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Computers

When the Genius Bar can't help

Independent local stores are finding new ways to serve their communities by going where big retail chains can't.

Sarah Tew/CNET
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Deep in the heart of Williamsburg, one of America's premier hipster haunts, Apple was preparing to open its very first Brooklyn retail store.

Housed in a rebuilt two-story brick warehouse echoing the industrial vibe of the neighborhood, this new location brought displays full of gleaming iPhones and MacBooks to the 2.6 million residents of New York's most populous borough.

It was July 2016, and just across the East River in Manhattan, one of New York's oldest and best-known independent computer shops was closing its doors forever.

Founded in 1987, Tekserve was for many years one of the few places New York Mac owners could get authorized repairs for their Apple products. Its 25,000-square-foot Chelsea showroom was a space for Apple fans to gather, check out new gear and talk to service and repair techs who knew their regular customers by name.

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Tekserve, founded in 1987, closed its retail doors in July, 2016.

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But from the day Apple opened its first New York retail location in 2002 in a former Soho post office, Tekserve's days were numbered. The store, a familiar sight that served as a backdrop for episodes of "Law & Order," "Sex and the City" and other TV programs, faced increased competition on all sides. Repairs for MacBooks and other Apple devices shifted to Apple's company-owned stores, with their robotically efficient Genius Bars, while sales of hardware and accessories moved online, driven by Amazon and other e-commerce retailers.

Thinking local

With the shift from any local shop to a chain, whether it repairs Macs or sells hardware, something is inevitably lost. "Small retailers tend to be more attuned to the local neighborhood and what's going on and what is valuable for the neighborhood," says Jerry Gepner, Tekserve's CEO. "Those are the things you lose when independent retailers of any sort close their doors."

On the cult TV series "Mr. Robot," we see flashbacks to the ill-fated computer repair shop the show is named after. Small, cluttered, but promising "computer repair with a smile," these neighborhood institutions are a dying breed. Even the old-school Brooklyn computer shop along my daily commute that inspired this article went out of business this spring (and took down its kitschy retro repair shop sign) before I could pay it a visit. But if you know where to look, a handful of small mom-and-pop computer stores are still alive and kicking.

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Joe Silverman, founder of New York Computer Help.

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One such holdout is Joe Silverman, owner of New York Computer Help. He skipped the expensive street-facing storefront space in favor of a second-floor hideaway, tucked into an anonymous commercial building on 34th Street in Manhattan. "I started out basically going from apartment to apartment helping out folks in terms of a home computer repair service," he says, and as business boomed, he opened the shop in 2000.

Without the walk-in customers a ground-floor retail storefront brings in, "it's word of mouth, referrals... Yelp definitely helps," he says. Silverman's key is to go where big chain stores like Apple and Best Buy won't, fixing products that have water damage and recovering lost files. "Apple, when you go there, they look to turn you away on every little thing that's out of warranty, if there's a little water spill, if it's a little dented."

Doing what Apple won't

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Mikey Weiss, founder of Mikey's Hook-Up

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Back across the river, practically in the shadow of Apple's new Brooklyn retail location, is Mikey's Hook-Up. This Apple-centric computer and technology store has served Williamsburg's artists, musicians and creators since 2001, when musician Mikey Weiss started selling computer cables and accessories from a folding table on the sidewalk. Even today, his shop feels more like an old-fashioned guitar store than a computer repair depot. Weiss describes it as "a hardware store for the multimedia generation," casting a wide net by also carrying supplies for musicians, DJs and photographers.

He hopes the new Apple Store opening just a few blocks away will do what the Manhattan Apple Stores have been doing for years -- send new customers his way. "They're really specific on what repairs they do," he says. "All week long, they're sending customers from Soho and 14th Street [Apple Store locations] to us because they don't do certain repairs. They don't upgrade RAM; they don't save people's data."

Just as Mikey's Hook-Up is tuned into its local community, Marc Anglade has made his shop, MRK Computer Services, an integral part of his Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights. "I spent many of my earlier years in Crown Heights and wanted to make my services available to the community," he says. To that end, Anglade's unassuming storefront has a row of Apple iMacs set up against one wall, and local students are invited to use the computers for free.

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Marc Anglade, founder of MRK Computer Services.

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"I met a lot of kids who were eager to do research and do homework," he says, so they can come into the shop and "do research, type papers and even print what they need to print." He estimates he's helped around 800 kids over the years. "They'll come hug me and thank me. It feels good."

Better computers, fewer repairs

Even Tekserve is finding a way to weather the changes in the computer repair business. The iconic Chelsea retail storefront serving the public may be gone, but the company's longstanding IT, sales and service division for small and medium companies will continue.

Despite increasing competition from big retail chains, Tekserve's Gepner doesn't blame Apple or Best Buy for his company's exit from the brick-and-mortar world. "Technology has become more reliable," he says. "Things break less now than they did a decade ago. And that's an important thing when you think about the repair business, particularly the retail repair business, which relies on things breaking and people bringing in their computers."

That's especially true when you're paying for 25,000 square feet on a prime Chelsea storefront, but it's a calculation any indie computer shop owner needs to keep in mind to survive in the age of Apple.

This story appears in the winter 2016 edition of CNET Magazine. For other magazine stories, click here.