room. I was the last Dodger announcer to go to the laptop."

Wargnier has learned to fix them too.

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