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Not Just The Prices Were Insane

Not Just The Prices Were Insane

Monday, March 2nd, 2009

News that a Brooklyn entrepreneur is hoping to revive the Crazy Eddie electronics franchise, reported this week in the NY Post, was of great personal interest to me.

Having worked part-time at two Crazy Eddie outlets in the mid-80s, in Midtown and in Flatbush Brooklyn (the original, flagship store) during college, I can vividly recall the energy of that fast-growing enterprise as store after store was trumpeted by turtlenecked spokesman Jerry Carroll in those frenetic commercials declaring that Eddie’s prices were “insane!” At one point the chain had 43 stores grossing an estimated $300 million in sales.

Technically, I was an employee not of Crazy Eddie himself but of his cousin, Benny, who had a record concession in all of his stores. But the two businesses were joined at the hip as the record department piggybacked on the Crazy Eddie brand. “That’s not the Eddie way of doing things,” I recall my manager, Sharon, telling me once after some mistake.

Going to work in this fast-paced, growing high-tech environment was fun. I still have my bright yellow Crazy Eddie name tag, one of the most cherished artifacts of my youth, and I even asked a friend to knit me a kippa in matching colors, which I still have as well. I was the only salesman in either store to wear a kippa, although there were many Jews. The customers and employees alike were an offbeat bunch, straight out of sitcom casting. My coworkers liked practical jokes (hiding an electronic tag in someone’s coat to set off the security scanner was a popular one) and patrons often came in asking for titles so obscure I wondered if they actually existed.

It wasn’t always fun. I’ll never forget coming to work on Jan. 28, 1986, and seeing crowds of people watching replays of the space shuttle Challenger’s destruction on a bank of maybe 30 TVs along the showroom wall.

It was a booming economy, and the Eddie way meant guaranteeing rock-bottom prices to get people into the store, and betting they wouldn’t actually shop around and bother coming back with a competitor’s price for a refund of the difference. We were still selling vinyl records back then, although the CD shelves seemed to grow bigger by the week. A CD player was still a luxury then, like TIVO or a DVR today.

I was surrounded by employees who were making good money and believed in the brand, and the day Eddie Antar himself paid a visit to the Midtown store was like it must have been when Generals Eisenhower or McArthur visited the troops in the field. Longtime employees called him Kelso, after a racehorse of the late 50s who came from behind to be an unlikely champion. “Everyone said he was crazy opening another electronics store and expecting to make it big,” a manager and true believer, Bob, told me that day. “And look at him now.”

What Bob and hundreds of other dedicated employees didn’t know was that Eddie’s secret wasn’t just beating competitor’s prices but cooking the books, bilking investors and pulling off a grand scheme that enabled him to grow the chain far faster than normal profits would allow. The beginning of the end was in 1987, when the SEC began investigating.

Kelso is no Bernie Madoff. Crazy Bernie was far more insane to think he could Ponzi away in perpetuity. But the two have their similarities. Just as Madoff was a pillar in his Manhattan Jewish community and wider social circle, Eddie Antar was a legend in Brooklyn’s Sephardic community, where successful retail is both tradition and art. You can almost comprehend the egotism and avarice that can lead such men to disregard the potential impact of their actions on their families, employees and investors; but how do you explain the way they exposed themselves to disgrace and the permanent loss of their good names?

I was out of the Eddie family long before it all came crashing down, but watched the unseemly affair unfold in the years after, when Antar was eventually discovered under an alias in Israel, suffering from a stomach ailment and extradited home to face the music. In the final days of the chain’s life in 1989 I visited the old store on West 45th Street, with boxes of inventory piled up, likely headed for auction. I stood in the spot where I once shook Eddie’s crazy hand, and felt a moment of misplaced sympathy. There were no familiar faces, just an air of gloom hanging over that giant wall of TVs.

I never depended on him for my livelihood, just some college spending money and records at cost, and so I had no reason to be bitter. But I felt sorry for Bob and Sharon and all the oddballs I had worked with who had been loyal soldiers in Eddie’s army. They surely landed on their feet quicker than Madoff’s victims, but it was hard not to feel the pain of their burst bubble.

Crazy Eddie had earned his name. And all too often, crazy people leave a trail of victims.

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