The secret is finally out.
Not the one that involves Bob Mehalic retiring from the sound system business — though the news has left loyal customers wondering where they’ll get their next audio system once his White Township stereo shop closes at the end of September.
Not the one that explains the key to his 40 years of success, which Mehalic, 63, describes as a simple formula of good customer service plus lots of hard work.
The secret Mehalic revealed Thursday is one that, over the course of nearly 30 years, has likely left some scratching their heads.
If you’ve not guessed yet, or aren’t in the stereo know, here’s a hint: this secret has been hidden in plain sight since the mid-1980s, right on the sign reading “Bob’ss Stereo.”
The two little letters may look like a misprint to some, but they are quite deliberately placed.
Mehalic jokes that he “got a ton of mileage” out of the double letter.
He has held contests over the years that invited people to guess what it meant.
He also said he has fielded suggestions that his spelling skills are less than stellar. And that the purpose for the added letter was a military secret.
“Sales and service.” “Satellites and stereos.” Those are some of the possibilities he’s thrown out there over the years when asked about the unique spelling.
And now, “I’ll tell you what the two s’s are about,” he said.
In 1976, after running a music shop in Indiana, then doing car audio and later adding home audio systems to his sales, Mehalic moved from Indiana Borough and opened the shop at Oakland Avenue and Rose Street. It was called Stereo Shack.
Less than a decade later, his business was thriving. He was expanding his selection. It was from here he’d begin exploring new options such as video cassette rental and satellite dishes.
But Radio Shack sued, alleging that Stereo Shack infringed on its name.
“It went on for two years,” Mehalic said. “A two-year battle in the courtroom.”
Mehalic lost the case. Basically, the judge ruled that the nationwide electronics business owned the rights to combinations of electronics and audio and visual-related words with the word “shack.”
Andy Bishop, 54, of White Township, worked with Mehalic for 16 years — most of those as a store manager. He remembers Mehalic’s reaction to the decision.
“We can either give up and roll over and die or dig in and use this to our advantage,” he recalls his boss telling him. “He said, ‘No, I worked too hard for this.’”
Mehalic, looking back, sounds a bit philosophical about the situation.
“It turned me around,” he said. “I got reinvented again. I’m Bob’ss Stereo and away we went.”
But here’s the secret. He didn’t leave the old name behind completely. In a way, he took a little piece of it with him — two little letters.
The s’s, he said with a smile, secretly stand for “Stereo Shack.”
Change isn’t something new to Mehalic. Nor was it at that time.
His ability to roll with the punches and stay ahead of the curve seems to have served him well. He has seen at least 14 competitors open and later fold in the time that he’s been operating his business, he said.
“I was always the front-runner,” he said. “I kind of kept up with what was going on and I knew what the next trend would be.”
Those trends have included not only auto and home stereo systems and satellite dishes, but video rental, remote car starters, blue tooth technology and satellite radio.
“Bob was a pioneer,” Bishop said. “He was one of the first to do what he did in Indiana.”
Mehalic has not only weathered, but embraced changes in an ever-evolving field of auto and home entertainment systems.
“It just gets better,” he said of technology. “Better and easier.”
One of the biggest sales he ever made was an early satellite dish system, he said. Along with a several other items, the total bill came to $10,000. The satellite had to be hand cranked.
And it wasn’t just the innovative aspect of Mehalic’s business that set him apart, according to Bishop.
“He was always willing to talk to people and fix their 8-track tapes for them and put the needles back on their record players and fix their radios,” he said.
Mehalic also hosted “sound battles” for a stretch in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Complete with games, prizes and, of course, music, the events allowed audiophiles to compete to see who had the loudest, best systems.
As the Bob Dylan quote pasted above a collage of photos in Mehalic’s office reads, “the times, they are a-changing.” With an ever-changing industry comes an ever-changing market.
Mehalic is retiring now, he said, due to changes in that marketplace, such as more people sticking with the audio systems that come with their new vehicle, rather than having one installed.
“A lot of new autos are already filled with all the bells and whistles and features that people use today,” he said.
That doesn’t mean customers, who have come from as far away as Pittsburgh and St. Marys, aren’t going to miss him.
“It’s no small thing that he’s leaving the field of battle, because I don’t know who’s going to put in all these gadgets for me,” said Dave Bidwell, 65, of White Township, a longtime friend and regular customer. Mehalic installed his first car phone and his first remote starter.
It’s not too late to stop in at Bob’ss. With retirement comes a retirement sale, where head units, coaxial speakers, subwoofers and all kinds of other stereo equipment are marked down.
In retirement, he plans to spend time with his wife, Patti, whom he credits with supporting him and helping to “hold things together.” After a year off, he said, he may find something new to pursue.
For now, he is focused on not only closing up shop, but reaching out to the community.
“Stop in and buy something or just say, ‘thanks, Bob,” he said. “I want to thank Indiana for putting up with me all these years.”
PHOTO: Bob Mehalic, owner of Bob’ss Stereo in White Township, is retiring after being in business since 1976. (Teri Enciso/Gazette photo)