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Fixin' to retire: East-side repairman closing doors after 45 years of business

October 31, 2005

Dave Roberts is an ordinary-looking guy who would hardly stick out in a crowd. But as the man called Mr. Fix-It, he can command cult-like status.

"I'll go to a restaurant and people will say, 'Hey Mr. Fix-It!'" he exclaimed from behind the counter of his cluttered repair shop. "I feel like a celebrity sometimes."

But the moniker that made him an east-side institution will no longer exist after Dec. 31, when Roberts closes the doors on 45 years of service.

The 64-year-old who once worked 16-hour days to keep pace with the demand of repairing small appliances such as crock pots and coffeemakers has seen business dwindle the past decade to the point where retirement has come calling.

Roberts and his few remaining counterparts in the city are an endangered species nearing extinction. Their numbers, which once hovered around 25, have been dropping steadily as product manufacturers continually sever ties with independent service centers.

The trend began in the 1980s, when small-appliance makers such as Farberware sold out to larger companies and assembly moved to China. It was then that Roberts first began receiving letters from manufacturers indicating his services were no longer needed. The products are now made so inexpensively that if they break under warranty, companies offer replacements instead of repairing them.

Complicating matters is the fact that toasters and other small appliances these days are held together with glue instead of screws, making it nearly impossible to disassemble them.

And younger generations, growing up in a throwaway age, often opt to buy new when something breaks. The majority of Roberts' aging clientele, for instance, is north of 50.

The number of manufacturers Roberts performs repairs for has plunged from 35 to 10. Just last month, Philips Norelco informed him it no longer would be directing broken shavers his way. Fearing other razor makers will follow suit, he's chosen to trade his 12-hour days for more time to devote to his other passion: the Indiana Pacers.

"The response people have that I'm closing has been unbelievable," Roberts said. "When you're in business 45 years, people are so used to you being here; you're like family."

No 9-to-5 job

A visit to his 2,000-square-foot shop at the corner of South Sherman Drive and East English Avenue is like taking a step back in time. There are no endless aisles, just boxes of mixers, toasters and pressure cookers stacked to the ceiling.

Antique appliances that he has restored to their past glory-and others that have never been used-sit amid their modern brethren, which Roberts considers inferior. Holding a 1948 Sunbeam toaster, he lamented that a newer model would never last 50-plus years.

He inherited his flair for fixing things-and the Mr. Fix-It name-from his father. Dale Roberts passed the business to his son in the early 1980s. He died in 1993.

The younger Roberts, however, had no plans to follow in his father's footsteps. He was about 30 years old and was working a job at a west-side steel company "that wasn't going well," when he approached his dad about working for him. In hindsight, Roberts said that was the best decision he ever made.

He mostly worked sales while his father took care of repairs-a perfect partnership, he said. Business was brisk, too. In fact, Roberts was working so many hours that his dad put him on salary to save money.

The popular Mr. Coffee coffeemaker and Rival crock pot drove business. They could hardly keep Mr. Coffee in stock, and the pair assembled crock pots from parts and sold them to dealers to compensate for shortages.

A backlog of four to six weeks was quite long compared to a turnaround time of one to two days today, Roberts said. He declined to divulge revenue, or compare the golden years to now.

Although the work has slowed, he sticks to his daily regimen of opening at 5 a.m. and closing at 5 p.m. on weekdays. Vacuumcleaner repairs still keep him busy, and business continues to trickle in from across the country.

Customers who inquire about his hours often have to ask twice upon hearing his early arrival time. He's never missed a day of work, he said, even though back spasms sometimes have left him barely able to walk.

The shop once even served as his second home-literally. Roberts is twice divorced and bunked in the store's back room for a spell while a bachelor. He has two daughters who live in Nashville, Tenn., and New Jersey.

He met his current wife, Diane, at a single's party in Lawrence. Walking into the venue, Roberts had a strange feeling he would meet someone that night. He spotted her upon entering, and they married in 1994. She leads the payroll department of a downtown company and handles Roberts' bookkeeping duties.

"She was the first [wife] who understood what it meant to own your own business," he said. "You have to be here."

Nearing the end

While business has suffered, there is another reason Roberts is retiring. He's received word that his new neighbor will be a piercing and tattoo parlor.

"Good grief," he said, "I don't want to be around that."

Bar 52 and Dairy Queen are the only two businesses that have been in the neighborhood as long as Mr. Fix-It. Mike Spears has owned the Dairy Queen for 30 years and has known Roberts for at least 40 years. They both grew up in the area, and Roberts still lives at 11th and Franklin streets.

Upon retirement, though, Roberts wants to get started on the home he plans to design and build on State Road 52 on Indianapolis' east side, which is being widened to four lanes to accommodate development.

Roberts has worked on Spears' equipment through the years and still plans to after he closes the shop. But Spears said he still will miss Roberts.

"We're the old-timers," he said. "We have a close relationship, as far as a business point of view."

As Roberts nears retirement, he's been selling his inventory and stockpile of parts to Don Daniels, who owns Brand Appliance Servicenter in the 1800 block of North Meridian Street.

Daniels recently turned 60 and plans to stay in business until he's 65. His service center, once part of the General Electric family, is only one of three Brand centers remaining in the nation; the others are in Houston and Corpus Christi, Texas.

Although competitors, Roberts and Daniels are friends.

"I've known him for quite a few years, but we became closer the last four or five years," Daniels said. "We pretty much help each other out. In the past, we were both so busy we didn't have time to consider dealing with each other."

Contemplating his last day of work, Roberts said: "It's not going to be good. But it's all got to come to an end."
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