There are a lot of people living within walking distance of Computer Love, a tiny store and repair shop at 12th and Howell, who, yes, love their computers. And more and more are moving in every day. But the vitality of the neighborhood that has nurtured the computer repair, service and retail business in the ground level of an old apartment building may also be what kills the little shop.
“The biggest worry I have right now is rents going up,” said Matt Horon, Computer Love’s founder, owner and sole full-time employee.
With a lease that expires at the end of April on a space that sits in the middle of a once low-profile strip of 12th Ave just a block from Cal Anderson Park that is now exploding with new construction, Computer Love’s future in the neighborhood is uncertain.
“At first we crawled, then we started walking, and now we’re about to start running, I think,” Horon said. In a 700 square-foot space carved out of the ground-level basement of the old school Alwyard Apartments building, Computer Love has reached a point of stability. The business provides Horon a livable salary and he can easily afford his current lease. Horon says revenue has nearly doubled every year since Computer Love opened in January of 2011, and that the business has been turning a profit since the summer of 2012.
But there are challenges ahead of the small business owner and his shop. Computer Love’s building is on a rapidly changing stretch of 12th, a short walk away from the Capitol Hill Light Rail Station expected to open in 2016. Mostly untouched in previous waves of redevelopment, the strip of 12th between Pine and John is now being quickly built up, and rebuilt. The massive 12th Avenue Arts building is already framed-out and taking its place in the skyline where East Precinct’s parking lot used to be and several other new construction projects are underway on the blocks immediately to the north and to the south of the brick apartment building.
Horon says he worries improvements that Computer Love has made to the space in the Alyward itself could conspire with the changing street to add extra upward pressure on rents. Horon said he spent several months and thousands of dollars renovating it in to the relatively cozy and “intimate” place of business it is today.
“I have a passion for helping people get the most out of their technology,” Horon said. With Horon currently the business’s only non-contracted employee, Computer Love offers free diagnostics and will repair just about anything that might go wrong with a PC or a Mac, Horon said.
Horon says the shop repairs everything from broken fans and screens, to failing hard drives, to water damage, all at flat rates that Horon claims are significantly lower than those of any local competitors.
Computer Love also offers services including tune-ups, help with software, virus-removal and data recovery, builds custom computers, and sells, among various other used machines, refurbished Dell laptops. Come February, Computer Love will also offer iPhone repairs through a partnership with a phone repair specialist who will work on a contracted basis. Horon says he would like to eventually hire an in-house phone repair specialist.
Horon says Computer Love sees anywhere from two to seven customers a day, some of them walk-ins who notice the shop from the street. The phone rings about four times per hour, Horon said.
Still, Horon worries about the future of his business. Computer Love’s rent could double come May and he said he would be reluctant to follow standard business advice and try to “pass the cost on to the consumer.”
In the meantime, Horon is already making plans to remodel the space on 12th Ave to add an extra work station, and to increase security and privacy around existing work spaces. “If you can’t be optimistic, I wouldn’t start a small business,” Horon said.
Within five years, Horon said, he hopes to open two or three more Computer Love locations around Seattle.
In an email to CHS, Horon said ‘he would not go so far’ as to say Computer Love would go out of business altogether, ending its hopes, if it is pushed off the Hill. However, he did say being displaced would be a major blow.
Horon founded Computer Love just two months after moving to Seattle from Brooklyn where he lived after graduating with a bachelors degree in political science from Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Originally from Michigan, Horon says the emotional impact of his father’s death from cancer was the impetus of his move from East Coast to West. He founded Computer Love with a small inheritance he received. The business concept behind Computer Love was designed to fill a need, he says, and take advantage of a market opportunity for a “local computer service and repair shop.”
His competition comes mainly from two extremes — “tech experts” from big chains like Staples or Best Buy’s “Geek Squad,” or amateurs. Horon claims that big box stores often do “sub-par” work for prices that are often “through the roof,” and that with very small “Craigslist”-type operators, “there’s no recourse if those things go bad.” Another business on the Hill, eBits, falls somewhere in the middle with Computer Love. Horon said he conceived of Computer Love as a solution to the market gap. “I wanted to start a place that sort of catered to the middle ground,” the business owner said.
Horon says there were some desperate times when he first started the business, when he had to beg relatives for loans or run up debt on his personal credit cards to find ways to pay his go-to contracted technician Joe, who helps out at the shop, and to pay rent on the various spaces Computer Love occupied around the Hill. The business first opened in a loft that Horon says was notably “unsavory” and “almost impossible for customers to find,” and then for a year-and-a-half, Computer Love operated out of a shared studio space above Bluebird on E Pike. He eventually landed in the Alyward in May of 2013. “That’s when things really started to take off,” he said.
Horon says his tech expertise is mostly self-taught. Though he does not have any formal technology training, he says he built his first computer when he was 13-years-old, when Pentium processors were first coming out, and that a near-lifetime of experience working with technology since then has given him “a really good working knowledge” of it.
The name of his business comes from a Kraftwerk song, Horon says. “We try not to take ourselves too seriously,” Horon said. “We do serious work, but at the end of the day, we’re fixing computers — we’re doing a good service for people, and it is rewarding when you fix a computer for somebody and you get a really heartfelt ‘thank you.’”
Computer Love is located at 1802 12th Ave. You can learn more at seattlecomputerlove.com.