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Innovative Audio

I was just minding my own business at work one busy night in the late summer of 1993; renting New Release VHS tapes to the weekend hordes of customers at my video store, Screen Memory. Well, it wasn’t mine exactly, the place was owned by the rarely seen, enigmatic and Horta-like owner Maureen. But I was the shift supervisor most evenings and that night I was standing at the counter, with video clerks Cynthia to my left and Beau to my right.

We were but three clerks but had more than 3 lines of customers, 5 and 6 deep, eager for their copies of “Blade” or “Regarding Henry.” They’d hand me the display box and I’d spin around and seek the catalog number: 5994.3 perhaps. At Screen Memory we ordered as many as 9 copies of the hottest new releases, like “The Crying Game,” and they were meticulously and proudly catalogued by the store’s manager, Bob Turner, a devoutly religious man who (confidentially) didn’t care much for such subject matter as depicted in many of our movies (such as “The Crying Game”).

Most of the customers were in-a-hurry Brooklynites (Slopers, we called them), after the neighborhood our store anchored, Park Slope. They were cursory and usually faceless, stepping up and away as soon as we had inspected their video copy for their various VCR’s nightly consumptions. This night I again noticed one guy who was standing behind the knot of checkout customers. He wasn’t looking at the New Release section and he had nothing in his hand, he was just staring at me, and this wasn’t the first time. He had done the same thing 2 or 3 times before in the last couple of weeks. I had seen him around as a customer too, he was a sporadic video renter, preferring foreign films (I had a film preference profile for many customers in my head).

It was weird. Since I was usually hung over or still drunk in those days my first thought was to wonder if he had tripped to this fact and was about to lodge a complaint. I was a little shaky that night and maybe he had noticed. He just waited, observing, and finally, when it slowed down enough I dried off my clammy palms and came out from behind the video counter to talk to him.

He told me his name was Elliot Fishkin and he liked the way I ran that crazy-busy counter on weekend nights. He said that I might be a good fit for his business and asked if I wanted to work with him.

And with that question I had no idea I had already entered the world of the owner of New York’s premier high-end audio retailer, Innovative Audio.

My relief that he was not angry at something I had done was matched by my bewilderment that he would offer me a job. For what? I knew nothing about high-end audio and had but a sneering disdain for self professed “audiophiles.” Except for the one that I actually knew, of course, my brother, and towards his audiophilic interests my attitude was more like a detached bemusement.

My brother Luis was one of Elliot’s customers at his showcase store at 77 Clinton Street. I had probably accompanied him a time or two in the late 80’s but hung in the background as I usually did everywhere then, no interest, and no commentary. Luis had bought a Linn Turntable and a pair of Apogee Speakers from Elliot, as well as several other things. Listening to the system Luis had at his apartment on State Street, I stolidly remained unimpressed, glibly preferring cassette tapes for my Walkman.

I mean, it sounded clear and with a deep sound and all that, but was it worth all the money? My brother readily maintained that it was; while deriding my lack of sophistication, especially when I told him anything about CDs. He’d talk about the precise balance of the Linn tone arm and the innovative (no pun intended) ribbon structure of the Apogees, holding up his latest issue of Audiophile magazine to back him up if need be. Those speakers, lacking woofers, were really cool, I’d have to have been a fool to not admit that, but to me the rest was just blah blah blah.

This blasé drunk, me, was the guy Elliot wanted to set up a meeting with, with his salesmen and staff. Weird, odd. I was 25 and felt it was too early for a “real job” and this smelled suspiciously like one. I was a fan of the book “Generation X” and loved to depict myself as one of Douglas Coupland’s slackers, working a McJob and not caring for much else, one way or another.

I agreed that night to head over to Brooklyn Heights on the appointed day and then was terrified when it occurred to me that I would probably have to be sober for this. Damn!

One September evening I exited the Court Street station and headed down Remsen Street, a residential street that had a health food store I’d never heard of called Perelandra. Innovative Audio and Perelandra were near neighbors in what I considered to be a snooty neighborhood I wanted little to do with. Maybe I should just turn around and pick up a fifth, I decided.

