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Video: ’Throwback’ store is ‘doorway into the past’

  1. Closed captioning of: ’Throwback’ store is ‘doorway into the past’

    >>> this morning on leonard's look mike leonard takes us on a trip down memory lane to an old school inci school institution that's still going strong .

    >> reporter: behold this grand entrance to another era. this battered back door portal to a time when shop keepers serviced what they sold, when telephones were answered by humans, and when paperwork was done on paper. some of it kept on spikes, some in time-worn cardboard file boxes, and some -- my goodness, what a curious way to keep and sort phone numbers.

    >> it works!

    >> reporter: just as well today as it did 80 years ago when jim and john first opened the wilmette bicycle shop . their sons al, jim and larry now run the business in the same fashion out of the same very old-fashioned freestanding destination store. the type of retail establishment that wasn't supposed to make it in this internet shopping big box age.

    >> that's correct, yeah. on paper this should not work.

    >> reporter: not only is it working it's thriving. the funky back door repair room entranceway, a glowing, unpretentious signal that this place is not only about selling stuff.

    >> we gain trust that way.

    >> reporter: some people come just for advice. some for a small favor.

    >> thanks!

    >> reporter: some to reminisce about their days as one of the hundreds and hundreds of young boys and girls who worked their way through school in a shop that taught them how to work with people. really work with people. a lesson not often emphasized in newer, bigger stores.

    >> the personal service , you can't beat.

    >> it's all about service. customers are number one.

    >> reporter: yes, this bicycle and sports shop is cramped and crowded but nobody's complaining.

    >> it's easier for me. there are always people to help you.

    >> reporter: sure, the low ceiling in the basement, bicycle showroom calls for awkward crouching but --

    >> i don't mind. the information and service you get makes it worth it.

    >> reporter: as for the supposed hassle of climbing the creaky stores to the second floor attic stock room, nobody seems hassled.

    >> no. it's terrific.

    >> i love it. i go up there all the time just to do it.

    >> you live with what you have at times, keep the costs down.

    >> reporter: they have made efforts to address some of the building's cosmetic issues, but even in that regard when it comes to change they don't like to rush things.

    >> until last year we had 100-year-old wallpaper going up the stairs. we finally decided to paint it. seriously.

    >> why change if it works?

    >> reporter: now if only more places worked this way.

    >> such a throwback.

    >> reporter: this doorway into the past, a pleasantly disorienting sight for a newcomer stepping inside.

    >> people say, ooh, it's the wrong entrance. no, no. that's our best entrance.

    >> reporter: for "today," mike leonard , nbc news, wilmette, illinois.

    >> as we were watching that each of us said, i know a store like that.

    >> my town is full of them. mom and pop shops. it's great. i love supporting them.

    >> too often people think of progress and think, okay, we're doing well we have to move into a bigger location, spanking new. it loses something.

    >> it absolutely does. it's a throwback.

    >> a monument to organization. i bet if you asked the owners where anything is they could find it in five seconds. amazing.

    >> pretty cool. like your dressing room . cluttered but you can still find stuff. we had a place in connecticut, bruce park sports that was in a tiny space. they got bigger. still cool.

    >> it's steiner sports in new york .

    >> good old fashioned hardware stores . up next, the difference between

updated 1/23/2012 9:53:53 AM ET 2012-01-23T14:53:53
producer's notebook

"Can I get a human on the line?"

That's NBC’s Mike Leonard (right) with Jim McNerney (center), in 1964, playing for the Wilmette All-Stars hockey team. Leonard's equipment and skates were purchased at the Wilmette Bicycle and Sports Shop.

How many times have you tried calling a big-box store, a large corporation or a zillion other commercial establishments only to get trapped in a nightmarish conversation with one off those phony, uber-cheery, pre-recorded, non-human message zombies whose only purpose is to elevate your frustration level to the point of hanging up?

Video: ’Throwback’ store is ‘doorway into the past’ (on this page)

Well, guess what?

That is their point.

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The faster you hang up the better, because "helping the consumer" is so passé.

Customer service costs money, which is a drag on the bottom line which translates to a lower stock price which triggers layoffs which means less customer service.

Story: At this coffee shop, random acts of kindness top the menu

Does it have to be this way?

Absolutely not.

A few weeks ago, in need of replacement blades for my hockey skates, I called the Wilmette Bicycle and Sports Shop in suburban Chicago, a place I have frequented since my teenage years, and talked to Larry.

Larry is a human.

Story: Mike Leonard: Famed tree often has humble origins

And he actually speaks to people on the telephone!

My skates were fixed in a day and that's when I came up with the idea of doing this story.

The Wilmette Bicycle and Sports Shop is one of those stores that shouldn't exist in this big-box age.

It's small, cramped and off by itself, miles from the nearest mall.

But it works…for all the right reasons.

Watch this story and find out why.

© 2012 MSNBC Interactive.  Reprints

Vote: Which stores do you like to shop: Big-box or mom-and-pop?

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