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All the Fixin's

Doug & Winnie Keith
Robert Scheer

Like a Surgeon: Master of gadget repair Doug Keith and his wife Winnie take a break at the 41st Avenue garage where he works his myriad mechanical miracles.

Flying in the face of a disposable society, Doug Keith has been saving folks' doodads for decades

By Kelly Luker

WITH CHEAP IMPORTS, Kmart knockoffs and the Golden Era of Plastic, it's no wonder we've become a disposable society. When an electric can opener begins to groan or the Conair hairdryer shorts out, it's off to the landfill without a second thought. Who wants to take any time and money to increase the lifespan of little household gadgets?

Quite a few, it appears, judging by Doug Keith's garage.

Seconding as a repair shop for Keith's business, Services Unlimited, the garage hitched to his home off 41st Avenue seems to bulge at the seams with dead and dying small appliances awaiting diagnosis and, perhaps, a new lease on life. At the moment, Keith is bending over a commercial toaster, its disemboweled innards sitting hopefully on his workbench. The contraption needn't worry--Keith has been doing this longer than most of us have been alive.

Now 82, Keith and his wife of 60 years, Winnie, have been running this business since 1979. "It's an aptitude," he says, one that stretches back to childhood.

Keith has built his reputation around town as the last house on the block--the final number to call when all else fails. "No one else in town does these oddball jobs," he says.

Keith has revived heirloom toasters, restored little red wagons and mounted brass diving helmets on a suitable stand for coffeetable viewing. And, of course, Keith has a success rate in bringing waffle irons, coffeemakers and blenders back to life that any emergency room would envy.

I met Keith when my treasured answering machine broke down. Not so easily replaced, it was the non-digital, old-fashioned type that could do double-duty by recording my phone conversations. A must in this litigious age, it had finally heard too much, I suppose, and quietly retired.

Handling it like a wounded bird, Keith gently took it from me, promising to do his best. He sounded genuinely sad the following day when he called to deliver the solemn verdict--a rather technical explanation that could be boiled down to one word: Kaput.

When we meet again, Keith's workshop is still crammed full of patients awaiting his ministrations. But within a few minutes, the design of this work space begins to make sense. What appears to be a jumble of wires is, upon closer inspection, separate bundles carefully rolled and hung according to size.

There's a library full of how-to manuals, Dewey-decimaled by gadget and gizmo. Shelf after shelf of nuts and bolts, screws and nails are catalogued by thread, size and weight. Glues claim their corner, solvents have their counter space and sandpaper waits patiently to be called, grade by grade.

Spirit Comes Calling

ARCHING OVER THE whole grand palette is a giant poster that asks, "Why did Jesus die for you?" That inquiry underscores the very nature of Doug and Winnie Keith. Although they still disagree on the answer, they have been guided throughout their lives by the force that poses the question. As Keith talks about the various twists and turns his path has taken, he leaves little doubt as to Who has shown the way. The chronology is peppered with phrases like "... and then the Lord spoke again" or "the Lord gave me that job."

Not surprisingly, the Spirit eventually summoned the Keiths for missionary work. Packing up their truck, they drove to Guatemala and spent five years working with the Wycliffe Bible translators. Upon their return, Keith managed an electric-shaver shop formerly located in the Palomar Arcade. Finally, the Keiths heeded the call to go into business for themselves.

The name "Services Unlimited" better describes those earlier years of business, says Keith. "We painted houses, we did everything back then," he remembers. "We needed to get the business going." Gradually, though, as he became known as the guy who could fix anything, Keith began referring out other work like painting and auto repair to a retinue of craftspeople he learned to trust over the years.

Doug and Winnie figure they get about 20 calls a day from folks like me, technophobes whose ability to fix a Waring blender is about equal to their understanding of the inner workings of a nuclear reactor. And he does a steady business sharpening blades, saws, drills and garden tools, too.

As prices drop on small appliances, so too, it would seem, would Keith's business continue to shrink. That is, were it not for yuppies and the latest trend toward "cocooning." With the go-go '80s behind us, discretionary income is now channeled toward home comforts. The detritus of this fad litters Keith's work table--an espresso machine here, a bread maker there, a pasta maker over there. In the corner lay the guts of what appear to be several Cuisinarts.

Did this pose a challenge to Keith's repair skills, this new wave toward high-tech toys? Apparently not, judging from a whole shelf that looks like Williams-Sonoma blew up. "You ask yourself, 'Why isn't it doing what it's supposed to do?' " explains Keith of his approach to all these broken doodads, old and new. "Then, you stew over it until the answer comes."

Gizmo Graveyard

KEITH STILL DOES some house calls, and he's a back-up repair guy for several different commercial coffee-brewing manufacturers that make the machines found in hospitals, restaurants and hotels. That's where his service truck comes in handy. Fueled by propane, it's been going strong now for 31 years both here and in Guatemala.

Finally, we take a tour of the spare-part room, a separate shed built behind the Keiths' house. Doug is getting a little antsy, and he wants to get back to that toaster. So Winnie leads the way past a small but abundant garden and unlocks the shed. "No one is allowed back here," she whispers.

A cannibals' feast greets us, with headless bodies and body-less heads abounding on shelf after shelf. A clutch of coffee carafes await a new home and, huddled close to them, is a small herd of blender tops. In the far corner rests a dignified old waffle iron, its ornate grillwork the signature of a different era.

We both stare up at some odd contraption that hovers near the top of the heap. "I have no idea what that is," Winnie murmurs, shaking her head.

We head back to the workshop to which Doug has returned, and Winnie tells me what her husband's true specialty is: "Fixing hearts for Jesus." She looks lovingly at him, and I'm ready to say good-bye, but he wouldn't hear it, anyway. Stooped over the toaster, Doug has disappeared from the outside world deep into a tangled jungle of wires and switches. It's a pretty good bet that slices of toast will be bouncing out of this mess of chrome, nuts and bolts in just a few days.

It's an aptitude, I guess.

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From the November 7-13, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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