RETAIL GANGSTER: Crazy, the real life story of Crazy Eddie
Written by Gary Weiss
336 p. Hachette Books. $29.
The most famous TV commercial of 1984, carefully crafted for the eponymous novel of the year, was for Apple Macintosh desktop computers. The most famous were those of Crazy Eddie, a chain of discount electronics stores in the New York metropolitan area.
Often mistaken for a variety of costumes, actor Jerry Carroll, in a variety of costumes or just a gray blazer and dark jacket, was blasting off yard sales ending with a shaky, catchy assertion: “His prices are insane!”
People hated Those commercials, journalist Gary Weiss reminds us in “Retail Gangsters,” a compact and compelling account of Crazy Eddie’s artificially inflated rise and slow collapse. But they worked — the company went public, with the ill-fated stock symbol CRZY — and also made their way into the perforated streaks of popular culture.
Daryl Hannah’s mermaid character saw Crazy Eddie’s ad while learning English on “Splash”. Dan Aykroyd did a parody of Crazy Ernie on “Saturday Night Live”. And the spots themselves have plagiarized everything from “Saturday Night Fever” to “Casablanca” and Santa Claus, blacking out the city that never sleeps in the cheap first hours of nightly programming, becoming an element of its identity as graffiti and papaya grey.
Under the skin, “Retail Gangster” is a tender requiem for a while, before air, when people tended to the same things: movies in theaters, shows on TV, Casey Kasem’s “American Top 40.” And also for more subtle, perhaps more colorful New York, which lifted itself from the financial and existential abyss in the mid-1970s with striped stripes (Yankee, the stockbroker), the powerful “I-Heart” icon of Milton Glaser and – and apparently – born musician Rock and roll-mad buy stereo equipment.
But the gist of this graceful book is its investigation of the deep family drama and hilarious money behind Crazy Eddie, which has aggressively undermined competitors like Circuit City and The Wiz with some surprisingly shady business practices. Dealing with this intricate story that seems like little potatoes at first, Weiss is like that brave wife who finally decides to pierce the big box of tangled ropes and wires downstairs and painstakingly straighten it out.
Eddie’s real, family name Antar, was born in 1947 to her father, Sam M. Antar, a window trimmer whose finances revolve around pouches of cash known as “Nahkadi,” and his second wife, Rosie Al Taweel, the daughter of a dry-goods seller. . They were part of the Syrian Jewish community in Brooklyn, nicknamed SY, who generally looked up to fellow Eastern European Jews, referred to as J-Dubs. Eddy was short, but muscular and good looking, nicknamed Kelso, after his racehorse. He dropped out of high school (where he met his first wife, Debbie Rosen, J-Dub) and trained for his little uncle in video links near 42nd Street in Manhattan before joining his father and cousin Ronnie on a television and hardware project on Kings Highway. The rest is huckstory.
From the start of his career, Weiss has shown, with an elegant bemusement, that Antar has skimmed, cheated, stole and pulled Switcheros: instructing employees to clean up display models or returned merchandise, for example, and return their box as brand new. Sales tax was routinely left unpaid. Fabricated warranty claims. Unlikely international schemes were implemented in Panama and Saint Lucia. Even the then-prolific Crazy Eddie logo of the then-prolific, Spike-haired man in a tie, was lifted from cartoonist Robert Crump (although his long nose also refers to Pinocchio). When the auditors checked, the female followers were asked to approach them. “They didn’t want to believe we were scammers,” says Sami, Antar’s other cousin, who has been coming to testify extensively against the company and is Weiss’ number one source.
Through numerous interviews and court documents, Antar has emerged not only as a con man and an office bully, but also as a serial cheater and wife-beater who tried to give Debbie, the mother of his five daughters (one of whom died of cancer at age 18). A slice of bupkis’ upon divorce; he remarried a woman also named Debbie, and bore him a son, and as court guards approached, his most valuable inventory became not air conditioners and video recorders, but security bugs and paper shredders. After fleeing to Israel through Exploiting that country’s law of return and forging his family’s passports, he spent time there in the same prison where Adolf Eichmann was executed.Once he was extradited, Antar spent nearly seven years in the United States federal prison, and went on to attempt several returns, including That – how unimpressive that sounds! – a website, before he died at the age of 68 in 2016.
A former Wall Street writer, Mafia and Ayn Rand, Weiss is confident here, rummaging through vanishing file boxes of legal material, with only occasional flights into an unhelpful animal metaphor. On one of the pages we read that “even after being fed, the crooked snake did not feel satiated. It grew even hungrier “; On the other hand, some employees are “innocent as little lambs”; And on another, “Crazy Eddie was like a wounded blue jay, screaming loudly in the grass while red-tailed hawks hovered over our heads.” Someone alert the National Park Service!
The big cloud hanging over “retail gangsters” is, of course, the Internet. Apple’s commercial about the march of the robot turned out to be the dominant and groundbreaking one. Carroll, the tireless face and voice of Crazy Eddie’s TV ads, passed away in 2020, without warning. The things Crazy Eddie was selling were outdated years earlier, and also – with all faults – a warm, funny, and boisterous touch.