For Chatham’s computer repair experts, COVID-19 brings challenges and changes

BY CHAPEL FOWLER, News + Record Staff
Posted 7/1/20

SILER CITY — In his store on West Raleigh Street, Jeff Edmisten has sold and repaired computers for nearly 30 years.

That’s given him a front-row seat to the highs and lows of the webcam …

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For Chatham’s computer repair experts, COVID-19 brings challenges and changes

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Posted

SILER CITY — In his store on West Raleigh Street, Jeff Edmisten has sold and repaired computers for nearly 30 years.

That’s given him a front-row seat to the highs and lows of the webcam industry.

He recalled how the device burst onto the scene in the late ’90s and became a mainstay on every desktop before ultimately losing steam as the same camera technology became readily available on every new smartphone and laptop on the market.

“Nobody needed a webcam,” Edmisten said. “Nobody wanted a webcam.”

But this spring, as everything from office meetings to lectures to yoga classes rapidly transitioned to online in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, that changed — at Edmisten’s business, Creative Computers, and everywhere else, too.

“You would not believe it,” he said. “You couldn’t find a webcam anywhere. They went with the toilet paper.”

That webcam shortage — albeit a good problem to have — is one of a few tangible changes COVID-19 has caused in Chatham County’s computer repair industry.

Edmisten, 55, said 60 to 70% of his clients are businesses; on-site services are part of his routine. So the last few months have been a double-edged sword: fewer clients, more demand.

“The ones that were closed down, that impacted us, obviously, because they didn’t need us anymore,” he said. “But then on the flip side, the ones that were still open, they needed us more.”

Edmisten has continued to work out of his office while taking in a lot more drop-off orders and using a lot more Clorox wipes. His store’s retail arm has helped offset some of the repair-related losses; in late March and early April, Edmisten said his customers were “buying laptops like they were candy apples.”

John Roach, a repairman who specializes in Apple products, has been working out of his home in Pittsboro since 2004, when he seriously injured his spinal cord.

So he’s already well equipped for the remote work that all of his customers, most of them elderly, now utilize. Using a built-in Mac “screen-sharing” function, Roach can access clients’ screens remotely from his home desktop. Then, he can walk them through whatever tech issues they have as he would on an in-person visit.

“There were a lot of questions on webcam stuff, a lot of concerns with Zoom security,” Roach said. “FaceTime, too.”

Other clients simply hadn’t used their computers in months, so they needed help updating their operating systems to use such features in the first place.

Roach, whose business is named “Roach Ranch,” used to employ a technician to help him out. But he gave her “an indefinite amount of time off,” he said, for the safety of both of them, since he’s in his late 60s and more susceptible to COVID-19.

Since the pandemic, he’s only had one client visit: a close friend, who wore a mask as Roach made a quick fix on his struggling iPhone (It was the SIM card.)

It’s all a shift for an industry that lends itself to hands-on work. But Edmisten and Roach both said their day-to-day routines haven’t changed too much.

Gov. Roy Cooper’s original stay-at-home order included a caveat for computer repair businesses, which fell under the “Supplies for COVID-19 Essential Businesses and Operations” exemption. So Creative Computers wasn’t under the same restrictions as, say, nearby local restaurants.

Roach and Edmisten, who have a 60 years of combined experience, saw an uptick in customers in the first month or so before business settled into a steadier crawl.

They’re grateful they can still answer tech questions and tinker with hardware during a pandemic — even if it’s with more separation than they’re accustomed to.

“We all need to help each other,” Roach said, “any way we can.”

Reporter Chapel Fowler can be reached at cfowler@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @chapelfowler.

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