At 86, O’Connor Still Has Sweepers on His Mind

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Almost every day for the past 70 years, Donald J. O’Connor has walked into the workshop of the family business, O’Connor’s Sales & Service, to work on vacuums.

The only time he missed work with regularity, he says: the two years he was in the military. Aside from that, nothing stopped him. Not snowstorms, not civil unrest in the 1970s, not even birthdays.

O’Connor celebrated his 86th birthday Sept. 1 in his workspace at the store, 3224 Market St.

“I really enjoy it, meeting people. It’s been my life,” he says. “Outside of those two years in the service, I’ve worked here since I was 16 years old.”

O’Connor’s father and brother founded the store as O’Connor’s Sweepers in 1938 and relocated to the store’s current home four years later in what was called the Uptown. The decision to move further away from downtown, the long-time owner says, wasn’t met with open arms in the family.

“My mother, the day we opened in ’42, said, ‘Nobody knows we’re here! Everybody’s downtown. We should have gone down there,’ ” he says. “Then they came out here and eventually went right past us to Boardman.”

A snowstorm in the 1950s made roads tough to travel, but O’Connor’s was open.

Even with the changes in the neighborhood around him – O’Connor saw rise of the Uptown district and, later, its decline – there isn’t anywhere else the store will call home, he says, just as there isn’t anywhere else he’ll spend his days.

“I’m sticking around to see what’s going to happen next,” he says. “I’m retired right now, as far as I’m concerned. I get up every day and go to work, except it’s not work. I really enjoy what I’m doing.”

Like the area around it, O’Connor’s has had to adapt. Founded as a store that only sold vacuums, it expanded into repair when it relocated in 1942, changing the name to fit the new mission. Over the years, the store has expanded into servicing small appliances and, during the summer months, Power Wheels, the battery-powered miniature cars kids can drive around in the yard.

In total, the store works on and sells more than 70 brands, by manager Ron Brownlie’s count, everything from Eureka and Hoover sweepers to Mr. Coffee and Broil King appliances.

“Just about everything that’s nationally advertised,” he says.

At many other companies, Brownlie’s experience would make him one of the longest-tenured employees, if not the most. Not at O’Connor’s, where he started 30 years ago without any experience in vacuum repair.

“I was coming here to take the trash out. My mother worked here and two of my aunts worked here,” he says. “I’ve learned a lot. I can’t say I haven’t.”

Between Brownlie’s three decades of education and O’Connor’s seven decades of experience, they know just what to recommend to customers.

“Get something that really cleans,” O’Connor advises. “A lot of them make a lot of noise and everything, but they don’t pick up what they should. … It’s simple, but they made it complicated with electronics and all the things they do, self-propelled and all that.”

To make decisions easier, he often invites customers to bring in carpet remnants to test out vacuums right in the showroom.

As for how often a vacuum should be replaced, that comes down to personal preference. He’s seen customers use the same vacuum for decades and some customers swap theirs out every few years.

“Some people keep them forever – some of the older ones seem to last forever – and some people want a new one every two or three years, just like a car,” he says. “Some people think $100 is a lot and others think it’s nothing. It’s all a difference in people.”

And his knowledge of vacuums goes back even beyond when his family started the business. For a long time, O’Connor had a collection of vacuums, at least one of every model year since 1910.

“It weighed a ton,” he says with a laugh. “The cord had a different plug on it because people were just getting electricity. You’d pull a light bulb out and [the plug] was threaded so you could put it in there.”

Pictured: Donald O’Connor, right, joined the family business when he was 16 and has worked in the vacuum store ever since. Ron Brownlie, left, has worked at O’Connor’s Sales & Service since 1987.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.