Traversing the doorway of Fred Longworth's Classic Audio Repair is like entering the Lost World. A Balinese mask hangs on the wall next to a glass case where two dead lizards—one fully skeletal—are displayed beside an assortment of turntable cartridges. A crocodilian mouth made of two slabs of spiky sound-proofing and a purple foam tongue rests on the waiting room's overhang.
Cross into the employees-only area and you discover that Longworth's workshop is a rainforest of cables, the shelves thick with the carcasses of arcane sound systems from the '50s, '60s and '70s, the floor dusted with electronic detritus. Two repair stations—one for Longworth and one for his chief technician, Jordan Pier—look like high-tech sacrificial altars with their oscilloscopes, voltage detectors, dental picks and surgeons' hemostats.
Longworth began repairing audio components in 1972 and operated a shop in Ocean Beach until 1994, when he opened Classic Audio Repair off Adams Avenue in Normal Heights. In 2007, he expanded, leasing the unit directly next door with the intent of opening a showroom. The recession quashed that plan, but Longworth kept the space as a sort of garage.
Entering this dark annex, wearing a magnifying visor pushed back on his head and wielding a flashlight, Longworth looks like a archaeologist exploring a catacomb. He waves his torch at massive, credenza-style consoles and dusty reel-to-reels in the same way a History Channel host might point out sarcophagi and urns.
Then there's Longworth himself, with his fanny pack full of pungent lavender and a never-ending supply of granola bars. He's a high-fidelity David Livingstone who, with time, became a full-on electronic witch doctor.
"I had a useless liberal-arts degree from San Diego State, and I had a very intense hobby of electronics—and I was also in a failing rock band as the pianist," the 66-year-old Chula Vista native says. "I didn't have any money, so I had to learn how to fix things. I realized I was kind of good at it, so then I took the electronics-technician program at San Diego City College."
Longworth's repair shop is not the portrait of modern efficiency. Records are maintained with pen and paper. No one gets in and out in a jiffy. The customer is frequently wrong. Over the years, Longworth has established a reputation as a gentler, nerdier, more talkative, vintage-audio version of Seinfeld's Soup Nazi.
"You always have to realize that, as a professional audio-service person, your perceptions of what is going on may differ from the customer's perceptions and that difference oftentimes is very large," he says. "The problem you run into is that your perceptions are usually the correct ones. The ones the customer has are frequently, shall we just call them, 'unschooled opinions.' You have to very tactfully lead them to where they can comprehend enough of what actually needs to be done on their equipment so they're not going to fuss and argue about it."
What really drives Longworth "No soup for you!" crazy is when a customer, for whatever reason, be it the embarrassment of plain foolishness, won't tell him the whole story about the damage. Did they spill a beer on it? Did they purchase it from a shady eBay seller? Longworth needs to know.
"I wish they would be straight with me," he says. "They think if they don't tell me about something that it would save money or that it would alter the diagnosis. I compare it to not telling a doctor that you're coughing up blood."
Longworth often talks in medical terms, though he may be more akin to a veterinarian whose patients are sometimes abused and neglected by the owners who love them dearly. A week earlier, he had to deliver the grim news to a young woman that the turntable belonging to her terminally ill father was beyond repair. She, as many customers do, accidentally damaged it by transporting it improperly.
"She broke down and sat in the customer area five minutes, just weeping," he says. "I've been doing this a long time, but this is the first time that's happened."
What makes audio repair worth doing, Longworth says, is he's able to not only fix an audio system, but also restore the sound quality to a point the owner no longer thought was possible.
One afternoon, Longworth is examining a customer's table radio, twisting the tuner down the dial, from staticky jazz to a snowy version of Alex Clare's "Too Close." He inspects the back end and derides the customer for trying to perform "amateur brain surgery" on the radio. The quote is $125.
"They either love me or hate me," Longworth says, reflecting on his relationship with his clientele.
"Well, they know you," says the customer, having waited the greater part of a half-hour. "Not a lot of guys do this."
"Not true," interrupts a second customer, who drove down from Oceanside to have Longworth inspect his classic Sansui receiver. "A lot of guys do this, just not with integrity."