The Vacuum Psychologist Is In

“I always say, dirt is universal”
East Hampton Vacuums is one of the last great fix-it shops around, said Martin O’Brien, right, who owns the business. His nephew Chris Pond, left, is the manager. Durell Godfrey

   When he started East Hampton Vacuums 25 years ago on North Main Street, Martin O’Brien and his then-business partner, George Harvey, saw a niche that needed to be filled. “I always say, dirt is universal,” Mr. O’Brien said last week, and the desire to mop it, sweep it, or suck it up is pretty much universal, too.
    Mr. O’Brien, now the sole owner, had been a door-to-door Electrolux salesman based in Riverhead. Mr. Harvey delivered door-to-door for Electrolux and did repairs out of his basement. They teamed up in the summer of 1987 to open their own place.
    The shop, which moved to Montauk Highway in 1992, is probably one of the most useful businesses in East Hampton, but the kind you don’t know is there until you need it. You might have passed it and wondered, how does a store that sells vacuums make it in East Hampton? Then once you go in, you get it.
    Sure, East Hampton Vacuums sells and services portable vacuums — Miele is its brand of choice — but it also installs and services central vacuums, and stocks bags for every imaginable model, hoses and attachments, brooms, mops, cleaning products, air purifiers, regular irons, commercial-style steam irons, and ironing systems (those built-in cabinets with a drop-down board and accompanying iron that can be found in the nicest of laundry rooms). And there’s not much that East Hampton Vacuums can’t or won’t fix in the garage workshop behind the store.
    “Over the years we’ve had people bring in all kinds of things,” Mr. O’Brien said, from a favorite suitcase that a customer wanted wheels on to broken china to hair dryers and vacuums for horses.
    “You don’t want to be here when those things come in,” said Mr. O’Brien’s nephew Chris Pond, the store’s manager.
    Even when they’re smelly, few repair requests are turned down, and that, too, keeps people coming back. “There are not many fix-it shops around,” Mr. O’Brien said. “I tell them, we fix everything but broken hearts, as long as it’s legal.”
    Older people will sometimes drag in a beloved 60 or 70-year-old vacuum for repair, hoping to squeeze a few more years out of a faithful companion. Maybe they got it for a wedding present, or an anniversary gift way back when. “There’s a story behind every piece of equipment,” Mr. O’Brien said. “Being in here behind the counter, it’s like being behind a bar. Sometimes we think we’re like vacuum psychologists.”
    Mr. O’Brien said he will someday pass the business on to his nephew, who has been involved since he was 10. “He used to push a broom around, sort screws, and now he virtually runs the place,” said his uncle.
    A son-in-law, Jim Schwarz, is in charge of central vacuum installation, which is a large part of the business. “We’ve installed in houses up to 30,000 square feet and as small as 1,000 square feet,” Mr. O’Brien said.
    “People think it’s unaffordable, yet you can spend more on a canister vacuum than on installing a central vacuum,” Mr. Pond said from behind the counter.
    The two know their vacuum brands and have strong opinions on them.
    The modern Electrolux is, “at best, average.” Bagless vacuums? Forget it. “The mess is one thing, but you’ve got to buy expensive filters that have to be replaced.” Dyson has “hounded” the shop to become a dealer. “The best thing you can say about Dyson is they’re colorful,” Mr. Pond said.
    “Certain brands I don’t sell because I don’t believe in the quality of them,” Mr. O’Brien said.
    “And I don’t want to fix it for free,” said Mr. Pond.
    He joked about the many puns one can use in the vacuum trade. Example: “Our business is always picking up.”
    The truth is, every year has been strong, with the exception of 2009, Mr. O’Brien said, when central vacuum installations came to a screeching halt along with the economy.
    The company has done installations since it opened, in some cases handling them for two generations, and it will travel from Manhattan to Montauk to do them. “People will have us do their second home, then they’ll call us to do their first,” Mr. O’Brien said. “How do you say no to existing customers?” He has over 100 customers in the Douglaston, Whitestone, and Great Neck area, and some on the North Fork and Shelter Island, too, but most of the business is from Remsenburg east.
    The fact that East Hampton Vacuums has endured for a quarter century speaks not only to its good reputation, but to the fact that it has been “blessed” with a good landlord, Jesse Jackson, who has been fair and always helpful, Mr. O’Brien said.
     “If I can say anything to people of the town it’s thank you. Without them none of this would be possible,” he said. “This is a family operation. It helped me put four daughters through college and law school.”