Revenge of the Apple Nerds

“We’re about history. Apple’s about the future. That’s just the way it is,” said David Lerner, not at all fatalistically, sitting beneath a Jimmy Carter campaign poster circa 1980. Mr. Lerner co-owns Tekserve, an independent Macintosh computer-repair shop in Chelsea where he’s been fixing Apple products for 15 years (with the company’s official blessing since 1993). And he vowed he will go on reviving laggard iPods and recovering lost first-novels-in-progress even after Apple opens two competing stores in Manhattan (that’s in addition to their sleek Soho flagship)-something the company has all but announced it will do in the near future.

“They’re bastards,” said Christina Mercurio, a 31-year-old Tekserve employee with black hair and a rebellious demeanor. Like many others who shop or work at the store, she believes Apple-a company that has expensively branded itself as “independent”-is targeting Tekserve, a true indie, with its new locations. Ms. Mercurio, a former barista, compared the situation to watching Starbucks steamroll over local coffee shops. “But the community would rally around them and save the local place,” she said. “I think that’s what people will do with us-I hope.”

According to anonymous tipsters on appleinsider.com and other Web sites where hardcore Apple fans lurk, the company has leased space on the lower level of the General Motors building, on Fifth Avenue between 58th and 59th streets, and at a location near the Flatiron Building, just blocks away from Tekserve. The midtown store will be 21,000 square feet, according to these Internet reports, and will feature an exterior like the glass pyramid at the Louvre’s Cour Napoleon, only cube-shaped; the Flatiron store will be smaller and function as a boutique, selling and fixing Apple products. A week ago, Apple posted two classified ads on Monster.com looking for technicians to work at the Flatiron location.

A representative from Robert K. Futterman and Associates, the real-estate firm rumored to be responsible for the new Apple leases, declined to comment on the leases to appleinsider.com, citing confidentiality agreements with clients. Nor did the firm return several calls from The Observer.

And Apple, which has gained a reputation for secrecy, would confirm none of its plans (indeed, the company has asked a California court to compel the aforementioned Web sites to reveal their sources, which are presumably Apple employees). Three calls to the company’s press office in the last week went unreturned. A fourth was answered by an Apple spokeswoman, who said that she had directed the call to the relevant publicist and, “if she has a comment, she will call you back.” She never did.

‘A Zoo’

Mr. Lerner and his partner, Dick Demenus, whom he met at a New York leftie radio station in 1969, opened Tekserve at a different location a few storefronts down West 23rd Street in 1990. They have moved four times since then, always remaining on the same crosstown block.

The store has earned a cult-like following: Mac addicts and authentic hipsters sometimes come there several times a week, either for the 10-cent sodas in the vintage Coke machine or for the service, which some say is faster than Apple’s help desk, dubbed the Genius Bar (a name Mr. Lerner called “a little boastful”).

Joe Graham and his wife Jackie, both 40, are Tekserve regulars who were in over the weekend to buy a new computer. “We just went to the Apple store for the first time. To be honest with you, it was like a zoo,” said Mr. Graham, a lawyer and police lieutenant.

Kevin Regan, a 37-year-old production artist for an advertising firm, has been a fan of Tekserve for years. “It’s a cool place-all the old radios, all the old Mac junk,” he said. “It adds a certain ambiance to the shopping experience, right?”

Employee Jeff Blakeman, 25, said he turned down an interview with Apple to take a job at the homey Tekserve last year, because it reminded him of the mom-and-pop hardware store where he worked for a decade.

Not that Apple doesn’t have its own appeal. The Soho store, which opened in 2002, is polished down to the tiniest details, including the sleek flat-screen computers displayed in the front window. Tekserve’s window display features no flat-screens-indeed, no functioning technology of any kind. Instead, Tekserve has a female mannequin in a rainbow-sequined onesie with an automated dog tethered to her wrist. Her eyes are closed; her plastic nose is turned indignantly upward. She wears a pink iPod strapped around her right bicep, but the device’s trademark earbuds dangle to her side. Either she’s too cool to even listen to the music or the buds couldn’t be squeezed into her rigid ears-and, rather than fetch some Scotch tape, a flanneled Tekserve employee gave up and let them hang.

In a way, the difference between the two recalls an old binary opposition, between I.B.M. and Macintosh: left brain/right brain; writerly/visual; sloppy/pulled-together.

