Of Watchbands And Wrong Numbers

When Gina and I first moved into our house a couple of years ago, we decided to get a landline telephone as part of our Internet & cable package. (“Landline” is a loose definition, I know, since even that is being transmitted through fiber optics in our case instead of the traditional telephone lines, but work with me here.) Among our circles of young professionals, we’re probably in the minority in having a “home phone” number versus just using our cell phones for everything, but the landline has proven useful on several occasions:

  1. To have an “emergency” line if cell service goes out
  2. To order Chinese food
  3. To call our parents from the basement, where cell service isn’t so good
  4. To receive a multitude of telemarketer calls

The fourth category is actually the most interesting (unless you’re a connoisseur of Chinese food). Early on after moving, we realized that we were consistently getting calls and voicemails from people who wanted their watches fixed. They were looking for their favorite watch repairman, by the name of Mr. Watchband. Clearly my generic voicemail greeting of “Hello, you have reached [insert number here]…” ending with the usual leave-your-number-and-we’ll-get-back-to-you language, which any self-promoting business would not have as their voicemail greeting, wasn’t deterring anyone. At that time, our phone number was new enough (to us) that we often answered the phone innocently enough, only to have to tell the disappointed watch owner that the number was, in fact, a private residence. I mean, this was different from telemarketers – residential numbers with our area code were popping up on caller ID, so how could we know that we weren’t just in a really friendly part of Northern Virginia without answering the phone? It’s not like caller ID tells you the reason for the call, but if “CONSUMER TELCOM” or “ANNOYING SURVEYORS INC.” show up, you at least have a clue that it’s not your neighbor calling you over to have tea. Gradually, we adopted a let-it-ring-and-check-voicemail-later approach, which then devolved into basically only checking our home voicemail once every month or two. But that’s another story.

I decided to do some research into Mr. Watchband, figuring we could at least forward his latest information to his disappointed customers. As it turns out, he used to be set up in the Springfield Mall, a place that at that time was still operational, though it was more a wretched hive of scum and villainy than a shopping mall. Our home phone number, naturally, used to belong to the business. The decline of the mall drove a lot of the normal stores and kiosks to close up, including our intrepid watchband repair shop. There was no business webpage that I could find, only a Facebook page that had several fans and appeared to be maintained by the man himself. It was there that I discovered a shockingly sad twist to this whole story: Mr. Watchband had committed suicide several months prior.

That revelation threw me for a loop. I instantly felt a tinge of grief for the man, who obviously ran a successful business with happy customers. Being only tangentially involved, by a coincidence of timing and the availability of telephone numbers, I could only wonder what drove someone like that to do what he did. Suddenly the inconvenience of a few wrong numbers seemed impossibly petty… but now, armed with this information, what did I tell those unsuspecting customers when they came calling? Somehow I couldn’t imagine ruining the day of every average Joe who only wanted a new leather strap for their Timex by introducing the gruesome details of the truth. Similarly, I couldn’t bring myself to change my voicemail greeting to, “Hello. If you’re calling about watch repair, I have some sad news… otherwise, leave a message!”

So, Gina and I decided… to do nothing. The recent demolition of Springfield Mall has changed things, but we still field the odd Mr. Watchband call here and there. Since watches are an item that only need maintenance every few years in most cases, it seems that people just assume their guy is still in business, somewhere. We vaguely tell our callers that he’s out of business and wish them a good day, leaving them unaware of the truth unless they decide to Google him.

But here, I feel like symbolically doing more. Call it absolution of guilt for not telling the whole truth. After checking the Facebook page again, I see that Mr. Watchband once recommended his former partners at Annandale Watch and Clock Repair for all your watch battery and repair needs. And so do I. The next time I need a watch repaired, I’ll go there, and it seems I’ll have a bit of a story to tell.

Carbon Leaf at the Hamilton: Concert Review

I promise this blog isn’t going to turn into a concert review site (though that would be cool). It’s just that July turned into the best month in recent years for concerts. I caught most of my top 10 favorite bands in July, and I don’t think that’s ever happened before. Anyway, onto the review, which is as much about the venue as it is the band.

Gerritt, Melanie, and I recently caught the Virginia band Carbon Leaf at the still-shiny-new venue in downtown DC called The Hamilton Live, or just “The Hamilton” to those in the know, although apparently the latter refers simultaneously to both the whole space and, more specifically, to the full-service sit-down restaurant on street level. There’s also a loft upstairs featuring a bar and a small stage for local acts. The main stage that’s hosted such  musically awesome and diverse live acts as Mavis Staples, Shovels & Rope, Chubby Checker, and Sam Bush is downstairs.

