Leaning against a wall near a row of vacuums in his store, Morris Weiner winked at one of his customers and smiled mischievously. He nodded in the direction of his daughter, Jeri Cuffley, seated at a desk and gazing intently at a computer screen.
"That Jeri, she's no damned good," Weiner said. "She's just a big mess."
Cuffley, however, simply ignored her father. When asked why, she shook her head and responded, "Because I know my father. I've met him once or twice. That's just how he is." Weiner burst out laughing and shouted, "That's it, Jeri, you're out of the will!"
Customers of Weiner's Vacs are accustomed to the good-natured banter between the father-and-daughter proprietors of the vacuum retail and service store located at Owings Mills' Valley Village Shopping Center for the past 44 years. While the 80-year-old Weiner is the consummate schmoozer who loves being the business' front man, Cuffley, 44, tends to be more quiet and serious, preferring to stick to the backroom repairing vacuums.
It's a winning and endearing combination that has helped engender a strong sense of loyalty among customers in a repair field that's shrinking in this age of Internet commerce and big-box store domination.
"Big businesses are wiping out all the mom-and-pops," said Weiner, who has sold and repaired vacuums for more than 55 years. "Fortunately, they don't want to get too much into the messy business of vacuum repair. But there are a lot less of us these days. When people get good service and are well taken care of, they'll be loyal."
With Father's Day coming up this Sunday, Weiner — who with his wife of 56 years, Marilynn, has three daughters, two granddaughters and a great-grandson — said he has much to celebrate. One of his greatest joys has been to work closely with Cuffley.
"It's wonderful to have your own child in the business," Weiner said. "Jeri is intelligent and caring, and I always know the business is in good hands."
Cuffley, who has been working in the business for 25 years, credits her father, who is now semi-retired and no longer works full time, with teaching her how to run the shop.
"He's always told me our customers are like family," she said. "He said, `Be honest with them and don't mislead them. Treat them like you'd want to be treated.' And he always taught me to teach yourself how to do things. He'd say, `Just try it. If you lose a finger, you've got nine more.'"
When opening his framing store at Valley Village 24 years ago, Donald Rubin purchased a pair of vacuums from Weiner's Vacs. He still uses them and has the vacuums maintained regularly at Weiner's.
"The reason they have such loyal customers is because people like going there and being remembered and taken care of," Rubin said. "They stand by their products and try to be cost-considerate. I'd rather buy from a family owned business that cares about me than over the Internet. Plus, [Weiner] has been in this industry for a long time and always has a joke and a smile."
Longtime customer and Finksburg resident Christa Schmitt agreed. "He really knows his stuff," she said of Weiner. "You get old-school, friendly service, and they repair things beautifully and fast."
`I Still Enjoy It'
On a recent weekday morning, Weiner carefully showed an elderly female customer how to install a vacuum bag. "Keep this part on the inside, not the outside," he advised.
A tall, thin man who moves and looks younger than his age, Weiner handed her a receipt for the bags she purchased.
"You're a cheap date, Shirley," he said with a smile. "Hey, remember, we're still just a couple of kids. I still like to buy myself toys."
Ever the lover of cornball humor, Weiner said, "Well, as they say in Africa, Abysinnia," the latter being a play on the phrase, "I'll be seein' ya."
"I can't help it," Weiner admitted later, "kibitzing with customers just comes naturally for me. I don't do it deliberately. And I was born to do what I do. I enjoy fixing and selling. I still enjoy it."
The 16th of 17 children born in West Baltimore, Weiner grew up in a foster family in Forest Park because of his parents' financial struggles. "There were really good people and took good care of me," he said of his foster parents.
When Weiner was a young man looking for work, a Hoover vacuum repairman came to his foster family's residence one day and suggested he apply for a job at the Hoover headquarters in downtown Baltimore.
"I was fortunate to be at the right place at the right time. I started selling and fixing for Hoover, going on service calls to different neighborhoods," Weiner said. "I discovered I have a knack for this kind of work."
A few years later, Hoover discontinued the service component of its operations across the country. Weiner knew he had a growing customer base, so he took out a $1,500 bank loan and opened his own vacuum retail and service store at Park Heights and Belvedere avenues.
"People knew me and came to me because the Hoover people gave them my name," he said. "I was scared that the business wouldn't work out, but it did."
Eventually, Weiner moved his business to its current location. Although he has downsized his store in recent years and vacuums have grown in complexity, Weiner said the business has changed little across the years.
Today, he said his business is about 70 percent service and parts and approximately 30 percent in sales of vacuums. The clientele base for Weiner's Vacs is primarily in Northwest Baltimore, but customers come from across the region.
"I don't think I've ever really had a bad time," Weiner said. "Business has always been pretty good. I'm not a millionaire, but I make an honest living and was able to raise three children."
A major reason he attributes for that success was building trust. "We don't hustle people," Weiner said. "You can sell expensive machines but when people want a good machine to use, why not sell them something simple that's reasonable? If people want a more expensive machine, let them decide. But if someone wants a lightweight vacuum, why waste their time?"
Many people today, especially younger customers, tend to purchase vacuums and discard them a couple of years later when problems arise, Weiner said. But he said a good vacuum should last 10-15 years with proper maintenance.
"Big business is taking over and trying to get people to buy vacuums and not repair them but just replace them," Weiner said. "Some customers are naïve. They throw out a $200 vacuum that just needs a belt."
He believes his daughter will continue to provide customers with good service that is affordable and honest.
"We must be doing something right. We're still here," Weiner said. "Years ago, my wife and I went to a show. When the lights came up, a lady said, `Weiner, that vacuum you fixed for us is not working!' I said to her, `Can we talk Monday?' Still, one every half-century, that ain't bad, is it?"