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Free Enterprise | So SoCal

Rain Man

June 09, 1996|Eric Enno Tamm

Richard Margeson is the Maytag repairman of Los Angeles--only hipper. Like the loner on the TV commercials, the 70-year-old Margeson is silver-haired and, today at least, decked out in proletarian navy blue; this being L.A., he also sports a hoop earring in his left lobe. Sitting in a cluttered repair shop on Sunset near Vine one drizzly morning, Margeson is lonely, but not for lack of customers--he runs Los Angeles' only umbrella repair service. In fact, Margeson says, the only other one in the entire country is in New York City.

Margeson fixes about a dozen umbrellas a week--a third of them from movie studios that need prop umbrellas repaired or customized. Less-exalted clients bring in antiques and finely crafted, expensive umbrellas like the London-made Burberry, Cadillac of the trade. From a shelf in the back of the shop, Margeson pulls down a Burberry with a broken rib--a $15 repair--and admires its trademark tan plaid canvas and solid maple shaft. "We do all kinds of things to umbrellas," Margeson says. "Replace ribs, handles, shafts--and we re-cover."

Margeson, a former insurance agent, began his career in brolliology--the science of the umbrella--after he retired in 1980. He moved from Boston to Los Angeles and signed on with Langer's Luggage Shop and Luggage Hospital in Hollywood, mostly to keep himself busy. David Langer, 74, owns the shop, a fixture since his father opened it in 1935. The shop also did a big business repairing umbrellas until the torrent of cheap, disposable Asian imports flooded the market, rendering repair nearly obsolete.

"It's a dying art," says Gilbert Center, 72, Margeson and Langer's East Coast counterpart, who manages Uncle Sam's Umbrellas in New York. "The umbrella repairmen got old and there was no young blood to replace them." Center ticks off the cities that have lost their umbrella repairmen over the years: San Francisco, Chicago, Boston. "All gone," he laments.

How, then, has Los Angeles, which on average receives less than an inch of rain from May to October, managed to support a thriving umbrella-repair business? The answer is on the wall behind the shop's front counter: 150 or so autographed photos of Leeza Gibbons, Barry Manilow, Burt Reynolds, Charlton Heston, Alice Cooper in full regalia ("We didn't fix his umbrella," clarifies Langer. "We repaired his luggage.") Clearly, the players of the industry that pays Chris Farley $6 million a movie and who make a fetish of owning expensive, arcane household goods (think Land Rover) haven't warmed to the concept of cheap, disposable Asian imports when it comes to the umbrellas they carry. Thus, Margeson remains a busy man.

"James Earl Jones came in on a rainy day in a felt hat and a rain coat," Margeson says. "I didn't know who he was until he opened his mouth. Then I said, 'Hey, I know you.' He just laughed."

Margeson recalls the time a customer came into the shop to have his Burberry repaired. The man had called Burberry's Ltd. in London to ask how he could get his umbrella fixed. He was told to ship the umbrella to England or take it to Langer's in L.A.

"They are," Margeson says without irony, referring to the Burberry, "world famous."

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