Quirks and Gossip in a Corporate Cellphone Branch


Michael Carr, a 65-year-old handyman, wandered in and sat on a stool near the service desk. He was there only to talk. “Ari’s got respect for the older heads,” he said in an accent part Dutch and part West Indian. “He’ll tell them: ‘This phone is not for you. You can’t handle it at this age.’”

The store phone rang. “AT&T,” said Mr. Kirtchuk. “Yes, yes, you can bring it over. The SIM card is $10. But do you need internet? For an additional $10 you get 1G of data.”

He hung up. “People are used to a 1-2-3 situation. When they get extra service, they’re surprised. I’m not a diamond but I look like a diamond because of my competition.”

There are two other AT&T retailers within a mile of his, one part of a large chain and the other owned by an individual. (There are also several other cellphone franchises in proximity.) Mr. Kirtchuk explained that authorized retailers are independent contractors that compete with one another, unlike, say, two branches of one clothing chain. They make commissions on each new activation or upgrade, based on the value of the transaction. The commission on a new activation is higher than that on a phone upgrade. “The AT&T competition I can control with my customer service,” said he said. “Competition with Verizon is not under my control.” (AT&T did not respond to requests for comment on this article.)

Born in Argentina, Mr. Kirtchuk moved to Israel with his family when he was 3. He arrived in the United States in the late 1980s, when he was in his early 20s. He thought he would work, save some money, and return to Israel to study. He got a job in a clothing store in the South Bronx, and in 1988 he met the woman who would become his wife. They married, had two sons, and moved to Richmond Hill, Queens. A few years later Mr. Kirtchuk dropped his plans to return to Israel.

A job in an electronics store led him to open his own business selling and servicing pagers in 1990, and as technology changed, he opened a series of cellphone dealerships. Soon he owned four in Queens. “I was looking for stores all the time,” he said recently. “I thought I could grab the world.”

One day in 2003 he was driving down Seventh Avenue in Park Slope, looking for future locations. “I thought to myself, ‘Nice area,’” he recalled. “I went to the landlord, and half an hour later I signed the lease.” After his divorce, he closed all his Queens stores within a few years and installed himself full-time in Park Slope. Even today, he said, several former Richmond Hill customers travel nearly nine miles to see him.

On a different weekday he was aiding a married couple, Arta Ukha, 32, and her husband, Ari Nikci, 37, who had come in for new phones. Mr. Kirtchuk’s mind was on the stock market. “If the stocks are down two days in a row,” he said, “maybe Wall Street knows something we don’t. Maybe Trump is on his way out.”

Mr. Rossello was on the store phone. “I can’t understand what you’re saying,” he told the caller.

Mr. Kirtchuk took the phone and spoke briefly in Spanish, including the words “Apple ID” and “teléfono.” Mr. Kirtchuk switches from English to Spanish to Hebrew, sometimes shocking customers who don’t expect the guy at the cellphone store to be multilingual.

Photo

Eggplant, Mr. Kirtchuk’s dog, pictured, is sometimes on the scene. So is Polo, Mr. Kirtchuk’s son’s dog.

Credit
Todd Heisler/The New York Times

A discussion ensued on different accents. Ms. Ukha, originally from Kosovo, explained the challenges of helping her parents set up a smartphone. “In Albania the words are pronounced the way they’re written,” she said. “I have to tell my parents, ‘Press DO-neh’ instead of ‘DONE.’”

A pizza delivery man came in and handed Mr. Kirtchuk his phone, leaving within a few minutes. “He just needed to wipe it,” Mr. Kirtchuk explained. “He lost his password.” He was philosophical about life as an authorized retailer. “If you take care of your customers, you’re going to make a few dollars out of it. The money will follow. I represent a big corporation, but they allow me to work in an old-fashioned way, to find a balance between making them happy and doing what I want.”

What about the unpleasant customers? “I recognize them right away,” he said. “I’ll try to encourage them to go to my competition.”

He often learns about people’s problems as he helps them with their phones. Several months ago a regular, close to tears, came in and asked to pull up her husband’s text messages for her. “She said, ‘I think he has something going on,’” Mr. Kirtchuk recalled. “I told her, ‘First of all, I can’t do that, and even if I could, I wouldn’t.’ I told her to wait 24 hours and cool down to think about it. Maybe she was jumping to conclusions.”

Later on the hectic Friday of the Jewish prayer ritual, the door burst open and Yanki Reichman, 56, who wore a prayer shawl beneath a TrueValue Hardware hoodie, went to Mr. Kirtchuk, joking with him in Hebrew. He stops in the store on his trips to the bank, often bringing Jewish delicacies from Crown Heights.

The chiropractor, Mr. Rossel, who had come in to buy his first smartphone, waited for it to be activated. “Phones bring people into the store,” he observed. “Because they are a capitalistic pursuit they require updates. Since Ari put those chairs here there’s always people sitting in them. This is the new barbershop.”

“AT&T is a franchise that swallowed all the smaller ones,” said Mr. Reichman, “but without Ari, people would get lost. He spends hours and hours trying to help them and he doesn’t get paid for it.”

Mr. Rossello, the full-time employee, asked Mr. Rossel a series of security questions as he set up the device, like his mother’s maiden name or the city he was born in. “Why don’t you have it ask your dream job?” Mr. Kirtchuk interrupted. “Belly dancer? My dream job was always to be a belly dancer.”

A tall young man with broad shoulders came in. He carried a gym bag and lingered near the door. “It’s your lucky day, Ari,” he said in a strong Southern accent. “I have a hundred dollars in here.”

“Why didn’t you bring me a thousand?” Mr. Kirtchuk asked.

The man was Jonathan Jones, 33, a clothing designer, author and investor who works at the Whole Foods in Gowanus. He moved to New York from Vicksburg, Miss., six months ago and met Mr. Kirtchuk after coming into the store offering his web-building services. They became friendly.

On this afternoon he had a loose battery. Mr. Kirtchuk placed a call to a roving repairman and turned to Mr. Jones. “Jonathan, 5:30 is good for you?” “Aw, man,” said Mr. Jones. “Now is good.” But he agreed to return at 5:30.

A woman who resembled Laurie Anderson, with a distraught face under her parka hood, came in and announced dramatically, “I lost my phone.”

“You have insurance?”

“No.”

“All right,” Mr. Kirtchuk said. “Gimme a second.” They spoke quietly. After typing her number into the computer he determined that she did, in fact, have insurance. She left, and returned 10 minutes with two cups of coffee, one for Mr. Kirtchuk. “Good coffee,” he said.

They approached a display phone together, and an intense, guitar-heavy folk song emanated from the store speakers. It turned out to be a music video by her husband, also a customer. Mr. Kirtchuk complimented the music while he helped her set up a new phone, which would arrive in the mail. (Days later she would find her lost phone.)

As afternoon turned to evening, a redheaded young woman came in and told Mr. Rossello she was a Verizon customer, asking him detailed questions about AT&T plans, including the number of gigabytes and international-calling details. Mr. Kirtchuk approached her and said she could switch, explaining how much she would save on a similar AT&T plan and handing her a business card. It seemed uncharacteristically aggressive; he prefers a soft sell. She said she would think about it. “When you’re ready,” Mr. Kirtchuk said.

She paused to pet Polo, remarking on his calm demeanor. After the door closed behind her Mr. Kirtchuk said, “I think she was a secret shopper, sent by AT&T to check on things.” When asked why he said, “She knew too much.”

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