After serving the Tri-Cities area with television and electronics sales and services since the mid-1950s, the Harrell family is hitting the off switch for the last time and closing down Johnson City’s Bob Harrell’s Electronics on Oct. 30.
It was a tough decision for founder Bob Harrell’s daughter, Kim Harrell Johnson, who took over as owner in 1998 when her father’s health declined. He died in late 2000. She cites less expensive foreign products and a changing economy for the reason behind shutting the doors of the store at 211 Lamont St.
“You can’t leave! What are we going to do?” are some of the comments Johnson has received since making the announcement.
Comments like these don’t fall on an empty heart, as the local businesswomen found herself in tears at the outpouring support and shared memories she’s been given. It’s the relationships with her customers that have struck her most over the years, a bonding Johnson learned from her father, who made those connections that led to the patronage of four generations of customers from the same families.
The business started in 1956 in the Lamar community, where Harrell grew up. He went around with his grandmother, collecting broken radios and returning to his workshop in Lamar to fix them, then returning them in working order to his customers.
In 1960, Harrell moved into the current location and rode the booming television industry as Johnson City’s person to see if you had a broken tube television. Repairs were as important to the Harrells as were sales, working specifically with the company Zenith, made for decades in the U.S. This was extremely important to the store’s founder, and his ability to fix anything electronic, as well as his principles, were passed on to his daughters, Kim Harrell Johnson and Karen Harrell Mabe.
While Mabe worked in the family business, she didn’t take to it quite like her sister, who carried things out through the 1990s. The decade was the last good decade as far as business was concerned, Johnson said, as customer loyalty soon gave way to the cheap and easy availability of electronics at big box stores, where the customer service the Harrell’s prided themselves on wasn’t as important as the lowest possible price.
“There’s not going to be anyone like us anymore,” Johnson said. “We found a niche with elderly people and people who weren’t so tech-savvy. When someone bought a television, we’d take it out to them, hook it up and show them how to use it.”
Delivering some milk right along with a television or taking a “tech support” phone call during off-hours was normal for the Harrells, who took the opportunity to serve their customers the right way.
The changing needs of these customers ultimately led to the closing of the Harrell’s business. Johnson said it’s something that she could — maybe should — have done three or four years ago, but it’s gotten to the point where she’s having trouble making ends meet.
“It got to the point where I couldn’t make a living without being a schiester,” Johnson said, which is a promise she made to her father. If it ever got that bad, she promised she’d close the doors for good.
The building is currently on the market and Johnson, at 50, is looking at starting her second career, considering her options.
If her dad could comment on the current situation, Johnson knows what he’d say.
“It’s time,” she imagines he’d say. And she agrees.
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