A Chinese Horologist in Brookline

By. Chen Shen

I was looking through a couple of ceramic elephants placed under the sign “Louie International” at 318 Harvard Street. It was hard to tell what’s sold in this place. There were clocks, watches, books, ceramic art collections, dried flowers and all kinds of things which are not supposed to be together disorderly placed in the window display.

A voice jumped in my thought, “Are you looking for me?” I turned around and saw a middle aged man about 5’5’’ tall covered in an oversized navy jacket walking towards me. We shook hand and he led me into his store. For a second I thought I stepped into the wand shop in the Harry Potter movie. I didn’t know a real store could be so messy.

The man’s name is Baoxiang Lin. He doesn’t have an English name and said he didn’t know the “Louie” on the signboard. “I took over this place from a Vietnamese guy. He taught me how to repair watches when I bought this place,” said Lin, clearing up a Chinese rosewood chair for me to sit on.

Lin has been the owner of Louie international since 1996. He didn’t hire anyone. Throughout the past 18 years, Lin has spent his days sitting inside the store, alone, waiting for customers to come.

Customers don’t really enter the store. The place is stuffed with autopsy books, old newspaper, dried vegetables, and boxes of cheap wine. A giant gilded six-leaf screen stands in the center of the room. It was hard to see beyond the screen. Wag-at-the-wall in various shapes filled in all the space on walls. Watches covered in dust were set out in three giant window stands along the wall. Lin sits at the entrance, where batteries, hammers, tweezers and magnifying lens all piled up with scratch paper and invoice books on his desk. When there’s no customer, he would dig himself inside the piles of tools, fixing the watches or reading pictured autopsy books.

I move the rosewood chair closer to him, asking about the display in the room. “I’ve never done any purposeful arrangement in this store. Many customers came back because of the display. Some of them were college professors. They told me their labs were a hundred times messier than this store,” said Lin, exalted, “the disorder is common-to-see in a real craftsman’s studio.”

The first customer on that day was a girl named Shirley Yoo, who drove all the way from Newton to pick up a watch her mother sent to the store last week. The girl spoke broken Mandarin and Lin’s English was limited on “Me, change battery, you, old customer, no charge.” Oddly, the transaction went smooth. “My mum has seven watches. She changed every day to match with different outfit. She’s been sending her watches fixed by Mr. Lin for at least six years. I would sometimes be the courier,” said Yoo, taking out a $ 50 dollar bill for getting the watchband changed.

Not everybody is satisfied with the pricing of Lin’s service. Right after the girl left, an orthodox Jewish man came to pick the watch with a receipt in his hand. Lin took out a note with the watch, on which stating he would charge $35 for fixing the problem. “This can’t be right. There’s no satellite problem,” the Jewish guy raised his voice, holding the scratch paper and waving it in front of Lin’s face. Lin didn’t say much. All he did was pointing to the paper and repeating, “this problem, $ 35.” The bargaining went on for about three minutes until the Jewish guy finally gave up. He probably realized the Chinese man he’s talking to couldn’t understand what he was saying. He took out the credit card.

When the guy left, I asked Lin if he understood what the man was saying. He grinned and answered “yes.” The note he took out was written by one of his friend. Sometimes when the problem is beyond his language proficiency, he would ask a friend to write things down on a note.

Lin went back to a Rolex he was working on when all the clocks suddenly rang together at half past two. “When I started, it took me a whole day to figure out what’s the problem. Now I can do that in just a couple of minutes,” said Lin on his recollection. He took out a 10X magnifying len to show me the little scratch number he put on the watch cell. “I know this watch was repaired by me. It was about six months ago and I cleared the moist inside the watch,” said Lin, gently stroke the backside of the cell.

Outside of Lin’s shop, in the hallway, an old woman on an electric wheelchair passed by, looking in at the store. Lin waved, saying, “she’s one of my customers.” Answering to Lin’s gesture, the old woman opened her mouth and greeting in Mandarin came out, “Ni Hao,” she said.

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