The Hamilton is owned and operated by Clyde’s Restaurant Group, which should immediately give you a frame of reference for what to expect. Located in the space once occupied by the cavernous downtown Borders, Clyde’s has filled in and renovated the property to be completely unrecognizable. As The Hamilton, you feel like you’re entering a swanky 19th century hotel, with dining room after dining room and ornate stairwells everywhere. We joked that you could probably make a whole evening out of simply wandering the twists and turns of the hallways.

The closest local analogies I can think of when it comes to the The Hamilton Live’s downstairs music venue are The Birchmere and Arlington Cinema ‘N’ Drafthouse, in that all three offer general admission seating with restaurant-style tables that provide full-service food and drink during the course of the show. The difference with The Hamilton is that the menu is a simplified version of what you might find in any Clyde’s, so while it’s slightly more expensive than grabbing a burger from The Birchmere, it’s also higher quality and a bit more diverse (and, one would hope, consistently better quality top to bottom, though I’ll have to wait until I go there more often to vote on that). I had the spicy crab pizza and scarfed down the whole thing.

Being new, The Hamilton does still has some kinks to work out. The ordering system relies on the waiters’ handheld tablets, and a couple of times through the evening we were offered food that wasn’t ours. One of our drinks were lost along the way, forcing us to re-order them. This happens at any restaurant occasionally, so the tablets don’t seem to really improve anything other than to look cool. But the staff is very attentive and apologetic.

The room itself is beautiful, and the acoustics for the show were great with a couple of exceptions. It seemed like the sound guy had trouble finding the right levels once the room was packed, though that got better after the first few songs, and the noise traveling from the bar was distracting during the show’s quieter moments.

Carbon Leaf itself was top-notch as usual, playing a mostly acoustic set during a short tour while they finish up their new album in September. I was introduced to Carbon Leaf in college, and they have definitely shown some staying power as the years have gone on. They’re what I would call a quintessential Virginia band, taking some of the best influences of Virginia music and infusing them with tight instrumentation and introspective, poetic lyrics. Throughout their career, they’ve delved in the Celtic rock arena for a couple of songs here and there, but they’ve most recently released a full album in that genre, Ghost Dragon Attacks Castle, which I highly recommend if you want to instantly be transported to Ireland or need a few new 6/8 time drinking songs. But really, any Carbon Leaf show can do the same thing while musically embodying all that Virginia has to offer, so go see them live when you can.

The band closed their set with an unplugged performance steps away from where we were sitting, so I was able to do my first shaky iPhone video of one of my favorite bands up-close and post it to YouTube. I’ll close with that very video for your enjoyment:

SpeedZone Follies

The last time I was in Dallas for work, I wanted to do something a little different than the standard work-all-day, hang-out-at-the-hotel-until-dinner, eat-out-then-go-to-sleep formula. If I’m traveling so much for work, I asked myself, shouldn’t I get as much enjoyment out of it as I can?

Enter SpeedZone. Think Dave & Buster’s or Top Golf, but with go-karts and go-dragsters and four different tracks. With an arcade and mini-golf thrown into the mix.

Among some groups in my office, SpeedZone has become something of a tradition, but every time a large group got together to go there on my previous trips, I had to miss out for some reason (like being exhausted, or trying to take a final exam online after a four-hour flight and a ten-hour workday). I decided not to miss out on the fun this time around, so I convinced my co-workers Ryan and Jessica to join me.  What’s more, my co-worker Lyle left me a card loaded with enough money for a few races on the house, so even if I couldn’t find my racing mojo, I wouldn’t be set back any money. I was feeling pretty good to go.

As I mentioned earlier, the basic layout of SpeedZone is very reminiscent of a Dave & Buster’s. You load however much money you want onto a plastic game card, which you get to keep as a souvenir and re-load as often as you’d like. To enter each racetrack, you just swipe the card and it debits the pre-determined amount for that race. The four tracks range in difficulty and speed, from Simple to Insane.

Thunder Road was our first track, since it was billed as a beginner’s course (and good for parents with kids, apparently). While I mentally wondered who in SpeedZone management was a Springsteen fan,  I quickly renewed my confidence in my kart driving ability. Our group of three made up the only racers on the track, and I made short work of my competitors using my secret “no brake,  just gas” driving style. It had been years since I’d been on a real go-kart track, but the fumes and the rubber brought my inner racing animal to the forefront.

