By Julie Shapiro
LOWER MANHATTAN — Al Maddox sat on the subway last summer taking a quiet survey.
He glanced surreptitiously at the wrists of 50 people, and to his dismay found that just 14 of them were wearing watches.
"People use their cell phones now," said Maddox, 85, who has been repairing watches in lower Manhattan for more than six decades.
Over that time, he has seen his trade wane and nearly vanish, as first battery-operated watches and then cell phones became the norm.
"I’m one of the last guys down here," Maddox said this week, speaking from his narrow Beekman Street shop, Maddox Watch Company. "Most have retired, or passed away, or moved out."
But Maddox, who lives in Windsor Terrace, doesn’t plan on doing any of those things anytime soon.
He still has more than enough work to keep him busy, from sprucing up vintage watches for collectors to crafting one-of-a-kind cufflinks from spare watch gears.
"He’s the best guy and the most reliable guy around," said Herzel Eisenstadt, 75, who has been bringing his watches to Maddox for over 20 years. "I come here for Christmas presents, for watches I don’t see elsewhere. And we talk."
Maddox greets many of his customers like longtime friends and rarely charges them more than $10. When a woman who works in his building stops by with a broken earring, Maddox fixes it for free.
"There are not many like him anymore," said Ken Roberts, 60, a Long Island resident, who recently brought in two watches for repair. “He does good work."
Over the years, Maddox’s downtown location has yielded a few brushes with celebrity. He once repaired a pocket watch belonging to former Mayor William O’Dwyer, and he keeps an autographed photo from Eli Wallach as a memento of the time he fixed the actor’s antique clock.
Even after so long in the business, Maddox still delights in the moment a broken watch’s gears start turning again, propelling the minuscule hands on their first twitching leap forward.
"They’re just fascinating," Maddox said. "You bring them back to life. It’s like creating something that comes alive."
Maddox has been drawn to watches since he was a child and once took apart his father’s timepiece to see what made it tick. He studied watch repair at the Brooklyn High School for Specialty Trades, and after a foray into submarine manufacturing during World War II, Maddox returned to watches for good.
It was around that time that he took on the last name "Maddox" to ease his entry into a predominantly Jewish industry. Maddox would not reveal his original last name and hands out business cards that say simply "Al."
After a couple of early watch repair jobs in the late 1940s, Maddox opened his own shop on Nassau Street in 1949. New watches were in short supply following the war, so Maddox took old watches apart and put the gears in more modern casings to resell them. Business back then was so good that Maddox and his partner had a foreman and a shop full of workers.
The boom did not last, and Maddox soon found his busy shop whittled down to a one-man operation. He has moved several times and landed on Beekman Street 13 years ago.
Today, most of Maddox’s jobs come from jewelry stores that can’t handle anything more complex than changing a battery. They send Maddox watches with cracked glass or rusted gears, and he tinkers them back into working form.
Maddox uses an array of familiar tools, like tweezers, pliers and screwdrivers in all shapes and sizes, plus a few esoteric implements, like a contraption whose sole function is to lift a hand from the face of a watch.
In addition to hundreds of vintage watches that he hopes to fix and eventually sell, Maddox estimates that he has nearly a million spare watch parts, including thousands of crystals (the glass) and movements (the gears).
The parts sit carefully catalogued in crumbling drawers and boxes, some held together with duct tape and filled to the brim with yellowing envelopes. Everything is labeled and Maddox boasts that he can find any required part within a minute.
That’s also about how long it takes him to change a watch battery, popping the pieces apart and fitting them back together with ease.
While Maddox may no longer be as dexterous as he once was, his job is only getting easier with time, he said.
"That’s because I’m so used to doing it," Maddox said. "It’s second nature now."