ETNA, Pa. — Virginia Vinski-Fischer hadn’t planned on taking over her father’s appliance business when he asked her to work with him in 1965.
She was busy raising three children, all under the age of 10, and refrigerators and TVs weren’t foremost on her mind.
“When you’re in your early 20s, are you thinking about washing machines?” But she joined her father, George, handling the bookkeeping and sales for Vinski Brothers on Butler Street in Etna.
Five decades later, she runs the shop with her husband, John Fischer, who handles deliveries, installations and repairs.
“We are both 77 years old, and we’re doing all our own work,” she said. “We know the business. We’re personal. This isn’t like a chain store where they just point to a price.”
The face of the once-smoky steel town of Etna has changed — U.S. Steel’s Isabella furnace there closed in 1954 and other mills in the area followed. Meanwhile, shopping habits evolved, with business shifting toward national chains and online browsing in the years since Vinski Brothers opened in 1946.
Yet the appliance shop and service center has held its own against big box stores such as Lowe’s, Home Depot and hhgregg, they said.
Of course, Vinski Brothers operates by word-of-mouth marketing rather than TV spots.
“We’ve had some of the same customers for 50 years,” Ms. Vinski-Fischer said. “We were serving the parents, then their children and then their grandchildren.” Most of those customers come from Fox Chapel, Ross, Shaler and O’Hara -— North Hills communities within easy reach of the store.
In Etna, the shop is among a small group of businesses that have kept the doors open for decades. Winschel Hardware, also on Butler Street, has been in the borough since 1885, according to Mary Ellen Ramage, borough manager and secretary.
Vinski Brothers is still operated out of a century-old, three-story home originally purchased by Ms. Vinski-Fischer’s grandmother, Anna Vinski. Her husband, Joseph, worked at the Isabella furnace.
The family has added several rooms over the years and maintains a warehouse that runs the length of the building. Family photos decorate the walls and a friendly dog named Cabot greets customers who come to check out washers, dryers and refrigerators on display or to chat about repairs.
The store was established by George Vinski and his two brothers just after World War II. He had served as a chief electrician mate in the U.S. Navy. Before the war, he and his brothers had built and sold radios out of the home. In the early 1950s, the shop added TVs, which were becoming all the rage.
Eventually George Vinski’s brothers went on to other pursuits, leaving him and his wife, Mary, to run the business.
“This has always been a small operation,” Ms. Vinski-Fischer said. She and her husband employ two delivery men.
Borough chairman Pete Ramage noted that the business has been a staple in the community. “Anytime we need an appliance, the borough has always bought it there,” he said.
These days, Mr. Fischer said, much of the shop’s core business is appliance installations, upgrades and repairs. Towns like the now-booming Lawrenceville just across the Allegheny River, which have older homes that are getting remodeled and sold, keep the shop busy.
Mr. Fischer worked as a carpenter for 32 years before he retired from that work and began working with his wife. They bought the business from George Vinski in the 1980s. The family also owns Fischer Competition Cycles on Route 8 in Butler.
The appliance repair business is getting trickier now that more appliances have gone digital. Digital components can make products more complex to fix and maintain. But the other side of that is the idea of planned obsolescence — if a flat screen TV breaks today, it’s likely cheaper and easier to buy a new one than fix the old one.
Vinski Brothers relies, in part, on people who want to hang onto the things they bought years ago.
“We still service some of the old appliances that are 20 or 30 years old,” Mr. Fischer said. “They might need a $50 fix and it will last another 10 years.”
He noted that many manufacturers also include flimsy warranties — if you fix an appliance yourself or through an independent repair shop, it can void the warranty.
“They just pass the buck,” he said.
It’s an issue that’s gained national attention and touches on a range of topics, including consumer rights, licensing and copyright laws. Advocacy groups like The Repair Association see it as a property rights issue, as well as a way of extending the life of an item.
“All too often, usable products and device components are shredded or tossed away instead of being salvaged, fixed, and reused,” the group states on its website. “We need to make our products last longer. That includes optimizing electronics not only for the first owner — but also for the third, the fourth, and the fifth owner through formal and informal reuse and repair.”
While Ms. Vinski-Fischer took over the business from her father, she and her husband said they’re not sure what will happen to the shop when they step down at some point in the future. Their three children have pursued other careers.
“I guess we’ll sell it to someone who has the ambition and knowledge about the business,” Mr. Fischer said.
Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, http://www.post-gazette.com