Mac addicts were once an elite group of techies, all of whom looked something like Mr. Lerner-who greeted a reporter on a recent Friday in green pants, brown suspenders, blue argyle socks, no shoes (“someone has to clean the floor”) and eyeglasses that strongly suggested M.I.T., class of 1984. The rest of the world, meanwhile, was whiling away the 20th century playing Minesweeper on a P.C. But since the debut of the iMac in the late 1990’s, when Apple recast itself as the brand of choice for a new tech-savvy generation, half the sentient world seems to have traded in their Dells for Macs.

Tekserve has always been a workshop and meeting place for the old generation of Macheads. The store has been doing repairs on Mac products since well before it was cool to own them. And so: When a writer from the Village finally decides to make the switch from a typewriter to a Mac, he goes to Tekserve. When an Upper West Side 13-year-old wants her first iPod mini, or a 28-year-old from Williamsburg wants to upgrade his laptop, they go to Apple.

The Apple store has Internet access, so you can check your e-mail, as well as displays where you can try out all the products. Upstairs, there’s a plush amphitheater where you can listen to a workshop while you’re waiting at the Genius Bar, as 24-year-old Michael Porto was this weekend. Mr. Porto had made an appointment for 4:15 to get help with his broken iPod; he arrived at 3:15 and was still waiting at 5:20, when he was listening to instructions on how to create the “Ken Burns effect” on his home movies-something he’ll probably never do.

“Still, it’s nice to know,” said Mr. Porto, who works for a textile design firm.

Brendan Mitchell, a 36-year-old British tourist who came by to see the majesty of “the crisp, clean, New York Apple store,” was waiting in line on the other side of the building to buy a few iPod accessories. “It’s a nice store,” he said. “I don’t know why you’d ever go to some other place.”

‘This Beautiful Socialist Mission’

Mr. Lerner, ever the optimist, said he’s hopeful the new Apple stores will recruit new Mac users, who someday will come to him for parts or service when their computers are on the fritz. He called Apple when he heard rumors of the new locations, he said, and they assured him everything was cool. No one’s being targeted here. Let’s all remain calm.

The Tekserve owner believes the two companies can co-exist peacefully, that his store’s relationship with Apple is not precarious-but it is. Tekserve is accredited by Apple and must get the company’s approval to perform warranty-covered repairs. Apple must be healthy for Tekserve to survive-but not too healthy, at least not in Manhattan, because then Apple becomes Tekserve’s competitor.

Any way you slice it, Apple’s modern store fronts and well-groomed staff will soon be siphoning business away from Mr. Lerner’s store, which doubles as an old Mac warehouse, kitsch factory, and meeting place for artists, Communists and surviving fans of the Grateful Dead.

It was hard not to notice, as Mr. Lerner sat explaining the viability of Tekserve, that he was surrounded by casualties of history. On one side of the desk was a portrait of Johns Kerry and Edwards and an optimistic note about the 2004 campaign; on the other, a monitor from a long-dead Apple IIGS. On the wall behind him, a letter from Eleanor Roosevelt dated 1962 urged a “Fellow Democrat” to vote for Mortimer Lerner as the reform candidate for the Assembly in the Sixth District in Manhattan. Mortimer is David’s father. He lost.

But the younger Mr. Lerner insisted he’s not worried. He can maintain a 140-employee business just by fixing old machines and selling repeat customers new ones, he said.

And those employees are remarkably loyal-even the ones who have left. For them, Tekserve is not just a store; it’s a political philosophy.

“I think Apple’s trying to make a lot of money, and the way to do that is sell a lot of new expensive stuff to a lot of customers,” said Ari Moore, 25, who worked at Tekserve for a year and a half and quit recently to work as a freelance designer. “It doesn’t make any sense for them to support Tekserve with what they’re doing, because they’re capitalist, and that’s the way it goes. At Tekserve, they have this almost beautiful socialist mission. It’s all about making the customer happy, having a solid, good interaction with people, rather than about making a million dollars.”

Scott Douglas, meanwhile, has worked at Tekserve since 1998-“before the first iMac,” he said. Wearing suspenders, flannel and a beard of biblical proportions, the languid Mr. Douglas, 45, said that he believes Tekserve will survive because it’s honest and treats its customers with respect. “We sleep well at night,” he said. “That’s the bottom line.”

No matter what happens, it is comforting to know the techies at Tekserve have some perspective. “The world is bigger than Macs,” said Mr. Lerner. It’s possible, though unlikely, he even believes it.