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Valley Business

Northridge Temblor Set Off Surge in Family's Glass-Repair Business

November 24, 1998|ROBERTA G. WAX | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

TARZANA — When Joseph Rattay reopened his crystal repair shop one month after the Northridge earthquake, customers began lining up two hours before he even got to work.

And they continued to come, even after he warned them that it might be up to two years before he could fix their precious items.

Today, nearly five years after the quake, "We've whittled down the wait to six months," Rattay said with a laugh.

As a businessman, Rattay has certainly found his niche. He owns and operates Rattay's Crystal, China and Collectibles Restoration, which began as a sideline of his father's business, Tarzana Glass. Rattay's is one of just a handful of crystal and china restoration shops in the area.

The Northridge temblor was good for business. Way too good.

"Right after the quake I pretty much locked the door of the repair shop because we were so busy trying to get people's houses back in shape," Rattay said.

"When I finally opened the shop again, people waited two to three hours to get in the door." Customers reported that some people almost came to blows over their space in the line. Rattay had nightmares of customers crashing through his own glass window.

Rattay took in so many items that he had to rent extra space above his shop just to store the stuff. "There was such an onslaught of work that I had to stop taking items because I had no room to store them. People were begging me to take things, and even when I said I wouldn't get to it for two years, they still wanted me to take it. It was a little overwhelming."

Rattay cut his customer service hours to only three days a week, allowing him more time for repair work. He ground down his load so that repairs now take anywhere from a few weeks to six months, depending on the complexity of the job.

Some customers grouse about the delay, but they still come, bringing a hundred or so items a week to the small shop.

"Nothing makes me happier than getting the [items] fixed and out," he said. "After all, that's how I pay the rent."

Rattay's father bought Tarzana Glass in the mid-1960s, and the younger Rattay, now 40, began working there when he was 16.

"People began bringing in chipped stemware and I'd help grind and polish the glass," he said. Like cracks in glass, word spread and soon people were bringing in not only crystal and glass items, but also fine china, wood, even metal pieces.

The repair work became a business in itself and the Rattays moved the glass shop to its current Encino location, opening a separate Tarzana storefront for repairs.

Since his father's death nearly eight years ago, Rattay has managed both stores, with the restoration portion accounting for more than half his business. A manager and one employee help run Tarzana Glass, but he uses mostly just family at the restoration shop. Wife Lisa and children Adam, 18, and Sonia, 13, help with the simpler repair work, such as grinding nicks out of crystal.

He does the more exacting work himself.

Repairs cost anywhere from $5 for a simple grinding to $5,000 for extensive restoration that requires not only putting pieces back together, but also filling cracks, holes and painting.

The most common repairs are chips in the rims of stemware, bowls and platters. Fixing the rim of a crystal goblet, for example, costs about $12.50 a glass, and since good crystal sells for $30 to $40 apiece, repairing makes sense.

He has cut away broken shards from the tops of pricey Waterford goblets, which cost anywhere from $50 to $100 each, making the crystal smaller but still usable.

Shattered collectibles, such as porcelain Hummel or Lladro figurines, may be fixed up sufficiently to retain some value, even if only sentimental.

For example, about 100 pieces of a beautiful amber-colored Lalique vase sit on his workbench waiting to be pieced together. It will cost $250 to repair, but since the piece is signed and dated by Rene Lalique, is a rare amber color, and is probably 50 to 75 years old, the owner apparently thought it worthwhile.

Often, Rattay explained, people want collectibles, such as a bowl that was handed down for generations or a memento, restored for sentimental reasons. One woman, for example, spent $92.50 to repair five 1950s-era pottery pieces and two martini glasses from her California pottery collection. A man barely blinked at the $75 repair bill to bond, fill and repaint the golden leg on a hand-painted bowl inherited from his mother-in-law.

Rattay has often thought of giving up the glass business, which fluctuates with the construction and remodeling industry, to concentrate on the restoration but so far has always opted to remain diversified.

"It's been beneficial to do both," he said. "When the glass business is slow, we always have crystal to grind."

And, he noted, "People break things faster than I can fix 'em."

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