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A Hollywood Writer's Second Act: Gongs

Originally published on Thu March 8, 2012 2:22 pm

There's a Mystery Machine sitting outside Andrew Borakove's nondescript warehouse on a quiet street in Lincoln, Neb.

"I can never be depressed driving around town, because there's always some 4-year-old waving to me manically," Borakove says.

The mystery about the Scooby Doo replica van starts to fade, however, once you notice the bumper stickers on the back. Black background, white font, like a "Got Milk?" ad: "Happiness Is a Warm Gong." "Gongs, Not Bongs." "My Child Is an Honor Gong Player."

The van doesn't just amplify Borakove's personality — which probably doesn't need much help — it's the cargo van for his Internet business, Gongs Unlimited. He bought the van off eBay five years ago to move his business and his family from California to Nebraska.

That journey is a story of American optimism and reinvention in an economy that increasingly demands mid-life career shifts. It's a story Borakove hopes will, ahem, resonate.

Life In 'Development Hell'

For 20 years, Borakove, a native of New York, worked long hours in the pressure cooker of L.A. TV-writing. He'd moved there in 1986 and found success writing for shows like South Park and Sabrina the Teenage Witch.

But after several years working to create shows that never made it on television — languishing in "development hell" he calls it — the jobs began to dry up. What work did come along paid less and less.

"I was kind of like, 'I don't know what we're going to do,'" he says.

It was 2005. Borakove had a second child on the way. He imagined a future where he could support his family selling things online, but he had no idea what to sell. He was not a percussionist or musician.

Ever the comedy fan, Borakove compares his plight to the Jim Carrey film Bruce Almighty. In one scene, Carrey's character, desperate and confused, throws himself in front of a moving truck.

"One day, I was like, 'God, I don't know what the heck I'm going to do. I'm literally on my hands and knees' — in the same position that Jim Carrey was," he says.

"And then, like a day or so after that, I was meditating, and this image of a gong appeared in front of me." He pauses. "I mean, not to get too mystical — that's why I was mixing it with the comedy there."

Nebraska Bound

But Borakove was serious about the gong business. He did some research and found that people were searching for gongs online, but there weren't many places to buy them. It's not like you could walk into Target and buy a gong, he says.

So he moved his family from Los Angeles to San Diego and set up shop. Immediately, his new business began to grow. Soon, Borakove was working 10 hours a day, running his website from a Starbucks and spending $800 a month on storage units for his gong supply.

"I'm going, 'I'm not getting a chance to surf. I'm barely getting out in the sun. And my kids are getting bigger,'" he says. "And then, all of a sudden, I started having odd dreams to get out of California."

College town in the Midwest, he thought. "That was my gut feeling."

Madison, Wis.? Too cold. Lawrence, Kan.? "Meh. No," he says. His wife had lived near Omaha, Neb., so they settled on Lincoln, a smaller town about an hour away.

"The surfers in San Diego were, like, 'Where is that?'" he says. "They were scratching their heads a little bit."

'That's Heavy Metal'

The day Borakove moved to Nebraska was the first time he'd set foot in the state. "My wife had gone and bought the house," he says. "I had never been here before."

He — and the Mystery Machine — quickly settled in.

"People got used to me," he says. He made friends with a local barista who became his connection to the "Lincoln hipster community." The 20somethings were drawn to the store, hanging out and even helping with the shop.

These days, the store has never been busier. Business is growing, and it's not just yoga studios lining up.

"Everyone buys my gongs," he says. "[New Jersey Gov.] Chris Christie's brother. Someone bought a gong to give to [director] James Cameron. I sold one to a death rocker, who was like, 'I NEED IT TO BE VERY DARK.' I've sold a gong that went to a prison. It was a minimum security prison in Minnesota. They put on a talent show. They needed the gong."

He ships gongs all around the world. Kuala Lumpur. Dubai. Why wouldn't those customers just buy gongs made in Asia?

"Because they want the BMW of gongs," Borakove says, made by a Swiss company called Paiste. "But I've shipped Chinese gongs back to Hong Kong several times. And I love it."

Small gongs are popular for workplaces and corporate events, big gongs for symphonies and musical acts. He sells gong stands, too, including ones made by the "almost-father-in-law" of Lady Gaga (In her hit single, "You And I," Gaga sings about a long-lost lover from Nebraska. The namesake man's father has been building gongs and stands for Borakove for several years. "I call him Papa Gaga," he says.)

