You’d be forgiven for being surprised at the notion that a man who repairs vintage radios was so buried in work that he had to open a shop.
After all, it’s the digital age. What even are tube radios?
But according to Gary Streeter, owner of Bi-State Vintage Radio Repair at 300 N. High St. in Belleville, the market is there, mostly in the form of folks who have old radios from old relatives interested in getting them working again.
That, or the antique crowd.
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Either way, after repairing old radios from a storage shed and then a garage for a few years, Streeter had to upgrade. He was too busy and was running out of room.
Interest from boyhood
“I was 7 years old. I remember this: My brother was given by our great aunt this crystal radio broadcast set that you put together. It fascinated me,” Streeter said. “My brother didn’t seem to care about it but I wanted it.”
A year later, Streeter wanted more. He started cutting people’s grass and doing other odd jobs so he could afford a radio kit sold at RadioShack. He was hooked.
He said to me ‘If you really want to do this, why don’t you come to my shop. Can your mom bring you one or two afternoons a week?’ He was going to teach me about it. I didn’t know he was going to put the pliers and soldering iron in my hands. He’s the one that really taught me radio.
Gary Streeter, owner of Bi-State Vintage Radio Repair
By age 14, Streeter got a 1939 Hallicrafters short wave radio from the home of a man who’d recently died. It didn’t work, but Streeter’s mother suggested taking it to a local shop to see about a repair.
Thomas Webb, who ran Webb TV & Radio in Columbia, S.C., noticed Streeter’s keen interest right away.
“He said to me ‘If you really want to do this, why don’t you come to my shop. Can your mom bring you one or two afternoons a week?’” Streeter said. “He was going to teach me about it. I didn’t know he was going to put the pliers and soldering iron in my hands. He’s the one that really taught me radio.”
That was in 1974. Streeter still has that Hallicrafters.
From hobby to business
Streeter was a freight pilot for 30 years, based out of Little Rock, Ark. He first came to the metro-east for temporary work out of St. Louis Downtown Airport in Cahokia. He didn’t intend to be here long, but he made friends and decided to stay. He’s been local for nearly a decade.
Streeter said he got the idea that he could make some extra cash by taking on repair projects five or six years ago. His first work station was in the corner of a storage shed. Then he moved, taking advantage of a larger garage to do repairs.
“More people were starting to get word” that he was doing repairs, Streeter said. “Then at the house we were getting a whole lot of people starting to bring this stuff out. I said ‘You know? I need a brick and mortar because this isn’t going to work. The garage is full.’”
Streeter has been working out of the High Street building since March.
“(Business is) pretty good. Single technician here, and I’m buried in work,” he said. “That’s good.”
Because he still works full-time elsewhere, Streeter only opens the shop from 5 to 8 p.m. on weekdays and keeps some weekend hours. But when the time is right and if business is still good, he’d like to take his repair work full-time.
So what’s the draw to an old electronic medium using obsolete technology?
“I attribute that to sentimental value (people) hold for the equipment,” Streeter said. In other words, the radios aren’t just radios. They’re heirlooms linking people in the present to their families and their history.
A gentleman brought in an old 1939 RCA console and said ‘My grandmother heard FDR’s address about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on this radio.’ It’s a piece of life. It’s a part of their life.
It’s something Millennials might not fully grasp. They don’t buy radios.
“A gentleman brought in an old 1939 RCA console and said ‘My grandmother heard FDR’s address about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on this radio,’” Streeter said. “It’s a piece of life. It’s a part of their life.”
Aside from his mechanical interest in old radios, Streeter also feels the same nostalgia that brings his customers into his shop. “I know a lot of the history of how radio was developed. To me, it’s my way to reach back and appreciate that technology and actually learn how it works and see how it works and help those others that have that in their radios to get them going.”
“It’s almost like you’ve breathed life into the past,” Streeter continued. “It’s a good feeling to know that I can go in here, revitalize, revamp, refurbish this piece of equipment.”
He recalled one case in particular where a husband and wife brought him a battery-powered radio from the 1930s. Not knowing what would happen, the husband put a power cord on the radio and plugged it in, frying the filaments in the radio’s tubes. The wife was devastated. It was her grandma’s radio.
“They found me, brought it to me and asked if there was any way I could get it going,” Streeter said. Aside from replacing the tubes, he replaced other components of the unit and gave it all a good cleaning.
“I remember when they came over to the house after I called them. I had it sitting on the bench. The girl came in and I had the radio hooked up to the batteries and when I turned it on, she cried,” he said. “I didn’t know I had that much of an impact on somebody. That stuck with me. That stuck with me hard.”
I want to develop a good relationship with the customers. I want the people to understand that it’s a labor of love for me, too. Yeah, I got bills to pay. Yeah, I need to make a living. But you can do it as a labor of love and still make money and not take the customers to the cleaners.
It’s his understanding of what vintage radios mean to customers that might make hiring Streeter worth the money if you need one fixed. He knows what he’s doing but he also loves it.
“I want to develop a good relationship with the customers. I want the people to understand that it’s a labor of love for me, too. Yeah, I got bills to pay. Yeah, I need to make a living. But you can do it as a labor of love and still make money and not take the customers to the cleaners,” Streeter said. “If somebody comes to me with an heirloom like that, it’s going to leave here right. You bet.”