ELI LEVINE is kicking around his old workshop in bustling downtown Gaithersburg. The station wagon has been backed up the loading ramp, ready to haul away what little remains there. LeVine is moving moving to a new location in bustling downtown Gaithersburg.
"Great building," he says, a hint of regret in his voice. A German Shepherd quard dog stares reufully frombehind a fence across the way. "It's been condemned."
Inside are a few remnants: some strips of wood. An air-powered nailing gun. And a glueing bench covered in dried gook that looks like Star Trek's version of a mildew attack. The floor is covered with a thin layer of fine sawdust.
Here LeVine and a small crew have been making 25 to 30 closets a week.
A few years ago, Eli LeVine, orginally from Takoma Park, Md., was studying for his doctoral degree in psychology at the University of Miami. LeVine, who would be described as a spark plug if he were playing halfback for a professional football team -- short and stout -- already had seven-and-a-half years of college under his belt.
"One day I just finally said enough is enough, you know? I enjoyed building. I like to see things finished."
So he abandoned psychology to build custom houses. His father was a land developer at the time.
"I had my license and everything."
Between housing starts, LeVine would take remodeling jobs, and more and more frequently he encountered customers who asked, "What can we do with that space?"
Well, of course, you turn it into a closet. People always need more closets. But ordinary old closets seemed rather dumb, LeVine thought. What do they do? They sit there. You hang a few coats. You put some hat boxes on a shelf, and that's that. And since you can never get enough coats and hat boxes and hockey sticks and photo albums and football helments and evening dresses and ice skates and food blenders and dirty old bird cages in one closet, you have to build more closets.
Easy. More closets.
But LeVine was disappointed with the way closets were being made. "Architects," he says over coffee and doughnuts, "don't think about how closets are going to be used. I asked some of my building friends what to do about it, and they said, "You just make them bigger.'"
Still not satisified, LeVine went to New York. "I went up there and met all the space planners and picked all their brains."
The result: Closet Systems.
LeVine started Closet Systems in Miami. But about a year ago, on a trip north visiting relatives, he and his wife saw Washington, like the area and moved the business here.
You've probably been wondering, "What the hell is Closet Systems?" Thought you'd never ask.
Picture this: You take a closet. Empty it of all the shoes and the dusty collection of Elvis Presley records. Remove the bar with all the high school letter sweaters hanging from it and the shelf with the hat boxes.
Now, take a few pieces of fiber board, cut them up in pre-designed sizes, glue and nail them together. Glue hardwood strips or veneer around the edges for a clean look. Nail metal strips that hold brackets up and down where you want shelves or steel bars for hanging things. Put a back on it, assemble it together with a couple of other stacking units that hold shelves or drawers. Stick it in the closet.
et voila! Closet Systems.
LeVine does all the building, and you don't have to put it in the closet. Because the storage units are modular, you can combine them to any size you want. You can fill the bedroom. Fill the garage. Fill Laurel! Finally, an organized place for the Capital Centre.
Now it gets complicated. Since virtually modular or hanging on movable brackets, you can change a Closet System just about any way you please. Don't have many coats? Well, why didn't you say so? In that case you won't need an extra coat rack. Put in some shelves instead. Or some drawers.
Closet Systems are built from the bottom up, literally on shoe sizes. The female end of the unit, for instance, is measured at the bottom to fit three pairs of ladies shoes across, or two pairs, or four pairs -- whatever you want. In neat little compartments. Directly above that, you might have one rack for coats. Since the unit is about eight feet high, however, there's room for yet a second coat rack above that one. If you have kids, who wear little itsy bitsy coats, you may have room for three racks: the bottom for whatever's in season, summer togs above that and stuff he'll never wear, and can't reach, on top.
"Don't adults find it strange," LeVine is asked, "that they are now reaching down to pull their Harris tweed out of the closet?"
"You know, nobody's ever asked that before. All this time I've been making closets, nobody's ever mentioned they found it strange to reach down for a coat. That's a new one."
LeVine says that by eliminating dead spaces, Closet Systems can increase by more than 100 percent the usuable area inside a closet.
LeVine has tried a number of other ideas. Some good. Some not so good. "I take all the junk home for the family." He's built furniture that is functional and stores things as well. Such as a bed with a mattress that slides back completely to make use of the space underneath. "We built that for a kid to store his archery equipment." It cost $600.
Inflation is hitting everyone hard, except, it seems, Eli LeVine. About a year ago, a typical single standing storage unit cost $120. Today the price is $62. The price of a complete closet is on the average, $140 to $160. LeVine is making gobs and gobs of them. All automatically. All according to patterns.
"Our average contract probably runs abut $300. That's because people can't believe the price. They find out what one closet costs and they say, 'Hey, why don't you come over here and measure this one, too.'"
LeVine is gradually gearing the business toward do-it-yourselfers. At one time he employed four teams of installers. He's now thinking about subcontracting this work out, reducing overhead.
At no extra charge, he will send a designer to help the customer develop a Closet System strategy. If the customer installs the system himself, he can cart the unit away within two or three days. The wait is 10 days to two weeks if LeVine installs.
"Hell," says LeVine in his television voice, "at the prices we charge, you can't even go out and buy the materials."