The Insane, Real-Life Story of Crazy Eddie

From a Wall Street Journal review by Barbara Spindel of the book by Gary Weiss titled “Retail Gangster: The Insane, Real-Life Story of Crazy Eddie”:

The Crazy Eddie electronics chain, at its peak, numbered a respectable 43 stores from Philadelphia to Boston, but in the mid-1980s the discount retailer enjoyed an astonishing 99% name recognition among New Yorkers, higher even than the sitting president, Ronald Reagan. Anyone who resided in the region at the time knows why: the ubiquitous and incessant Crazy Eddie commercials, which featured a DJ named Jerry Carroll gesturing wildly and screaming, “His prices are insane!”

In “Retail Gangster,” Gary Weiss demonstrates that the lunacy was not confined to the airwaves. The Crazy Eddie empire was, from the start, built on lies and deception, with the fraud becoming so brazen that the company finally collapsed on itself.

The villain at the center of the drama is Eddie Antar, born in 1947, whose grandparents came to the United States from Syria and settled in south Brooklyn. According to Mr. Weiss, unlike their Eastern European counterparts, Jewish immigrants from Syria stressed work over education, fearing that too much schooling would lead to the Americanization of their children. Many of the Antars were in cash-based businesses, stashing their earnings in ceilings and mattresses to avoid paying taxes.

Eddie dropped out of high school in the ninth grade. He spent a few years hawking overpriced souvenirs to tourists around Times Square before his father, Sam M. Antar, sent him to run a family-owned store, ERS Electronics on Brooklyn’s Kings Highway, in 1969. Eddie, smart and shameless, relied on thievery to turn the outlet into a success.

Mr. Weiss, a journalist who has written books on the Mafia and Wall Street corruption, summarizes the shady practices that enabled Eddie Antar to keep prices low and still turn a profit. They included buying inventory below cost from an illegal supplier, selling merchandise at or below cost but pocketing the sales tax, pricing stereo components cheaply while overcharging for accessories, and passing off floor models and returned equipment as new product.

In 1973 the store was rechristened Crazy Eddie and began its expansion. It’s not entirely clear who gets credit for the name change, but Mr. Weiss notes that “by the 1970s, the ‘crazy merchant’ shtick was a well-worn cliché in retail advertising.” A young musician and concert promoter named Larry Weiss (no relation to the author) took over the growing operation’s advertising, bringing in Jerry Carroll as pitchman.

The first television spots, which Mr. Weiss calls “a triumph of youthful energy and inexperience over conventional thinking,” aired in 1976; there would be thousands of TV and radio ads in the coming years. (These were bleak times for New York, but the author recalls the period with a hint of nostalgia, describing “a lethal, exciting city that was deeply, exuberantly crooked.”) The ads were annoying and abrasive, but they drew customers into the stores. When a new location opened in New Jersey, a local newspaper estimated that 20,000 people showed up to get a glimpse of Carroll and nab a free T-shirt.

As the company grew, Eddie realized that he needed an accountant: He funded his cousin Sammy Antar’s education, and once Sammy learned some basic finance, the young man realized how small-time the company’s corruption was. Years of skimming cash and cheating on taxes had artificially made Crazy Eddie seem less profitable than it was. Sammy suggested a new tactic: taking the company public, inflating its profits to elevate the stock price. Crazy Eddie’s 1984 IPO was successful—and based on fraud.

The Antars had unwittingly backed themselves into a corner; as Mr. Weiss explains, “more and more fraud was required just to keep afloat.” Fearing what was to come, Eddie began dumping stock and moving money out of the country. The denouement is unsurprising: shareholder class-action lawsuits, an SEC investigation, a criminal probe. The Antars, shredding every document in sight and lying under oath, began to turn on one another. Newspaper ads toward the end cheerfully promoted “Crazy Eddie’s Family Feud Blowout Blitz,” but the ship was sinking fast. Eddie, who’d been taught from childhood that family came first, left everyone behind and, fake passport in hand, fled to Israel, where he’d socked away millions.

Once extradited to the U.S., Eddie pleaded guilty to racketeering and served close to seven years in federal prison. (He died in 2016.) Sammy cooperated with prosecutors and avoided prison time. He is Mr. Weiss’s primary source, and his colorful recollection of events fuels the fast-paced, entertaining narrative. “The due-diligence guys . . . come over, and they’re seeing a bunch of Brooklyn thugs running a business,” begins a typical anecdote.

Mr. Weiss is an enthusiastic storyteller himself, and he does a terrific job synthesizing a dizzying amount of information. He guides readers through complex financial machinations and a cast of characters that includes Eddie’s two wives, Debbie I and Debbie II (Eddie’s treatment of Debbie I is particularly loathsome), employees distinguished as honest Dave and dishonest Dave, and a family tree with nine people named either Sam or Eddie/Eddy.

The author’s enthusiasm occasionally gets the better of him. Describing Sammy’s efforts to inflate the profits in advance of the IPO, he write: “They wanted Crazy Eddie to be the filet mignon of stocks, a twenty-dollars-a-pound cut, not cheap like a fifty-cents-a-pound slab of fatty liver.” His meaning is perfectly clear, but he presses the point with additional talk of top cut, ground round and tenderloin.

Over the years many people had mistaken the screaming Jerry Carroll for Eddie himself. The real Eddie, though he preferred anonymity, had a malevolent charisma of his own. Larry Weiss joined Eddie’s doomed post-prison online venture despite having quit the company years before after being ripped off and abused by his boss. “Everyone loved him,” he tells the author. “I did too. I don’t know why.”

Barbara Spindel’s book reviews appear in the Christian Science Monitor, the San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

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