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Stereo Savant

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David Nash is an electronics whiz, born with a genius for fixing car stereos and speakers. He will tell you this much if you ask. He will also, in all likelihood, give you the best deal he possibly can, and it doesn't necessarily have to be a conventional one: in the past Nash has installed a car stereo in exchange for two iguanas and has traded a VCR for a 22-year-old human skull.

Nash is tall and thick-armed. He has a bushy blond mustache and a crew cut with a ducktail. Today he's wearing a T-shirt with Psycho Man across the back; two buttons are attached to it, one reading "It only seems kinky the first time" and the other, "Out of my mind, be back in five minutes." He's very proud of his store, the Stereo Exchange, near Lawrence and Western, which has expanded considerably in the last six years to include two repair rooms, a garage, and a basement where he stores old equipment and buckets of plastic toys.

One wall of the store is taken up by car stereos turned around backward, their wires hanging down like multicolored innards. The rest of the shop is elaborately decked out in junk. Piled everywhere, attached by suction cups, perched in niches, poking out of unlikely holes, are plastic lizards, Godzilla dolls, jungle plants, animal skulls, sports cars, and antique TV picture tubes. A whole shelf is taken up by plastic trolls. There are also C-3P0 and Darth Vader dolls, model planes, a machine gun, the torso of a female mannequin, and dozens of plastic skeletons. Clad in a white rag, a large, gruesome gray rubber monster with bulging eyes hangs prominently from a light fixture.

At various times, all these items have worked their way to Nash's front window. "They're just cool, everybody goes ooh and aah over them," he says. "A lot of this stuff people donate me. Some of these things I know are worth big bucks, like the Matchbox cars. I got the trolls; I took them from my ma's house. They weren't doing anybody any good, so I put them up in my store." Nash's most valued possession is a Tibetan scroll stamped by the Dalai Lama, which was given to him when he opened the shop. "I don't know how this fell into my hands, but I feel very privileged," he says. "It's got real gold on it, real human hair. It's one hell of a priceless piece of artwork."

The Stereo Exchange is also home to two massive pit bulls--Bud Monster and Mad Max--as well as three iguanas and a family of barking frogs. Nash's several employees, who are in charge of feeding the iguanas and walking the dogs during business hours, also do repair work and help customers. "David is very magnetic," says Nancy Trock, his longtime friend and office manager. "A lot of people hang out after work. Sometimes we barbecue during lunch, and we get so busy everything burns. Wherever Dave's lived, he's always had people coming over all the time. He likes to be around people; he loves people. This is more Dave's house than his house is. He's here all the time, even when we're closed. On Sunday when we're closed, Dave's here, puttering around."

Today Nash is busy inspecting a car-stereo installation at the back of the shop when one of his employees interrupts. Gio, who has long stringy hair and several tattoos, is wearing a red cutoff T-shirt with a picture of a skeleton. The shirt reads Ekhardt Park Boxing Team.

"Dave?" Gio says.

"Yeah. Who? What?"

"This guy up front wants to talk to you. How much you want for the M&M box?"

"Just deal with him," Nash says, waving him off.

"He wants to pay you a little bit now and owe you the rest on Friday."

Nash sighs. "You know, I don't get it. He's making megabucks. I don't understand these people. He's nickel-and-diming me to death. I don't mind. Everybody can do what they want to do, but we're cuttin' them a good deal to begin with. We're here to make a living. Our prices are good."

Gio looks frustrated. "Dave, the 12-inch M&M box?"

"I work 80, 90 hours a week, minimum," Nash says. "I have more car radios than most people in the city. Actually, I think I'm the only guy like me in the country."

His tireless work ethic notwithstanding, Nash has a few friends to thank for his success in business, friends like his ex-partner Tony Ruh. Nash claims that a couple of years ago he and Ruh were the first ones in Chicago to put neon strips under cars. Ruh now owns a neon store next door to the Stereo Exchange. "Tony went off, he got the neon business, I got my business free and clear," Nash says. "He just bought the bank building next door; he's going to make it into a mini mall." There are others: "A friend of mine, Dino, was working for me for a long time; he started dating my best friend. He's in the sewers by trade, so now he's downtown making big bucks to afford his baby; otherwise he'd still be here. He had a lot of input into what we do."

Late one steamy Wednesday afternoon at his store, Nash works the public, fluidly dealing with several different customers. His pit bulls toy with an enormous beef bone behind the counter. "Bud is a trained attack dog, and Max--you can't tell it--went through obedience training," Nash says. "He's a little wacko; I think he's very inbred."

A customer who's about to bring his car around back for some work says, "This guy is a genius. I had a car radio I picked up someplace else; it was completely ruined. He took all the wires out, broke it down, and put it in. There's nothing he can't do."

"Aw, get outta here!" says Nash, who's drumming out a rhythm on some bongos.

All kinds of customers come into the Stereo Exchange. Some wear ripped undershirts covered in grease and paint. Others wear neatly pressed khakis, oxford shirts and penny loafers. Teenagers come in looking for speakers that will blow out their back windshields, and mothers in need of some rewiring on their Honda Civics drag along their kids. "Dealing with the public, it's got its trials and tribulations, but some pretty incredible people come in here," Nash says. "I get all the medical students from the University of Chicago out there on the south side. It's catch as can carry, or however the hell that phrase goes."

A middle-aged woman in a pink blouse and a purple skirt comes in. "I need you to fix my car stereo," she says to Nash.

"Excellent, where you parked?"

"Right here."

"Kind of car you got?"

"Toyota Corolla."

"Toy-o-ta. Give me about five minutes and I'll be out. Cool."

A muscular guy with long white hair and a thick Chicago accent comes in and dumps a car stereo on the counter.

"What's up?" Nash asks

"1992 Dawdge Keer-a-van, no display."

"Probably 40 to 62 bucks."

"While you're in there, could you renew the belts and clean it up?" the guy asks.

"Sure. Yep. Cool," Nash says. "Name, address, phone. You got 20 bucks on ya?"

"No, I don't."

"You got ten? I need some kinda deposit."

The guy pulls out a ten and a twenty. Pulling back the twenty, he says, "I need this."

"I'll take ten. I'll take ten," Dave says.

"If it matters, I'm a mechanic at Carr's Honda."

"You are? Carr's Honda, so Danny sent you down. That's cool. I'll take care of you. You've got a discount through me."

The deal made, Nash starts writing out an invoice. An older man comes in carrying a stereo in a Chiquita banana box.

"I don't want no bananas!" Nash says. "What'd you bring us?"

"Alpine."

"All right! Fix it or sell it?"

"Can ya fix it?"

"I'm sure we can. You got 20 bucks on ya?"

The other man, the mechanic, looks around the shop and asks, "You got any tweetahs?"

Nash sits up straight on his stool, crosses his arms, and looks around like a king surveying his subjects. "This is it," he says. "I'll be here for a while. Yep, I plan on being here a long time."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos/Lloyd DeGrane.

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