But my curiosity kept me going, I turned the corner on Clinton Street and opened up the door underneath the sign that said Innovative Audio Showrooms. Right behind the door was a stairway going down, then another door. Having to descend that way gave me an exclusive invite-only feeling, something I found out later Elliot had intentionally cultivated.

There was a half-moon reception desk and a receptionist named Ana, who was really the office manager. Later I was to find out she was effectively a shrink and day-care provider as well. Elliot’s glassed-in office was just to the left and he invited me in warmly. Anybody who has ever met Elliot would know what I speak of when I say he had a smile that was part smug, yet warm. It said, “I have something you are going to need in your life, you just don’t know it yet.” And because of this I liked him immediately.

Mr. Fishkin told me a little about himself; he was obsessed with high-end audio equipment since he was a child and had run this business since 1971. I mentioned Luis to him and he remembered him warmly, but I also got the feeling he remembered every one of his countless customers over the years with the same “warmth.” It didn’t matter if it was genuine or not, because it was so well rendered. You just wanted to find out what secret Elliot had behind that complacent “I have something you need” expression. He really seemed at peace and spoke in soothing tones. I knew right away he was the consummate salesman.

He asked me a little about myself, I talked about myself up to college and dropped off there. He then walked me to the left down a long dimly lit hallway back to the service department and told me this was where he wanted me to work. He’d watched me at Screen Memory, said he saw me as a ringmaster, if I could manage his service department I could have a larger, more challenging circus. There were two men back there, the audio-video techs, names German and Eduardo. I would be working with both of them if I accepted this job.

There were two salesmen still there that evening, the long hallway I had walked down had doors that led to presentation showrooms, there were six of them, and each one had a different design and sound theme. These sound rooms were also territories that had been staked out by salesmen, particularly by the longest tenured ones; Steve and Chris. I met them both, I was always really nervous about meeting people, because like Elliot, I had a secret too, but unlike Elliot’s secret, it wasn’t something either of them would want. I steadied my hand and greeted them both, they were nice, but didn’t really care, they just expressed a desire to get someone competent into the service department.

I went back to Elliot’s office; I told him I would do it. I mean, why not, maybe it would finally straighten me out. Maybe it would help me in some way, and I, in turn, could help them all. Maybe this place could impose a little order on my disordered little world, my makeshift job and friends, my fed-up girlfriend who I usually avoided. And I could have a little something in common with my brother, who in those days I was avoiding most of all.

In the next few days I gave my notice to Screen Memory, I was scared about my new job but realized with great relief that I was not going to be at the video store anymore. Bob wished me well and told me it was probably time I should move on anyway. I forced myself to cut down a little on my drinking too, it didn’t feel very good to do so but I had something else to look forward too.

My first week at Innovative, Elliot had booked a midtown hotel conference room for two days and required all IA staff to attend. There was a person who met us there, you could call her a motivational assistant, or a business therapist; any of these terms might work. It seemed there were staffing issues and conflicts of personality that were getting in the way of Elliot’s vision for the company. As for me, I felt grubby and out of place there. Everybody was dressed much nicer than me, most of them wearing suits, and I didn’t even own one. I didn’t know anyone or their conflicts and had nothing to add. Elliot told us we were going to stay there until we “worked it out.” The main problem was between the four salesmen, a couple of them hated each other and were actively engaged in poaching each others’ long-time clients. Elliot had them all in his stable for years and was loyal to them, he decided to pay for this boardroom pow-wow instead of letting anyone go.

Ana, the Office Manager, pretty much ran the proceedings that weekend. She knew the personalities and could say what was needed to cool them down. She motivated them by telling them if they got along, if they could just make it through the weekend, there would be business trips soon to Linn in Scotland and Wilson in Utah.

I was starting to realize this company, though seemingly unhealthy on the inside, was quite profitable and presented itself coolly and professionally; with customers seeing no hint of divisiveness. The two days I was there I hung close to Eduardo and German, trying to get to know them and thinking maybe it wasn’t a bad thing I’d be holed up at the end of the hallway and away from these fighting salesmen.

