Chicky Breier was there when it all began. This was after World War II, when the concept of “hi-fi” — or “high-fidelity” — was so new that most people didn’t even know what the term meant. Chicky’s husband, Edmund F. Breier, founded the business that would become one of San Diego’s first hi-fi stores, in 1946.
It is the oldest store of its kind in the city today. Ed began by selling intercoms and public-address systems, then expanded into retailing this new kind of “phonograph,” which was introduced to the public at about the same time as the first long-playing records. An electrical engineer by training, the young University of Colorado graduate had quickly decided that a life of drawing transformers was not, as Chicky puts it, his “métier.” He ran the business out of a shed at the end of his and Chicky’s long (200-foot) and narrow backyard in the Golden Hill area. “We were on Commonwealth Avenue when it was almost rural,” says Chicky, which, no, is not a nickname. “It’s my real name,” says the very slender seventysomething woman in slacks, red sweater, and red earrings to match on the day of my visit.
It has taken me a while to find her. A La Jolla friend whose father designed and built his own hi-fi in the early ’50s remembered the name of the store as the Briar Pitch. “The smell of the old hi-fi is pure nostalgia for me,” my friend wrote me in an e-mail. “The vacuum tubes (my dad graduated from college in 1948, the year the transistor was invented) got pretty hot, and there was a very specific, peculiar, and pleasant aroma that this dry heat would drive out of the plywood cabinetry, vinyl coverings, and steel chassis (yes, these monsters had steel chassis to hold the vacuum tubes). There is a dying subculture of guys around 70 who were the first hi-fi buffs and who thrill at the old brand names. The hi-fi buff became a figure of fun, and the old British theatrical team of Flanders and Swann performed a song about them. There’s a line that goes something like, ‘I’ve an opera here you shan’t escape / on miles and miles of recording tape.’ Hi-fi nuts were as serious about pushing the power-and-fidelity envelope as the test pilots at Edwards were about hitting Mach 2 and beyond. I think the wives and girlfriends practically killed some of these guys; you know men and their hobbies.”
Actually, The Breier Pitch was the name of a little magazine they used to publish, said Chicky when I phoned to make arrangements to meet her.
In 1951, when the E.F. Breier Company moved from the shed to what would be the first of its two downtown locations, Chicky sent out invitations to the opening of their “High Fidelity Salon.” “We invited people we thought would be interested in the hi-fi concept. But many of them called and asked us what it was. Someone wondered if it was a new lipstick.” At the time, there were still so few hi-fi dealers — nationwide — that Avery Fisher, Frank McIntosh, Paul Klipsch, and other audio pioneers would periodically make the trip to San Diego to see them.
“That’s our ‘museum,’ ” says Chicky, pointing to old McIntosh components in a glass case along the wall in the store that today is Breier Audio/Video, located in Kearny Mesa, where it has been since 1983. Paul Klipsch came to the 40th anniversary and signed some of his vintage components that are also part of the “museum.”
While their downtown opening was “a disaster,” business eventually improved. The ’50s housing boom helped. Chicky recalls that at least two building contractors, including Morley Golden, bought systems. So did some of the people whose houses they were building. But the Breier Sound Center remained distinctly ma-and-pa. After Ed made a sale wearing his dress clothes, he changed into his work clothes and did the installation. Once, when someone phoned to ask for a diamond needle, Chicky loaded her two small children into the car and delivered it.
She and Ed also sold kits made by Dyna and Heath-Kit to the men and boys, like my La Jolla friend’s father, who made a hobby of building their own hi-fi systems.
In 1959, Ed, still young, died. It was Chicky who ran the business for the next few decades. Now her 53-year-old son, Mark, and his wife, Carol, are the principals, and Chicky, who has outlived a second husband, fills in when they are shorthanded. “It’s difficult to hire knowledgeable people,” says Chicky, who admits that even she has trouble keeping up with all of the new developments.
Chicky and I are speaking in a room that has been designed to simulate a home theater, the new and burgeoning branch of the family business. As we talk, the screen continues to show what was playing when she paused it with the remote control. Behind her but facing me a man and woman are stopped in the middle of their full-mouthed on-screen kiss. “It controls so much, I don’t even want to touch it,” said Chicky of the remote, putting it aside.
If home theater is not her métier, neither is what has become of the hi-fi business today. High-end, not high-fidelity, is the term for what is acknowledged to be the top in audio quality now. It is also usually high-priced — in fact, stratospherically high — although it doesn’t have to be. At the bottom is lo-fi, also called no-fi. These are the rack systems sold by Dow and others to most of us. And what Chicky sells has been redubbed “mid-fi.” So she has been superseded. She isn’t sorry.
When I mention the term “audiophiles” — as high-end audio aficionados are known — Chicky smiles tolerantly and says, “They’re very nice people, but they’re very hard to deal with. They’re looking for perfection, and it doesn’t exist. They’re very interested in the specs. They’ll want to read them,” she laughs lightly. “They’ll buy something, and then they’ll want to bring it back —” She grows serious here, and I catch a glimpse of the resolve of this woman who, as a young widow, mother of two, carried on alone. “It’s better for people who are like them to deal with them,” says Chicky.