After some laughing and swapping stories on what happened on the track, Ryan sat out while Jessica and I decided to go to the aptly-named Turbo Track, where the cars were faster, point values were doubled, and the stakes were infinitely higher. Two teenage boys joined us for the race, but I had the first pole position and still felt good about my chances…

…until about the second turn, when my brilliant “no brake, just gas” strategy blew up in my face and caused the entire kart to violently rock left and right on its chassis until I came to a near-dead stop. When I regained consciousness and thought it was safe to accelerate again, I quickly noticed that my steering wheel, for all intents and purposes, would only turn to the right. That wouldn’t be a huge deal on a strictly oval, clockwise loop, but of course this was not the case on the old Turbo Track. As an added bonus, every third turn or so, no matter what combination of brakes and gas I tried, my ramshackle kart would give up and go into another seizure until I let it come to a wheezing, pathetic stop.

At the end of the five-minute race, I gratefully hobbled to the pit area, thanking God for letting me survive while at least not being lapped by those teenage punks with their shiny new karts. When Jessica and I climbed out, we mutually agreed we should just go to the arcade and blow the rest of our money there. After watching a couple of the drag races going on over at the Eliminator course, we did just that.

So there you have it. Despite the travesty at the Turbo Track, I’m still hungry for more SpeedZone, and I highly recommend it for a good evening of fun in Dallas.

Who Does HHGregg Work For?

Over the last few months, there’s been some unusual activity at most of the empty shell buildings that used to be Circuit Cities in our area.  Eventually, they were populated with signs saying that “hhgregg” would be coming soon.  Gina and I kept asking ourselves, “Who is this mysterious hhgregg, and who does he represent?  Why does he need such a big store?”  Well, we got our answer this past weekend, when the dozen or so hhgregg stores in the D.C. area had their grand opening.  After seeing the flier in the newspaper that outlined a couple of pretty good deals on home theater equipment, we decided to go in and check out the store. I put on my MBA and IE hats afterward to examine their business model and processes.

As it turns out, the Gregg stores got their start in Indianapolis in the 50’s and have had a presence in the Midwest and South for several decades, though their IPO was in 2007.  The chain is just now beginning to expand into the Atlantic seaboard, no doubt helped by Circuit City’s demise.  The location we visited was big, brightly lit, and clean, with a white-and-red overtone as opposed to the dark blue-black-and-yellow of Best Buy, who is certainly their biggest competitor.  The two stores’ product offerings overlap a great deal, though hhgregg is focused strictly on electronics hardware and appliances, with no DVD/video game/music/cell phone sections.

In all the grand opening hype, hhgregg advertised that they offered “price and advice.”  The non-sale prices seemed as reasonable as any other electronics store, but of course we were there for the deals.  As for advice, we experienced fairly mixed results, as it seemed like the staff wasn’t made up of extreme electronics experts.  One associate that was closer to high school age couldn’t answer even the most basic questions I asked him regarding the differences between a Samsung system and an LG in similar price ranges.  The other two associates we dealt with were very professional, though by that point I didn’t need to ask any more technical questions since I’d already decided which model to buy. As a whole, I’d say the staff was definitely more friendly and pro-active in approaching us for help than at any Best Buy I’ve ever visited.

My only other beef was with the checkout and pickup process for larger items, the category our small entry-level home theater system barely fit into.  I’m not sure if this was just because it was a grand opening, but it seemed a little disorganized and overly complicated. We brought a receipt up to the front of the store to two warehouse guys, who looked at it for a while and then went right back to where we’d left the box on the shelf, bringing it back to us.  They then helped us load the box into the car.

I think the store could save customers a couple of minutes by using a more traditional electronic ordering system – but maybe that’s part of the distinction hhgregg is trying to make.  They’re catering to the older market that doesn’t already own every gadget, doesn’t mind slowing down to comparison shop, and can afford to spend a couple of extra minutes waiting for someone to do the heavy lifting for them.  Keeping their product offerings narrowed down to just hardware is a smart move, too.  While Best Buy continues to diversify into musical instruments and anything with a screen and a battery, hhgregg could stand to profit by focusing their efforts on excelling in customer service for a few distinct retail departments.

Your mileage may vary, but I’m pleased with my purchase, and our experience was overall positive. Time will tell whether the novelty of having a new store, and an alternative to Best Buy and Wal-Mart, will wear off or not. I don’t think hhgregg can take down either of those stores, but I do think there’s room for them in the DC area as long as they maintain their distinctions and don’t slip into the same mistakes as Circuit City.