Walk around today’s Mission and it seems like the whole neighborhood is wired and so every time I walk by The Network Computer Store on Mission Street, I’m always amazed to see that it’s still in business because everything about The Network Store seems reminiscent of a bygone era.
A big white banner at 2640 Mission St. reads: “Computer Repair, Internet Cafe, Cyber Center, Copy Fax.”
So the other day, as I was walking by, I decided to stop in for a visit. I was expecting to hear the hard luck story of a business struggling to stay alive in a neighborhood awash with techies.
Instead, it was a bustling business, and thriving hub of community activity. In the front of the store, people were typing away on computers. In the back a guy behind the desk was handing customers computers that he’d fixed. And in the center of the store, manning the cash register and directing traffic was the store’s owner Altagracia Leibowitz.
She graciously stepped forward to introduce herself. Leibowitz is from the Dominican Republic and she says most of her customers are Latino.
“This is a place for Latin people,” she said. “They don’t have family here, their friends are back home.”
And here, they don’t have access to the internet. So for a nominal fee, Leibowitz sets them up on a computer to email or Skype with their friends and family back home.
Leibowitz says that, often, that’s not where her services end. She sets people up with a Skype or Facebook or email account and teaches them how to use it, and in doing so, connects them to their worlds back home.
“They start crying when they see their families,” Leibowitz said. “People cry in here all the time.”
And so for those new to the net, Leibowitz has learned she needs to prepare them for the shock of seeing their wife or husband on Skype for the first time in 15 years. “Are you ready for this?” She’ll ask them.
Sometimes customers will shout at Leibowitz and say, “‘Look! Come see my baby, how beautiful he is!’”
And there, in streaming video, is the “little boy” her customer hasn’t seen in a decade. Only he’s a young man now.
“Can you imagine?” Leibowitz said as she sent a fax for a customer.
During my 45-minutes at the shop, Leibowitz didn’t stop moving. People came in to say hello, pick up their repaired computers. One customer told me that Leibowitz even has community potlucks there.
She says goodbye to the customer, then comes back and says, “America is online.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“At home you have your family, you go to your friend’s house, you eat with them, talk with them, but U.SA? U.S.A is online.”
I’m not sure exactly what she meant, but it seems like she views online as a place. Like, in addition to America being a physical country, it also exists… well… online.
As I was getting my mind around this idea, Leibowitz jumped up again to help a customer. “America… is… on… line!” she repeated passionately as she walked to the front of the store.
So to visit the real America, stop by The Network Store, because it seems America has moved and its new location is online.