Ask Joe Lo Presti to crank up the cash register and it could sound something like noon in a clock shop. In Lo Presti's San Clemente antique store, Master's Pieces, there is never just one cash register. On this particular day, a good 2 dozen gleam brassily from tables, floors, even from under benches.
And if, in this era of bloodless electronic digital models that merely hum and buzz, you've forgotten what a real ratcheting, banging, clanging cash register sounds like, Lo Presti will be delighted to refresh your memory with a demonstration on, say, a model that displays the purchase price in English pounds and rings up the sale with the turn of a crank.
He also sells clocks, scales, brass fixtures and other reminders of commerce past in his shop, but it is the polished brass cash registers that dominate the room.
He is one of the few people in the nation, he says, who knows how to take apart a 70-year-old register, clean it, put it back together with working parts, and restore the case with a precision that makes it look as if it just emerged from the factory.
As a child, said Lo Presti, "subconsciously, I suppose, I knew I'd get into this. When I was a kid in New York, I'd go to the candy store and push across my 2 cents, and this bell would ring and this machine would sparkle."
Lo Presti said he bought his first cash register about 12 years ago when he began working at his antiques business full time. Previously, he said, he had danced and acted in television and film productions in New York and Hollywood, and bought and sold antiques between jobs.
Early mechanical training at a trade school, he said, gave him the background he needed to sort out the complex inner workings of the registers.
"I learned how to turn a wrench there," Lo Presti said. "And after I bought my first cash register, it sat on my dining room table for a while until I turned one screw and then another and before long I found that I had a restored machine."
He also formed a pupil-mentor relationship with a former trouble-shooter for the National Cash Register Co., the American corporation that dominated the industry earlier in the century and that is the manufacturer of most of the machines Lo Presti restores.
Today, he said, he is the local expert.
The cash register, he said, was invented in 1883 by a saloon owner who wanted a permanent record of each purchase so that he could keep his employees from skimming his profits. The first models were made of wood, but cases were later constructed of brass. Although the brass models were hardy, time has been unkind to some of them.
"People have brought me machines in baskets, literally," he said. "And I'll get calls from people and they'll say, 'Joey, it's stuck! What'll we do?' "
New restoration projects are almost assured, said Lo Presti. He points out that National Cash Register alone produced 500 different models by 1912.
He usually has a selection of nearly two dozen--mostly brass models from the early part of this century--in the shop at any time. They range from the smaller "candy store" models weighing around 75 pounds to substantially larger ones that weigh nearly 125 pounds. Most of his machines sell for between $1,000 and $3,000, Lo Presti said.
The machines' appeal is difficult to communicate to the non-enthusiast, Lo Presti said, but it's real. He estimates that he has restored and sold nearly 200 of them since opening his store. He keeps none of them as personal possessions, however, saying he prefers "to spread the joy around. I love seeing the way people respond when they see the transformation" of a restored machine. "If I could find some of the old wood cabinet models, though, I'd be interested in those. They're very rare.
"Maybe there's some mystic meaning there," he said of old cash registers' appeal. "Actually, though, I think most people buy them as decorator items for their homes. They want to get a fancy cash register and play bartender."
MASTER'S PIECES AT A GLANCE Where: 418 N. El Camino Real, San Clemente. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Closed Sunday. Information: (714) 498-7590. Appointments may be arranged by calling (714) 240-1393.