Royal Oak just lost one of its longest-running businesses to Madison Heights, but there are no hard feelings—just lots and lots of good memories and old stories.
Michael Sheppard, owner of since 1993, relocated the company from 1321 E. 11 Mile Rd. to 27633 John R Rd. in Madison Heights on Jan. 2, after the shop’s building in Royal Oak was purchased by a new owner.
“We tried to buy the building, but we were outbid,” Sheppard said of the 1949 structure. “It’s just as well. The building was starting to fall apart, and the new owner has deeper pockets than we do. He is going to fix it up. When he is done, I am sure it will be a very positive improvement to 11 Mile Road.”
The dawn of television
In 1940, Northern Radio became Northern TV. Its first store was on Griswold Street in Detroit. By the end of 1941, the business had three locations—the Detroit store, a Port Huron store and the Royal Oak location, which was originally at 1204 E. 11 Mile Rd.
“The early store had 400 televisions in stock, which was a lot back then,” Sheppard said. “Then Pearl Harbor was bombed at the end of ‘41, and the government seized all the TVs. They were worried television would be used to broadcast propaganda.”
By the end of World War II, the Griswold and Port Huron stores were lost, Sheppard said. “Only the Royal Oak store survived because it was so big into service and repair,” he said.
In 1947, Northern TV sold the first television set in Oakland County, according to Sheppard. “We have the third TV we sold on display in our store,” he said. “Only two more payments, and it’s going home," he joked.
Sheppard was able to acquire the set from the original owner, a woman who told him how she waited in a line to purchase the Model BT-100 for $600.
“That was a lot of money back then," he said. "She told me that after she bought it, she had to wait three or four days to watch a broadcast. Back then, they did not have daily broadcasts. She said the first thing she watched was a Red Wing game.”
Sheppard said he has a million stories, many of them learned from the shop’s former owner, Ray Olson, who died in 2011. Olson purchased the business in 1950.
“Ray was sound asleep in the store for three hours one day,” Sheppard said. “That’s when he knew it was time to retire”—but not necessarily time to stop coming to work.
“When I bought the store, I would have old these old guys come in the store every day—12 at a time,” Sheppard said. “Ray would come and all his former employees, too. They would sit around and watch ‘Regis and Kelly’ with the sound off and tell stories. One by one, they all passed away. Ray was the last to go.”
TV, the electronic baby sitter
Clay Walker was another owner of Northern TV. Sheppard described him as a ladies’ man who never married, but he had a child of sorts—a big boxer dog named Captain.
“Captain was the star of many of Northern TV's early ads,” Sheppard said. “An ad would say, ‘Captain says buy this Motorola.’ ”
Walker was a marketing genius who knew the power of television, according to Sheppard. He would take out ads that said Northern TV would stay open on Sunday nights, when all the other stores were closed, so parents could stop by with their children to watch The Wonderful World of Disney in “living color.”
“The kids would watch TV, and the parents would be invited into a back room to drink beer and smoke,” Sheppard said. “The parents began to realize that TV was mesmerizing.”
For better or worse, Sheppard said, the parents discovered that television was a way to “keep kids out of your hair.”
“Walker sold a lot of TVs that way,” he said.
Today, Sheppard sells very few TVs. Those he does sell are mainly to elderly customers who have been coming to Northern for years. Sheppard said in 2009 that a lot of his customers brought him their black-and-white TVs when the government mandated digital television. He said he installed a lot of converter boxes.
Bill Moon, 82, is one such customer who has been bringing TVs and radios to Sheppard for a long time.
“(Sheppard) and his wife are extremely nice people,” Moon said. “They are the kind of people anyone would want to do business with. I have never been disappointed with any of their work.”
These days, Sheppard repairs TVs and vacuums. He also sells vacuums and accessories and does electronic fire restoration. He also transfers tape, film and old audio recordings to DVD.
One last bittersweet sound bite
Even something that sounds as mundane as converting old audio recordings to digital technology comes with a great story from Sheppard.
He said a customer was going through her deceased mother’s belongings when she discovered an old 78 rpm record. With no way to play it, she brought the record to Northern TV to have him convert it to a CD, which he did.
Sheppard said he asked the woman not to play the CD in her car, but to wait until she got home. The record he converted was a recording the woman’s father had made for her on the European war front in 1940.
“On the recording, the father told his daughter how he built a rocking horse for her and how he painted it right before he left to go to war. As he left home, he told his daughter his coat accidently rubbed against the paint,” Sheppard said. “Her father told her he did not realize his coat was ruined by the paint until he arrived in New York. He told her, ‘We’ll buy me a new coat when I get home,’ but he never came home.”
“What a treasure for her to find,” Sheppard said. “The very last words on the recording were, ‘I love you.’ ”
“She told me later she had waited 70 years to hear those words."
Northern TV is up and running at its new Madison Heights location. The phone number is the same, 248-545-1800, and Sheppard is still a member of the . He has lots more stories to tell (we just ran out of room), so stop in and say hello.