DETROIT – Every part of the broken microwave oven was coated with the vaporized grease of a thousand meals.
"Oh God, it's so disgusting," said Dave Kehoe, who, with his brother Pat, owns McNichols Electric, a small appliance repair shop on Detroit's west side.
But the grease wasn't the issue. A broken door was. And Dave was glad to overlook the grime for an opportunity to fix something, because those opportunities have become fewer every year.
McNichols Electric is a dinosaur on the brink. For half a century people brought their broken small appliances — cake mixers and coffeemakers, hair dryers and two-slice toasters — to this family-owned business for repair. That was when those appliances were made of sturdier materials like steel, when they were worth repairing if they broke.
Business was so good for so long that the family opened three other stores in the metro Detroit area, while a whole room had to be added onto the main Detroit shop just to store all the appliances waiting to be repaired.
Then something came along that changed everything.
"Chinese-made junk," Pat said.
Now the brothers are down to a single location — the shop where it all started — and its only remaining employees are 60-year-old Pat and his 64-year-old brother Dave. They point to a trade agreement signed 17 years ago as the beginning of the end for their business.
"All these manufacturers just started laying people off and going over to China to have this stuff made," Dave said. "In my industry, that's what really started the change."
Soon, department stores were selling Chinese-made versions of familiar appliances, items so comparatively inexpensive that most people just threw them out and replaced them if they broke. Soon, most people fell out of the habit of fixing their broken gadgets, or found they couldn't anymore.
"Everything that comes from China is not really designed to be repaired," Dave said. "There are no replacement parts."
And soon, business began to decline as McNichols Electric become collateral damage in a changing economy, a casualty in the country's manufacturing's decline. Although there are still many places that will fix large appliances such as stoves and refrigerators, small-appliance repair is virtually an extinct field of work.
"I always say we're like a shoe-repair shop," Dave said. "When was the last time you had a pair of shoes repaired? In the old days, everybody went and had their shoes repaired. You soled them once or twice because they were still good."
"There are almost no shoe-repair shops anymore," he said. "They were on every corner when I was a kid."
Their father Leon founded the shop in 1953 at age 27. He was so dedicated to the new business and its neighborhood that he moved his wife and three sons to a house just across the alley behind the store, and sent his kids to nearby Precious Blood Catholic School.
Those were big times in the small-appliance industry. A postwar boom in household convenience items kept repairmen busy and successful. They even had their own trade organization, the National Appliance Service Association.
As his neighborhood customers migrated to the suburbs in the 1970s and '80s, Leon followed them with new stores in Royal Oak, then Dearborn, then Shelby Township. He had dozens of American appliance manufacturers under contract for warranty work, and constant business from walk-in customers.
"It was just phenomenal," Pat said. "The Remington hair dryers and the Mr. Coffees, you could come in here and repair those things all day and not make a dent in the pile, 'cause you took in as many in that day as you repaired. Toaster ovens too."
In 2000, President Bill Clinton signed the U.S.-China Trade Relations Act, which significantly lowered tariffs on Chinese products entering the U.S. The move made it easier for American companies to open factories in China or outsource there for parts, where wages and manufacturing costs were lower.
"When Bill Clinton signed that free-trade agreement, our business changed drastically over the next five years," Dave said. "Every manufacturer we had ran to China. You just couldn't get parts anymore. Everybody just sent everything overseas to have it made there because they could get it done cheaper."
The brothers saw this transformation unfold in real time at their doorstep.
"A lot of times my dad would come in on Saturday and bring the crew in just to knock off repairs and get caught up," Pat said. "All of a sudden, Saturdays died out."
In response, the family closed the extra stores one by one, cut hours and reduced staff. Leon had died in 1986, and left the business to his three sons. One of them, 66-year-old Don, retired a couple of years ago. The old stockroom, once full of appliances waiting for service, sits empty now, sealed to keep the building's heating bill low.
Modern small appliances are more affordable for consumers than they used to be, the brothers admit. But they insist there was more value in those old products; more pride in both crafting them and owning them.
"That stuff was built to last forever," Dave said, pointing at a wall-top display. "…A lot of people go to grandma's house, and she's still using a toaster she's had for 70 years, you know? And it still works fine. Stuff you buy today, if you make it to the one-year warranty, you're doing pretty good."