Old watch repairman challenges the upsurge of smartwatches' technology

Not many people have the ability to fix time with their hands. Naseem Khan has been doing it for almost three decades. 

“I am almost the only one who can fix time here,” he said.

Khan, 70, is a watch repairman without a shop. He has been working for 28 years on Washington, DC street corners. His latest spot on 17 and I streets NW is where he finds his customer, and where they find him.  Without Washington’s loyal watch-wearers, he would not be able to compete with the growing market of smartwatches and digital products. Those customers may be his last.

On a recent day, Khan had four customers, in 30 minutes. He is always busy usually repairing around 10 to 15 watches per day. Fifteen years ago, at the peak of his job, he would fix more than 50 watches a day.

Naseem Khan, an old watch repairman, fixing a broken watch on the corner of 17th and I street NW, Washington, D.C. PHOTO CREDIT: JOE KHAWLY

Naseem Khan, an old watch repairman, fixing a broken watch on the corner of 17th and I street NW, Washington, D.C. PHOTO CREDIT: JOE KHAWLY

“I fear the time when people will stop caring about watches, because everyone owns a phone now,” said Khan. “But I am affordable, and people like me.”

Sixty percent of people between the age of 16 and 34 years old use a phone as their primary timepiece, according to YouGov surveying 1,200 people.

“People look at their phones now when they want to check time,” said Khan while carefully removing a tiny screw from the face of an old watch. “But I still rely on people who like horology, because nothing can beat having a nice watch around your wrist – that’s classic.”

Deborah Moore is one customer who still seeks Khan out.

“There are many of us who still wear watches,” she said.  “I think it has become more generational as my children use their Smartphones for the time, but I love wearing a watch and the neighborhood workers all go to Naseem for his expertise.”

Khan’s trade is a dying art, as more people swap traditional watched for smartphones, fitbits and other digital gadgets. While he was dismantling one of the watches into pieces using tiny little screws, Khan explained how watches changed his life. He speaks with a thick Indian accent that reminds him of his heritage and background. He emigrated from India in 1955.

“I started working for two shifts in two different restaurants: McDonalds and Roy Rogers for 15 hours a day as a waiter, and as a busboy at a Holiday Inn hotel,” he said while his eyes meticulously fixed on the watch in his hand. “Then I started selling watches, but some vendors threatened me.”

Big companies selling watches did not want anyone to sell watches on the street anymore. It was a threat to their business.

“They give me warnings - If we catch you the next time, you will go to jail,” he said. “I was not afraid – I used those threats to think about an alternative, so I switched to the business of changing batteries and repairing watches.”

His hands are all what he needs with the help of a magnifying glass, affixed to his left eye. He barely looks up from his transportable desk, which is covered with dozens of watches and other repair tools. A few years ago, he faced some vendors and succeeded in overcoming their threats, now he needs to surmount another challenge.

Khan is keeping up with new watch designs which can present some challenges. Some watches have become more complicated, he explains, while others are easy to repair. He thinks that not everybody can afford an expensive smartwatch that requires expensive maintenance.

“Even with the rise of smart-everything, we still need people who can work with their hands - he is a nice guy,” said Sherin Thomas, one of Khan’s clients. “They got machines, but sometimes you still need the human touch.”

In few minutes, he dismantles the watch into pieces, changes the battery and puts it back together flawlessly. Dealing with people’s watches is his only business. Khan has never been in school.

“I did not want to survive,” he said. “Anyone can survive; I wanted to be successful.”

There is only one other similar competitor to Khan, on the districts’ streets. Another repairman is still working around Foggy Bottom metro station. All the others have retired, or died. Khan is definitely not thinking about retiring anytime soon.

“As long as my health helps, I will continue doing this job,” said Khan. “But my doctor asked me not to work outside during winter – so I work only during the good season when the weather helps.”

For the last 20-plus years, Khan witnessed Washington changing and experienced the ever-changing technology, to which he adapted. But now he fears a new type of change that might affect his business negatively, at some point. He just does not know when. Time will tell. For him, everything is a matter of time. 

cartoon credit: 3dkingdom.org

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Joe Khawly

With 10 years in the broadcasting business, Joe began as a reporter in local Lebanese TV stations New TV and LBCI, when he sharpened his skills as an intern at CNN, Atlanta. He later became a senior reporter at MTV Lebanon, where he covered major national events. Meanwhile, he was tutoring at the Antonine University. In 2012, Joe moved to Dubai to pursue his dream as an international correspondent for Sky News Arabia, covering the turmoil in the Middle East from Libya, Egypt, Turkey and Syria. He ended up as the Washington Correspondent for Sky, before working with Associated Press. Currently, Joe is a graduate student at Georgetown University and works at AlHurra.