In the 1970s and early ’80s there was a guy who lived on your block in suburbia: long hair, green army jacket, a heavy pot-smoker. He did not seem destined for great things, but he had a lot to say about the excellence of a Rush drum solo or what kind of speakers you needed to hear the genius of Jimmy Page’s guitar on the last Led Zeppelin album.
In the days before online reviews, when a good stereo system was an important status symbol, the guy down the block seemed to just know what new speakers would cost at the department stores, where, he told you, only suckers bought their stereos. In the New York area, you could instead go to Crazy Eddie, the electronics store. You heard their salesmen made a lot of money, but people who went there felt like they could not leave without buying something. It was part of the hard-sell culture you found in certain parts of the city where consumer goods were bought and sold like someone’s life depended on it.
The commercials for Crazy Eddie were inescapable and widely parodied. A spokesman played by an actor named Jerry Carroll, with rapid-fire delivery, seemed to lose all composure as he struggled to articulate how insensible, how bonkers, how absolutely demented, Crazy Eddie had become with this Labor Day or Memorial Day sale or the hilariously named Christmas in August sale, setting prices so low they were "practically giving it all away."
It was marketing in the manner of a shouting match, full of sarcasm and over-the-top humor. And it was unrelenting: If you watched late night television you might be hit over the head with these screaming ads during every single commercial break.
The commercials, tabloid readers soon learned, were not the only crazy thing about this electronics chain. In Retail Gangster: The Insane, Real-Life Story of Crazy Eddie, investigative journalist Gary Weiss describes the rise and fall of this notorious business from bumptious upstart to Wall Street darling to the object of a criminal prosecution. It’s a rare business book from which you learn about an important industry and the methods of a criminal enterprise, all while shaking with laughter at the human beings involved as they attempt to rip off everyone in sight from customers to insurance companies to their own family members.
Like so many good New York stories, it begins with an ethnic enclave, a clannish community of Syrian Jews in Brooklyn who refer to themselves as "S-Y." These are tough, irreverent, merchant-class Jews, quite different in manner and profession from their Eastern European coreligionists. Less passionate about education, they made their way as peddlers and built businesses with fathers and sons and brothers and cousins working together.
In the case of the Antars and especially Eddie of Crazy Eddie, their trade was learned from the ripoff artists at tourist-trap camera shops or "clip joints" around Times Square. Weiss gives a sampling of their shop lingo. "Shoof the eye-gay" was an imperative meaning, Keep an eye on that guy. "Lot eight" was code for a crazy person, while "lot six" was casually homophobic. A zabba was, Weiss writes, "a deadbeat who was not going to buy." Nekhdi—off-the-books cash, often hidden in a mattress—may be the most important term for describing this culture of brazenness, shaped not only by grift but, to be fair, what frequently sounds like hard work.
Their sense of humor was discount vaudeville. Weiss describes a job applicant coming to a store and asking for the man in charge. The wise guy at the counter asks, "What’s your name?" "Larry," the applicant says. "Lonnie?" says the clerk. "Larry," the applicant says. "Lonnie?" the clerk asks again, never allowing him even that bare modicum of recognition.
In the age of the big box store and online retail, it’s difficult to recall how much effort businesses used to pour into salesmanship. In an industry of small margins, it could be the critical difference in turning a profit. In the case of Crazy Eddie, a salesman was merely one player on a team of con men working various angles.
The chain’s first profit-making scheme, Weiss reveals, was not paying sales tax. The bookkeepers kept two sets of books to cover their trail. Other tricks had salesmen overcharging on accessories and talking down products on which the profit margin was lower. Yet another was a variation on bait-and-switch called "lunching," by which display models were cleaned up, reboxed, and sold as brand new—in violation of the law, of course.
The stores were well-insured. If a pipe burst or a roof leaked, unsold merchandise from other stores would be added to the inventory and soaked with a fire hose for good measure. Then the whole claim would be charged to the insurance company.
The keeper of Crazy Eddie’s secrets who guided the FBI and then the U.S. Attorney’s Office as they prosecuted Eddie Antar is also the very first name in Weiss’s acknowledgments: Sam E. Antar. One of the few family members to show an interest in school, he was encouraged by his cousin Eddie to go to college and train as an accountant. Eddie paid his tuition at the City University of New York’s Baruch College and kept him on the payroll so he could have an accountant in the family, which would come in handy.
Sam E. Antar was a key figure in bringing Crazy Eddie to Wall Street through its first public offering. He did not grow rich from the schemes that led analysts to overvalue stock in Crazy Eddie, but he was more or less the brains behind this expansion of local corporate fraud to the major leagues. Eventually, he turned on his cousin Eddie, and the story only gets crazier.
Retail Gangster provides a diagram of the Antar family, but it’s a careful reader who won’t sometimes be confused by the various Eddies, Sams, and Debbies. Nevertheless, Weiss writes up this tale of crime and punishment with great New York verve, delivering a probing examination of a profane way of doing business.
Retail Gangster: The Insane, Real-Life Story of Crazy Eddie
by Gary Weiss
Hachette Books, 336 pp., $29
David Skinner is an editor and writer who writes about language and culture and lives in Alexandria, Va.
Published under: Book reviews