Death Of A Small Business
The Atlantic|December 2020
“I’m more than just my store,” my father told me. And yet, for nearly his entire adult life, all of his decisions had argued the opposite.
By Francesca Mari

Frank Mari and his store

The first time I looked at my father’s Yelp reviews, I choked up. They were not all positive, and of course I read the worst ones first. My dad, Frank, runs a high-fidelity audio-video store in San Francisco and also repairs the brands he sells. One reviewer gave him one star, noting that his turntables had sat in the shop for five weeks, untouched. It brought me back to all the school nights when we stayed at the store until 9 p.m. so he could finish a job that was overdue. Another guy complained that when he called, my dad picked up blurting, “What do you want? I’m vvvvvveeeerrrryyyy busy.” I remember hearing him do that once when I was a kid. He was on hold with the bank or a supplier, and the second line kept ringing. I was aghast. “Well, I hope you are sooooooooo busy that people do not EVER go to your store,” this reviewer wrote.

But the haters were in the minority. His clients included George Moscone (“very down-to-earth,” my dad said) and Walt’s daughter Diane Disney Miller (“short like Minnie Mouse and kind to everyone”). “Frank is the man!!” one customer wrote. “He is the only one I believed I could trust with a delicate and expensive job— and boy was I right.” “Will try to find good value for someone who isn’t a cognoscenti about audio,” another said. “Been going to him for 30 years. Never would go anywhere else.” A “neighborhood gem.”

And then there was a review from someone who hadn’t bought a thing from my dad. He’d locked himself out of his car and wrote to thank my dad for letting him use the store’s phone. Would an employee at Walmart do that? Could they? Big-box stores are designed such that the workers rarely see the outside. They aren’t part of “the ballet of the good city sidewalk” that Jane Jacobs wrote about in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. In the mid-century Greenwich Village that she immortalized, grocers held keys and packages for neighbors, and candy-store clerks kept an eye on kids. Even the drinkers who gathered under the gooey orange lights outside the White Horse Tavern kept the street safe by keeping it occupied. When I first read the book 15 years ago, I told my dad to pick up a copy, which he diligently did, from the bookshop up the street. It was the first book he’d read since he started at the store, in 1975.

In the late ’60s, my dad would gather his highschool friends in his bedroom in San Francisco to play with different turntables. After they left, he’d Windex their fingerprints off the cabinets and glass, a habit that his mother proudly reported to her friends. In his spare time, he took things apart and put them back together—clocks, radios, amplifiers—and to support himself during college, he got a repair job at an audio-video store. He wanted to be a radio DJ, and he hosted a weekly show for the College of San Mateo’s NPR affiliate. But when I ask him what he played, he can’t remember. The station allowed only “middle-of-the-road music.” And for him, the sound quality was just as important as the artists.

He moved from the repair room at the audio-video store to the sales floor—a somewhat pompous description of a 15-by-25-foot room with sea-foam-colored carpet and soundproof sliding-glass doors. One day, a nurse walked in and he sold her a VCR. He called her a couple of times to ask if it worked okay and then finally asked her out, to the Dickens Fair (where everything—and everyone—is out of a Charles Dickens novel). His sister worked there and had comped him a couple of tickets. Seven years later, that nurse, who was seven years older than my dad, gave birth to me. In the late ’80s, Frank became a co-owner of the store, and in the ’90s, he bought out the founder.

For 45 years, that store, Harmony Audio Video, has been my dad’s life: the reason he left home early every day, the reason he was chronically late to pick me up from school, the reason he didn’t take a single vacation for 25 years. Growing up, the store was my life too: From the time my mom’s breast cancer metastasized when I was in second grade (she died when I was 10), I hung out in the back after school until 7 or 8, before we drove 40 minutes home on coastal Highway 1 to slightly more affordable El Granada. Keeping me with him at work meant he didn’t have to pay for child care. In exchange, he basically ceded the store’s second phone line to me for conversations with classmates and friends. If he was with a client and I had a question, I had to write it on a notecard— one of the hundreds of blank neon mailers on which he listed monthly specials.

The store put me through private school in San Francisco (with an assist from financial aid). And it got me a summer job pipetting chemicals into test tubes in high school (a scientist at a blood lab was one of his customers). I’m not going to say the store was a community linchpin—nobody needs really nice speakers or crystal- clear flatscreen TVs—but it was a node through which different strata interacted: doctors, tech VPs, working-class Italians from North Beach like my dad, who were into fast cars and fancy speakers, as well as the musicians and video guys he employed and for whom he set up profit-sharing plans.

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