SMALL BUSINESS FOCUS: CROWN MACHINE SERVICES


George and Mark at their workbench inside Crown Machine Services.

By Carol Tannenhauser

In the May issue of Vanity Fair, Andrea Martin, the Emmy and Tony Award-winning actress, was asked, “Which living person do you most admire?” Her answer was, “The sewing-machine repairman at the corner of 107th and Broadway.”

“She was talking about him,” said George, who declined to give his last name, indicating Mark, who declined to give his. Both declined to give their ages. “She was definitely talking about him,” Mark said.

They were sitting side by side at a table, behind a pair of sewing machines, fixing them. The machines whirred, intermittently, as they worked. Before them was a gigantic jumble, a chaotic collection, a pretty impressive pile of appliances, electronics, and other assorted stuff, needing to be serviced or repaired.

Is there a system beyond the small manila tags tied to each item?

“The system is wherever there’s a spot, something gets put in it,” said Mark. “When that spot becomes free, something else goes in there. It’s been working so far.”

That’s saying something, considering Crown Machine Services has been a fixture – and fixer – on the Upper West Side for more than half a century.

“This is a very important store, because there’s nobody else around that does this kind of work,” said George, who opened it in 1965. What his arrangement is with Mark, who’s been at Crown for 25 years, or how they got together neither would say, beyond “we’re just two mechanical guys.” They both have wives at home. “Well, one each,” Mark said. “She better be at home!” George added.

They’re kibitzers, but serious about the services they provide to the neighborhood and city, and what they need in return to survive.

“Nowadays, we live in a ‘Kleenex society,’” said George. “People got in the habit of, when they have a problem just discarding it, throwing it away. You walk through the streets and you see vacuum cleaners, sewing machines, and many other things that, if they brought them in, they are probably better than the replacements. Instead, they just go out and buy a new one.”

“Older stuff you repair,” Mark said. “Newer stuff you have to think about.”

“In order to survive, we do a lot of things,” George said. “Computers, lamps, mix masters, irons, and some odd jobs we take on as an accommodation. Mark recently fixed an expensive suitcase and a motorized wheelchair. This is not work we’re looking for, but we do it to accommodate the people who have been coming to us for years. We don’t like to turn them down.”

Many of Crown’s customers are famous, perhaps because of its connection to the theater. George and Mark have been servicing sewing machines in the wardrobe departments of Broadway shows since the 1960s’ musical Godspell, where George got a contact marijuana high so strong “my feet were off the ground and I couldn’t find my car.” They did Lion King and the current Anastasia, among many others.

“One thing I want to get out there is that we also sell sewing machines and vacuum cleaners,” Mark said. “We carry Miele, which is the best vacuum. I have customers who’ve done a lot of repairs with us, but then they’ll go online and buy a vacuum. They probably think they can get it cheaper, but they can’t. All the Miele dealers sell it basically at the same price. People have to realize that they have to also shop us, not just bring repairs. In order for us to stay in business, they have to think of us when they need new things, like air conditioners in the summer. We can compete on those prices.”

The bell above the front door jangled and a woman entered the store. After resolving a vacuum cleaner issue, she was overheard saying to George, “I’m pleading with you never to leave, ever, ever, ever! This is the way New York used to be, with services on every block. Now, you’re the only one around. You’re like a dinosaur!”

Except George and Mark have no intention, nor are they in any danger of becoming extinct.

“Business is good and we get along exceptionally well with our landlord,” George said. “I originally rented the store from his father, who told him, ‘Whatever you do, get along with George.’ Through the years, they’ve been very good. They raise the rent, but they don’t chase us out of here. When the lease comes up, they can charge whatever they want, but we negotiate. They want us here, because we repair their computers and air conditioners.”

There is one thing you should know: it is not ‘first come, first served’ for repairs at Crown Machine Services. Those who buy there get priority.

“You buy a vacuum from us and screw it up, we’ll fix it in a day or two,” said George. “You make a mistake and suck up your diamonds or the cat and we’ll pull them out. But we’re very busy. We have a lot of stuff to repair, all the time. We really don’t have a slow season. We take care of our people first. When you buy elsewhere, you have to wait in line.”

“It drives me nuts when people say, ‘We want you to stay,’ and then go online and buy a vacuum,” Mark said. “If you really want us here, then you have to support us, not just when you need us, but when you have a choice. If you keep choosing the Internet to buy things, then stores like us won’t be here. We used to do a lot more sales when the internet was not around. People looked in the phone book, saw our big ad, and came to us. Now, there’s no phone book. They go online. Things can be delivered free in two days, so that’s what they do.”

Update: Mark says that if you mention West Side Rag and buy a new Miele vacuum you can get 1 free box of bags with any C1, C2 or U1 and 2 boxes of bags with any C3.

Photos by Carol Tannenhauser.

cash-register3
West Side Rag is profiling small businesses, which are disappearing from the neighborhood at an alarming rate. Readers have sent in dozens of suggestions and we’ll be taking a look at several of them over the next few months. To read more in this series, click here.

If you have suggestions for other businesses we should profile, please email us.

Cash register photo by Franck Blais.

COLUMNS, HISTORY, NEWS | 26 comments | permalink
    1. diane wildowsky says:

      I’m so happy they are still in business in the neighborhood. I bought my sewing machine there a few years ago and am very happy with it. Would readily buy a commercial machine from them if I had the room. Very accommodating and I’d rather fix it than throw it away and they think the same.

