Can’t fly to Tokyo? New York’s AC Gears is the geek’s next best gadget fix

If author Roald Dahl had penned his children’s classic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in 2013 instead of 1964, he may not have created the eccentric Willy Wonka as a candy tycoon, but a purveyor of colorful gadgets. Instead of an Everlasting Gobstopper in his inventing room, we might find a super-tiny camera that shoots video. And rather than a factory churning out sweets, Wonka runs a cool lifestyle emporium stocked with the newest, unique, and hard-to-find tech. In reality this type of store already exists, and on East 8th Street in Lower Manhattan in New York City, it goes by AC Gears.

Behind the window of the small storefront is the lust-after gadget du jour, a personal 3D printer. Stepping inside, you’re greeted with a bright white room covered with colorful gadgets, ranging from synthesizers to cases and bags, DIY circuit boards to cameras, and headphones to clocks – lots of headphones and clocks. (Many of the items are also exclusive to the store.) AC Gears is a combination of many things: toy and gadget store, high-end electronics shop, museum, distributor, and test lab.

At first we thought it was gonna be weird to the American community, but as soon as we got them in, people went crazy and we ran out of stock really fast.

Opened in 2007 along with a companion website, AC Gears is an extension of AudioCubes (where the AC comes from), an online retailer specializing in imported Japanese products – the land of rising suns and fantastically absurd gadgets – unavailable through traditional U.S. retailers. Its founder, Kohn Liu, decided to launch a second sister company with a physical location that not only carries the Japanese wares found on AudioCubes, but also “lifestyle” products from Europe, Asia, and wherever, so long it meets the criteria of coolness, originality, hard to find, and utilitarian. You may find big-name brands like Sony and Panasonic from time to time (so long they meet said criteria), but it’s the smaller companies like Grado and Etymotic, and obscure ones like Fuuvi and Superheadz that dominate the store shelves. While the store caters to young adults, thanks to its central location in the youth enclaves of New York University and the East Village, it also attracts tourists and families from nearby SoHo and the West Village.

“For some reason we do get a lot of press in Brazil, so we get a lot of Brazilian tourists,” says Grace Sato, who not only handles media relations for AC Gears but also helps manage the store, works with the company’s buyers, picks what will end up on shelves, and interacts with customers’ as a form of focus groups. For Sato and the rest of the staff at AC Gears, the store not only functions as a place where people can try their hands on the newest, weirdest, and coolest gadgets, it’s also a good old-fashioned way to see what types of products get a customer’s attention (which they consider as they’re looking for new products to carry).

So, what are some of the items that customers like? “We are moving in a direction to carry cooler headphones for audiophiles and a lot of gear for that, because audiophiles have a hard time finding [products] in store, and people also want to try out headphones,” Sato says. Those items include the Sennheiser Momentum and HiFiMAN HE-400 headphones, and Stylophone S2 synthesizer.

And then there are the quirky gadgets and toys, particularly ones imported from Japan that most people have never seen. “There’s a lot of weird things,” Sato says. “We have these puzzle pieces from LaQ – they’re kinda like a new-age Lego. At first we thought it was gonna be weird to the American community, but as soon as we got them in, people went crazy and we ran out of stock really fast. Our cat bank has been all over Tumblr. We restocked it so many times … we ordered insane amounts of quantities for that item.” Besides the weird stuff, AC Gears is also on the pulse of things like the fast-growing maker community; the store stocks geek-DIY items like 3D printers and kits for building Arduino-based projects.

AC Gears also operates as an exclusive North American distributor for Japanese companies like Lemnos (clocks) and Fuuvi (cameras), and Sweden’s Unit Portables (bags). “We don’t solely rely on [imports], but it does drive in a certain crowd and certain amount of traffic, and it definitely is interesting to a lot of people who just walk into our store and find out about us,” Sato says.

Another major category AC Gears deals in is photography, but you won’t find the latest models from the likes of Olympus or Nikon. Instead, a locked glass cabinet in the store displays funky shooters from companies like Fuuvi, Superheadz, Bonzart, Sun and Cloud, and Chobi.

Our cat bank has been all over the internet.

“Obviously, we’re not going to be selling DSLR cameras, but we will sell specialty cameras and within specialty cameras there is the toy camera section,” Sato says. “We carry things like a 360-degree spinning camera that will capture your whole view around you.”

It’s easy to dismiss these “toy cameras” for their inferior picture quality when you compare them to DSLRs or even the cheapest point-and-shoots, but there’s a growing appeal for their lo-fi qualities from not just kids, but professional photographers and artists drawn to the potential creative aspects offered. Dave Stewart of Eurythmics recently told USA Today about the enjoyment he gets out the Fuuvi Bee 8mm retro camera, a tiny AC Gears exclusive – and one of the best sellers – that fits entirely within the palm of a hand. The novelty and artistic capabilities, coupled with their dead simple ease-of-use and fun, are some of the reasons why these products have a following. Not to mention, a tiny 8-megapixel camera from Chobi that fits on your keychain ring is just plain cool.

“It makes people feel like, ‘Oh, it’s easy, it’s functional, and I don’t have to worry about freaking out even if the directions are in Japanese,’” Sato says. “It makes people feel like they can be photographers who don’t have to be educated on how to develop film in a darkroom.

Toy-camera-in-hand

“The people who buy the toy cameras are hobbyists and some of them have grown tired of this [traditional photography] field they’re in, so they want to branch out and see what else they can,” Sato added. “Photographers are artists, too. It’s a little more interesting and different from what they’ve been doing for years.”

Ultimately, it’s the mom-and-pop-style customer service that many larger retailers have eschewed, which brings people back to AC Gears and helps spread the word. “Sometimes other retailers will sell similar items we have, but they won’t have our customer service and knowledge of staff,” Sato says. “Our staff is pretty good to all the people we have here, and we have a lot of returning customers because of that. I think that’s something that our company should be grateful for…the connection that our sales reps have with the customers. But that’s what helps us with this edge.” Sato says the company is growing and they’re next working on growing the website; while there are no plans for another store, the company hasn’t ruled that out.

Whether it’s a $300 pair of headphones or a $5 keychain, “we always treat everybody the same,” Sato says. “It’s the staff’s job to make sure that’s the best $5 keychain purchase they’ve ever had.”

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