The two guys were Hispanic, Eduardo was from Mexico and German from Honduras. German rarely spoke, except to Eduardo and in rapid Spanish. Eduardo gave me a little rundown of some equipment that had proved to be problematic (Nakamichi 40 CD changers) and customers that were too (seemingly everyone who lived in the Heights overlooking the Promenade).   He told me there were times I would be called upon to oversee installations for these customers, who were exponentially wealthier the closer to the river they lived.

Already looking forward to hiding at my little desk at the end of the service department, I dreaded this prospect.

The first weeks were a bewildering world of paperwork and forms and calls and a little hardware 101. I saw some of the last LaserDisc players anyone would ever see, by Pioneer. Some people had paid so much money for them they refused to recognize their market short life span and were bringing them in for service. I learned a little about Monster Cable and speaker hookups. I tried to keep up at Innovative but my efforts were hampered by the fact I had figured out a nocturnal drinking schedule and was rapidly getting worse than ever.

My best times were when I could wander into the Showrooms and look at the Thiel or Wilson Audio speakers, some of them cost as much as a luxury car. Sometimes a salesman would come in and warn me not to try to turn anything on, to just let…them…do it – always marking their territory. The two salesmen I got to know a little were Steve and Chris, Steve was the oldest, the one who knew Elliot the longest and always mentioned it, especially when arguing with his hated rival, Chris. Steve had gray hair and eyeglasses hung from a cord around his neck. He’d dramatically put them on to make a point to a customer about audio equipment. He owned Showrooms 1 and 3.

Chris was older too, but younger than Steve, where Steve was a cliché alpha male, Chris was a little more feminine, talked a little faster, usually with kind words, but could spit out some nasty shit without warning. He “owned” Showrooms 2 and 6. Both were native Bronx New Yorkers, with the accents to match. Some days I could hear them in a closed showroom or in the open reception area yelling at each other about whose clients were whose, about which sound system worked better in whatever setting, or even about whom Elliot liked more. That was a big one.

They circled each other some times, stalking back and forth, but as soon as a client came in they would immediately stuff it, and one would never know they were anything other than the best of friends. Usually Ana would intercede early, rushing in and out of Elliot’s office and try to quell things way before a client would enter.

About 40% of the time Elliot wasn’t there, he was the main salesman, the face of the company, and spent time at the homes or businesses of the biggest spenders or those he was wooing, and his work had paid off, there were those who dropped several hundreds of thousand of dollars over the years. The rest of the time he was holed up in his office, he usually let Steve and Chris “work it out,” only angrily scuttling out when he heard a loud thud, a crash or a slammed door.

This disharmony bothered me the least, for my secret was out with these guys, the salesmen and even Ana knew that I had a problem. They would make remarks to me some mornings; “Wow you made it here after all,” or even, “you must have really hit it last night.” One day Steve pulled me aside and told me to get my shit together. Another day Chris pulled me aside and laughed and called me a fuckup. I hated that stuff-it made me ashamed; I would get to work and just quickly head down the hallway to my desk. The job wasn’t changing me, I wasn’t growing up or getting settled, I was getting worse and I didn’t know why.

Well, here’s why, I never broke my rotation of same places and same people. I had friends who I drank with, I just had to meet them a little later coming from Brooklyn Heights. There was one guy in particular, named Jeff Scott. He was valuable to me because he was an even worse drinker than myself (I could point to this when feeling down on myself) yet managed to hold down some business position down in the Financial District (something I was trying to emulate with Innovative Audio). He was a blond headed guy of average height and a slight under bite. He had a “huh-huh” laugh and looked older than he was because he’d made himself a little ragged with all the drinking. I would see his doppelganger a few years later; he looked kind of like Beavis from “Beavis and Butthead.”