      • Filatura says:

        They are the best! I always feel I should wear a helmet when I walk in; the store is an indescribable morass of machines waiting to be fixed or picked up, with a narrow aisle down the middle; ceiling-high shelves are packed with good quality new machines. I can’t even imagine what’s behind the ancient wooden desk, but whenever I need a part or an accessory for my sewing machine or vacuum, Mark goes “in the back” and dredges it up. I’ve bought a high-end vacuum from them and I’d upgrade my 1960’s sewing machine except that Crown keeps it in excellent condition.

    2. Paula Frisch says:

      Skill Mill NYC is a creative space with sewing classes located just around the corner at 949 Amsterdam. We proudly purchased our sewing machines from Crown Machine Services and so appreciate all that George and Mark do for the neighborhood. Service your machine with them and learn to use it from us! http://www.SkillMillNYC.com

    3. Kindly Dr Dave says:

      Both George and Mark are gems. Their knowledge of engineering is superb. “They don’t make this belt anymore, but this one here will do just fine.” (and it does). I treasure the security that their shop gives the entire area.

    4. Bronx Boy says:

      I’ve been getting my Hoover Celebrity vacuum cleaner (purchased in 1976) fixed here for years. Everything in this article is spot-on. They fix things and keep them out of landfill.

      When I started going to them, it was just the nearest place. Now it’s about the only place.

    5. UWS Resident says:

      Would someone be kind enough to share their telephone number? The scaffolding hides the number on their sign and they are not listed in Manhattan business directories. i
      I want to know if they fix espresso machines

      They are certainly keeping a VERY low profile.

    6. Martha Weissberg says:

      Having Crown Services in my neighborhood has earned me bragging rights. Over the decades, they’ve repaired typewriters (yes, that long ago) and lamps for me. When I could no longer find bags for an old vacuum cleaner, the appliance store (now gone) didn’t carry them, but steered me to Crown. That machine finally died. It was crummy when I bought it in the early 1970’s, and, when my back began to ache, I knew I needed to replace it. Miele, said everyone, and I went to Crown. One of the guys brought it to me, actually. Listen up, folks. If you want them to stay, buy local. These guys are treasures.

    7. Madeline says:

      They are WONDERFUL. Among the last of the small service businesses that used to be ubiquitous on the Upper Westside. Long may they reign (and repair)…

    8. Barbara Litt says:

      They have fixed my olde sewing machine a number of times. Fantastic! They are a fixture on the Upper West, and I hope they stay that way! SHOP LOCAL…While you still can!

    9. UWS Resident says:

      KL185

      Thank you for the telephone number. Much appreciated

    10. Miriam says:

      Thank you for doing this wonderful feature story on Crown! They are just as your words painted them, a little bit odd duck, but absolutely the best at what they do. They were here when I was a kid. After moving to Brooklyn and then downtown, I always still thought of them first whenever anything needed repairing or notarizing (yes, they have a Notary Public license!) or plain advice. They gladly referred me to a wonderful man who installed an air conditioner a couple years ago. I’m back in the hood, just around the corner and am so grateful they’re still around. It’s a little bit of old New York. I almost didn’t want to read this story at first, I thought you were going to say they were closing. Happy to see that isn’t the case!

    11. Karhy says:

      I just read the Andrea Martin interview yesterday and thought, yay, they’re right in my hood. If I need anything fixed, I now know where to go!

    12. Anon says:

      If I need to get something fixed but didn’t buy it there, I’m going to have to wait a good long time? Doesn’t exactly make me want to race there…

    13. Rafaela says:

      My grandmother, who passed away at the age of 99, was an milliner. George was ever faithful and would often make house calls throughout the 1960’s, ’70’s and beyond to fix and tune up her Singer, which we still have, . Much respect for this business, their longevity, and great work! I know they’ve been at 107th for a long, long time, but the shop was somewhere else before 107th. Anyone remember where it was?

    14. Phyllis howe says:

      These guys fixed my old sewing machine a few years back (like 8) and it still runs like a top. I love that place.
      I need to break something so I can go there again.

    15. Joe says:

      What brand of sewing machines do they sell?

    16. Beth says:

      Some years ago (at least 10? 15? 20?), I found Crown in the phone book and I brought the leather belt to my Singer foot-pedal sewing machine to see if they could replace it.

      The machine itself is way too big to bring in, and over the years, George has made several house calls to my apartment to repair this gem of a machine that helped my great-grandfather earn a living when he came to this country.

      George understands the machine, and the nature of my attachment to it…and it still works beautifully! Especially after George works his magic.

      It’s obvious that George loves what he does and like many people who posted here, I hope he lives forever, repairing people’s machines and solving life’s problems.

      I always get the feeling that George would pay me to do what he does….and when I ask him, How much?, it seems that George feels embarrassed to accept payment, because he’s having so much fun doing the repair~

      Long live George and long live Crown!

    17. JD says:

      My mother used to buy her sewing machine parts there in the 70’s. I’m shocked they are still there.

    18. CosmoAndCharlie says:

      I have bought three reconditioned vacuums at Crown over the years and they are all still running like charms. Crown does a great job!

    19. Wendy says:

      Remember, “Henry’s” @ t.v. & typewriter repairs, decades ago ? Was Barnard College his landlord ? George & Mark — happy UN-birthdays, also. Remember a small book @ rare businesses in N.Y.C.; e.g., maybe a seltzer bottle maker ? How many businesses have native Newyorkers [Cityers] as workers ?

    20. Bob Miller says:

      Every comment extolling these guys is correct. In addition, Mark saved my life twice.

    21. CG says:

      Crown is the best! I am so glad to know they are still thriving and I will buy my vacuum bags and vaccuums from them as long as they are there, in addition to maintaining my Juki.