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The vacuum repair guy: an endangered species

After half a century of saving moms from Barbie clothes and carpet fringe, John Huling's fix-it shop bites the dust.

By Sara Hoagland HunterCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 4, 2008

Sucking it up: Vacuum cleaner repair just isn’t what it once was, and John Huling has closed his shop after more than 50 years of unclogging tubes and unwrapping power brushes tangled in shag.

Mary Knox Merrill – Staff

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Natick, Mass.

We all have a vacuum cleaner story. It might not be as dramatic as my friend Lisa Foote's, whose family ferret was successfully removed from an Electrolux attachment by emergency greasing. It might not be as heartwarmingly odd as my husband's, whose best friend at the age of 4 was "Vac," the second-hand Hoover he took everywhere with him – including the car. But for most of us, the family vacuum cleaner was more than a major purchase; it was a family fixture. Repaired and re-repaired, it was rarely thrown away.

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All that has changed, says John Huling, hero of three generations of my own family's vacuum cleaner stories and an emblem of a dwindling breed – the vacuum repairman.

"The mentality of people has changed.... It's easier to go buy a vacuum cleaner than it is to take it to a repair shop," laments Mr. Huling, who closed his doors last week after more than 50 years in the business of repairing vacuum cleaners. He claims to have been edged out by multiple forces, including inaccessibility of parts, changes in manufacturing, and what he describes as today's "throwaway" culture.

On a recent morning, he reminisced with me as he made his final sales and fixes. Judging from the steady stream of patrons seeking last minute advice and wishing him well, I'm not the only one feeling bereft.

"I'm gonna be up the creek," clucks a woman with a German accent, coddling an ancient Electrolux bearing an array of Huling's repair stickers – evidence of a decades-long relationship. "He doesn't cheat you," she says, elaborating on the number of times Huling stopped her from buying a new vacuum in favor of repair.

Huling nods matter-of-factly. "I've found it's easier to just tell it like it is, and then you don't have to wonder, 'What did I tell that person last week? Did I tell them they needed to buy a new one? The big companies want to sell you a new one.... A guy in a shirt and tie shows you a nice, new $300 machine so you take out your ... credit card and pay for it."

Huling, who never took credit cards, allowed customers caught without cash or check to pay him later. "I only got stung once, for 12 bucks."

He sighs as a woman comes in with a new machine. Politely referring her elsewhere, he confides, "It's a piece of junk, speaking technically ... that [machine] was made by the company that made the best vacuum cleaner that was ever made and then they switched to plastic."

The way he utters the word leads me to ask about the evils of plastic. His excited cadences take me back to childhood visits when – dislodging socks or Barbie clothes from a clogged hose – he'd counsel my mother on the need for careful attention. "You can't fix half the new vacs," he says. "Everything's plastic now, even the lever that releases the handle that you have to step on every day.... They snap off. By the time I order the parts and charge labor to repair it, you don't want to do it. I'm just waiting for them to tell me they can't fix my car someday!"

• • •

When the first motorized upright vacuum cleaner was patented by William Hoover in 1908, each screw and bolt was replaceable, says Robert Kautzman, an Albertus, Penn., historian and owner of the largest private vacuum cleaner collection in the US. The original Hoover upright was made of wood and tin but closely resembles today's uprights in design – including its fan motor and horsehair roller brush, he explains.

Advertised in magazines as a more sanitary, convenient cleaning mode than outdoor carpet beating, 300 Hoovers were sold the first year. Within a decade, names such as Royal and Eureka had helped bump annual sales to 300,000. "This is all the more remarkable when you consider that only 10 percent of American households had electricity," marvels Mr. Kautzman. "There were no wall plugs either. The cord had to be plugged into a light bulb socket."