Every time I saw him he was walking around Park Slope with a 20 oz Arizona Iced Tea can. He would purchase the tea, immediately dump it out and fill it with vodka, which he sipped during the day. He would regale us with stories of his excess most nights at Aces & Eights in the Meatpacking District. I crossed paths with him several times in the early nineties, working with him on a historically based silent movie comedy called “Battle of Brooklyn.” He even dated a friend of my girlfriend Isabelle for a time. Most other times he was my running buddy at Smith’s Tavern or Two Boots. That winter of ’93 he came to me for help. It seems he’d been laid off from his job downtown (I actually wondered why); and, professing a love of high-end audio, asked if I might help him get a job at Innovative Audio.

This request coincided with the salesmen’s and service tech’s recognition that I was getting a little over my head with my work. They could see I openly resented our customers (One of them actually blubber-cried at my desk, “But I want my speakers!” when I informed him that the install of his $40,000 Wilson Audio system would be delayed at his place on Pierrepont Street).

I screwed up my courage and floated the idea to Elliot one day. This was only the second time I had been in his office since my hiring. After a few months of work and the downward-sliding of the respect of not only from the staff but also from myself, Elliot said, “that would be great, if you vouch got him then let’s just do it!”

The funny thing about Elliot Fishkin, that I could never figure out, is that from the beginning to the end of my time at IA, he never seemed to know I had a problem. I was always that guy with potential that he saw at Screen Memory. I was the ringleader of his service department and in his mind I was doing a great job. Every single other person there eventually felt otherwise.

A few days later we moved in another desk for Jeff. I was happy to see him there, because having given up on the idea this job might change me, maybe Jeff and I could change the job.

It went pretty much as expected; we both daily arrived to work hung over or still drunk. I even started seeing phantom movements in the edge of my vision, resulting one day in my impaling of my hand of a speaker stand spike (I thought it was falling on me). That night I showed off the stab wound in my palm at a bar, sitting next to Jeff; becoming fully the Butthead to his Beavis. And so it went.

My girlfriend left me, Jeff’s left him; weeks passed. I remember Dallas winning the Super Bowl and Michael Jackson’s weird “they photographed my genitals” interview (it was showing on all of IA’s Sony TVs) but little else. I started missing work; Jeff had a little more staying power. I was near the end. Reeling, I took 3 days off in a row in March and finally decided to not return to work. Ashamed, I couldn’t talk to Elliot, I just disappeared. I’d let Innovative down (I had not yet started considering I had also let myself down); but my biggest shame was in disappointing Elliot.

Finally Ana got me on the phone, she was disgusted and let me know it. I apologized and got off the phone fast. I got another call from her a few days later. Elliot, shocked to hear that I had been going through all this, not only was not going to fire me, he was offering to pay my full way through rehab. I didn’t even think about it, I said no. I often wonder what would have happened had I taken him up on it. I wonder if he tried to help Jeff too, who flamed out there finally by the summer of ’94.

Elliot Fishkin

But as it happened, I had only one drunk month left and have been sober ever since. At the time, though, I just couldn’t live up to the expectations of a man I respected, of a man who I was bewildered to find always respected me in turn. Innovative Audio and I were both a little sick on the inside but I was much worse and had no possibility of showing a good face to the outside world. I didn’t even really try. But even now I remain humbled by Elliot’s generous offer to put me through rehab.

Innovative Audio closed their Brooklyn Showroom in the late 90’s and moved to Manhattan, where it still thrives (as Innovative Audio and Video) under Elliot’s stewardship. Whenever I see or hear an expensive sound system I think of Elliot and his secret (as expensive as it could sometimes be). Sometimes I also think about Ana and the battling salesmen, Steve’s granny glasses and especially those technical wizards Eduardo and German. Knowing Elliot and the loyalty he has to the people he chooses they might all still be there on 58th Street, hopefully with a sober Service Department manager.

1 reply
  1. Luis
    Luis says:

    Great story and background on your early 90s period. However, your older brother Luis actually bought a Sota Sapphire turntable (not a Linn Sondek) that was equipped with a Sumiko FM tonearm and Monster Alpha Genesis moving-coil cartridge. 🙂

    Reply

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