GANGSTER IN RETAIL: The Crazy Real-Life Story of Crazy Eddie
Author: Gary Weiss
The most famous television advertisement of the Orwellian year of 1984, carefully inspired by the novel named for that year, was for the Apple Macintosh desktop computer. The most infamous were those of Crazy Eddie, a chain of discount electronics stores in the New York metropolitan area.
Gesturing wildly in a variety of suits or just a gray turtleneck and dark blazer, actor Jerry Carroll, often mistaken for the mysterious Eddie, rattled off a sales pitch ending with vibrant, bug-eyed assurance: “His prices are INSANE!”
People hated those ads, journalist Gary Weiss reminds us in Retail Gangster, a compact and attractive account of the artificially inflated rise and slow-motion collapse of Crazy Eddie. But they worked — the company went public, with the inauspicious ticker symbol CRZY — and also worked their way into the punchlines of popular culture.
Dan Aykroyd did a parody of Crazy Ernie on “Saturday Night Live”. And the spots themselves have spoofed everything from Saturday Night Fever to Casablanca and Santa Claus, bursting into the city that never sleeps in the cheap wee hours of late-night programming, becoming as much a component of its identity as graffiti. and Gray’s Papaya.
Underneath, Retail Gangster is a tender requiem for a time before streaming when people tended to tune in to the same things: movies at the cinema, programs on television, the “American Top 40 by Casey Kasem. Also for a grittier, perhaps more colorful New York that had risen out of the financial and existential abyss of the mid-1970s with stripes (Yankee, stockbroker), punchy “I heart designed by Milton Glaser and – apparently – rock ‘n’ roll crazed baby boomers are buying stereo equipment.
But the meat of this soft-spoken book is its investigation into the deep family drama and fun money behind Crazy Eddie, which has aggressively undermined competitors like Circuit City and The Wiz with surprisingly shady business practices. Taking charge of this complicated story, if at first a small potato, Mr. Weiss is like that brave spouse who finally decides to rummage through the big box of tangled cords and wires in the basement and painstakingly straighten them out.
The real Eddie, surname Antar, was born in 1947 to Sam M Antar, a window cutter whose finances revolved around silver suitcases known as “nehkdi”, and his second wife, Rosie Tawil, the daughter of a seller of dry goods. They were part of a Syrian Jewish community in Brooklyn, nicknamed SY, who generally looked down on their Eastern European Jewish peers, whom they referred to as J-Dubs. Eddie was small but muscular and handsome, nicknamed Kelso, after the racehorse. He dropped out of high school (where he met his first wife, Debbie Rosen, a J-Dub) and apprenticed with a young uncle at a clip near 42nd Street in Manhattan before joining his father and cousin Ronnie in a television and home appliance company on Kings Road. And the rest is history.
From the start of his career, Mr. Weiss shows with elegant disbelief that Antar skimmed, ripped off, stole and fired switcheroos: asking employees to clean display models or returned goods, for example, and to refurbish them as new. Sales tax was consistently unpaid. Warranty claims were fabricated. Improbable international schemes unfolded in Panama and Saint Lucia. Even the Crazy Eddie logo for the then copious print ads, of a spiky-haired guy in a bow tie, was removed from cartoonist Robert Crumb (although his long nose also suggests Pinocchio). When the listeners materialized, the underlings were instructed to approach them. “They didn’t want to believe we were crooks,” says another cousin of Antar, Sammy, who would testify at length against the company and who is Weiss’ No. 1 source.
Through numerous interviews and court documents, Antar appears not just as a con artist and office bully, but as a serial cheater and wife-beater who tried to give Debbie, mother of his five daughters “a big slice hot bupkis” when they divorced; he remarried a woman also named Debbie, who bore him a son. As the court marshals closed in, his most valuable inventory was not air conditioners and VCRs, but security listening devices and paper shredders. After fleeing to Israel by exploiting that country’s Law of Return and forging his family’s passports, he spent time in the same prison where Adolf Eichmann was executed. Once extradited, Antar spent almost seven years in a US federal prison and attempted various returns, including – how disappointing that sounds! – a website, before dying at age 68 in 2016.
Author of previous books on Wall Street, the Mafia and Ayn Rand, Mr. Weiss is sure-footed here, wandering through discolored filing boxes of legal material, with only the occasional theft in an unfortunate zoological metaphor. On one page we read that “even after a feeding, the fraudulent rattlesnake did not feel full. He only increased his hunger”; on the other hand, that some employees were “as innocent as baby lambs”; and on yet another that “Crazy Eddie was like a wounded blue jay, screaming loudly in the grass as red-tailed hawks circled overhead.” Someone alert the National Park Service!
The big cloud hanging over Retail Gangster is of course the Internet. Apple’s advertisement of walking automata proved to be the most prescient and widespread. Carroll, the tireless face and voice of Crazy Eddie TV commercials, died in 2020, unannounced. The stuff Crazy Eddie was selling had gone stale years before, and also – with all the bugs – his warm, funny, heartwarming touch.