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Outsmarting Obsolescence

John Wargnier started fixing typewriters, then adapted his skills as computers, faxes and other machines came along.

February 11, 2006|Bob Pool | 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."


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.

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