A new era begins for Roberts Audio Video

Barry Levinson, right, owner of Roberts Audio Video, is shown with longtime associate Rob Grabon and some of the vintage inventory from the business's early days at the New London store last week. Grabon is taking over the business from the retiring Levinson.
Barry Levinson, right, owner of Roberts Audio Video, is shown with longtime associate Rob Grabon and some of the vintage inventory from the business's early days at the New London store last week. Grabon is taking over the business from the retiring Levinson. Tim Cook/The Day Buy Photo

Barry Levinson likes to think of his store's transition in ownership as Roberts 3.0.

Makes sense in this digital age, since upgrades and transitions are often described as a 3.0 version or, as with many smart phones, 4.0. Thus, the third stage of ownership of the longtime Bank Street retailing fixture Roberts Audio Video is now under way, as Levinson's protégé of two decades, Rob Grabon, takes over the business in the coming months.

Levinson says he's ready to retire and sell the business. He's been overseeing the store for some four decades, and Grabon has been there 22 years. The two expect the transition will be complete by June of this year.

After all, says Levinson, it's time. "It seems to be getting colder up here," he jokes as he explains that he'll be spending time during retirement in Florida. His wife is Pam Akins, the president and owner of Akins Marketing & Design, which has offices in both New London and Sarasota, Fla.

Grabon, who says he became interested in computers and audio-video as a hobby, started at the store more than two decades ago making simple deliveries.

Over the years, he's become expert at the shop's many offerings, from retail big-screen televisions and audio equipment to its complex in-home installations of everything from home entertainment to fully digital systems running everything from lights to heating and ventilation. In fact, he was certified in such work by the Custom Electronics Design and Industry Association.

The digital revolution has brought about profound changes for a retailer such as Roberts, but the firm has been able to make the transition successfully by offering the latest in full-home systems, video offerings and audio - from tiny headphones with concert hall-like sound to compact speaker systems producing incredible, room-filling sound.

Deep roots in New London

Roberts Audio Video began in 1934 as The Electric Shop on Bank Street carrying brand-name appliances. It later became known as Roberts Electronics, selling records, television and stereos. The shop was started by Levinson's father, Robert, and Barry Levinson took over the shop decades later.

His father had suffered a heart attack and so Barry Levinson came back from Washington, D.C., where he was living, to what he thought would be the eventual shutdown of the retailer. But Barry Levinson changed his mind, the store evolved and Levinson now says he can look forward to a successful transition with a trusted colleague.

Grabon, who's from Waterford but now lives in Uncasville, quips that Levinson will be around plenty during retirement, given his 40 years of devotion to Roberts Audio Video.

Grabon and Roberts didn't disclose the financial terms of the store's transition in ownership, but Grabon said he plans to make some minor adjustments, maybe some modest remodeling. But both say the model for the store, from retailing of audio and video equipment to home installations running into five figures, works well. The store employs five who travel across this state and beyond - the crew is currently doing a few installations in Manhattan and its suburbs.

Besides its new equipment, Roberts has an extensive lineup of used audio equipment, such as receivers and turntables, and the market for such equipment is still an active one. The Bank Street shop is an audiophile's delight because the retail equipment it sells, from speakers to sub-woofers to large-screen televisions, is from respected manufacturers, including Bose, Paradigm, Definitive Technology, Sony, Integra and Samsung.

When the then-Roberts Electronics expanded in 1955 at its current spot at 90 Bank St., it touted its extensive vinyl record collection, home appliances, including Kelvinator dish washers, and Magnavox 24-inch screen televisions. Some of the original posters from the shop's earliest days, along with vintage electronics, are now on display at Roberts as the store transitions toward Roberts 3.0. As part of the changing ownership, the store is holding a clearance sale.

Historic building

Levinson says the store has made it through many economic downturns, though he laments the Great Recession took a toll on all retailers. "We've survived," he says. Adds Grabon, "We're starting to see more remodels," which often necessitates the need for a new in-home audio or video system, or both.

The shop will remain at its current location, which spans two historic stone buildings. One of the buildings dates back to 1873 and housed the first office of what is now known as The Day Publishing Co. Levinson says he's proud of the store's decades of service to a customer base that's spread over several states.

A majority of the store's revenues come from the home-theater, home-audio and home-automation systems it installs, but it's important to Levinson and Grabon that the store continues to offer retail, as well, including its high-definition plasma, LCD and LED big-screen televisions.

Grabon says he knows it will be a big transition once Levinson turns over the business. Grabon's largely been running the retailer's field operations over the years, overseeing the in-home installations. But now he's shifting to running more of the store's day-to-day operations.

And, he says, the store's future will be to continue to evolve with audio and video technology, offering the kinds of solutions that customers have now come to expect from Roberts. That can range from a new television to an in-home theater installation, complete with comfortable reclining chairs and high-end sound system.

"We want to deliver the complete project for them," says Grabon.

a.cronin@theday.com

BUSINESS SNAPSHOT

Name: Roberts Audio Video

Address: 90 Bank St., New London

Products: New, used audio and video; installations of home theater, home audio, home automation systems, networking.

Year Started: 1934

Telephone: (860) 442-5314

Email: roberts@robertsav.com

Website: www.robertsav.com

From left, employee Rob Grabon and Barry Levinson, owner of Roberts Audio Video in New London, transport a television from a delivery truck to the storefront on Bank Street in 2009.
From left, employee Rob Grabon and Barry Levinson, owner of Roberts Audio Video in New London, transport a television from a delivery truck to the storefront on Bank Street in 2009. Cheryl Albaine/The Day Buy Photo
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