"Is it ever going to make me rich?" Borakove asks. "No. But I sold $450,000 worth of gongs last year. That's heavy metal."

And it's a story that may inspire other midlife career-changers. "Be entrepreneurial. Be creative," Borakove says. "You gotta find that side in you. And c'mon. We're selling gongs. We're having a good time. There's gotta be some goofiness to it all."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

From the deserts of Arizona now to the Midwest Plains, in particular, Lincoln, Nebraska, and a story about...

(SOUNDBITE OF GONG)

LYDEN: ...gongs. Recently, our colleague and the regular host of this show, Guy Raz, spent some time at a dull-looking warehouse in a quiet part of Lincoln. Parked outside, a van painted like Scooby-Doo's Mystery Machine.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE)

ANDREW BORAKOVE: As you know, this is a colorful van.

LYDEN: Guy picks up the story from there.

BORAKOVE: I needed a parking van...

GUY RAZ, HOST:

The mystery machine belongs to 50-year-old Andrew Borakove. He bought it on eBay a few years ago.

BORAKOVE: I tell people I can never be depressed driving around town because there's always some 4-year-old waving to me maniacally.

RAZ: The mystery about why he drives it fades when you check out the back window. This is some good bumper stickers. Happiness Is a Warm Gong. Gongs, Not Bongs. My Child Is an Honor Gong Player. This is the cargo van for Andrew's business, and that business...

(SOUNDBITE OF GONG)

RAZ: ...is the business of gongs.

BORAKOVE: That's the kind of gong you hit before you make La Choy Chinese food.

RAZ: Inside this small warehouse in Lincoln, Borakove's got thousands of them from around the world.

BORAKOVE: This, for example, is a Thai gong.

(SOUNDBITE OF GONG)

RAZ: Lincoln is where Borakove runs his Internet gong business. It's called Gongs Unlimited.

BORAKOVE: But then we could walk over here to Chinese gongs.

(SOUNDBITE OF GONG)

RAZ: And last year, he sold close to half a million dollars' worth of gongs. When would you use this gong? Like, for what occasion?

BORAKOVE: You know, I'm thinking like some sort of nude party for the solstice, or a Bjork record release party is pretty much what I'm thinking.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF GONG)

RAZ: There are giant gongs the size of a subcompact car, small personal pan pizza sized gongs, gongs that cost 25 bucks, and then what Andrew calls the BMW of gongs: handmade by a Swiss gong maker called Paiste.

BORAKOVE: And he tuned them to the vibration of the planets.

RAZ: The vibration of the planets. This one's tuned to the vibration of the planet Mercury.

(SOUNDBITE OF GONG)

RAZ: That's what Mercury sounds like. Now, at this point, you may be wondering how a brash New Yorker got into the gong business and got into it in Lincoln, Nebraska. Well, in Borakove's case, it was out of necessity and somewhat of an inspired move. He and his wife used to live in L.A. where he wrote scripts for comedy shows like "South Park" and "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch." But about eight years ago, the work started to dry up, and so did the money, and a second kid was on the way.

BORAKOVE: One day, I was like, you know, God, I don't know what the heck I'm going to do. I'm like - I'm literally on my hands and knees, and all of a sudden, I was - I totally give up. And (unintelligible) and it went - like a day or so after that, I was meditating, and this image of a gong appeared in front of me.

RAZ: Now, the thing you should know about Andrew Borakove is that there's a definitively serious side to him, the side that's into healing and meditation. And so, yes, he had a vision of a gong, and later, a dream about living in a Midwestern college town. He did some Internet research, and he discovered a lot of people actually buy gongs and not a lot of people sell them.

So he packed up the wife and two kids and settled on Lincoln, Nebraska, a place he'd never even visited and knew nothing about. When you told your friends and your family and all - you know, we're moving to Lincoln, Nebraska, what'd they say?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Where is it?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BORAKOVE: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Where's Nebraska?

BORAKOVE: The surfers in San Diego were like, where is that? Somewhere, like - and they scratched their heads quite a bit.

RAZ: And five years on, business is booming.

BORAKOVE: Everyone buys my gongs. I have - someone bought a gong to give to James Cameron. I've sold Chris Christie's brother. Here's an interesting thing – sold out - I sold to a death rocker. He was like: I need it to be very dark. I've sold a gong that went to a prison.

RAZ: Why a prison?

BORAKOVE: Fifty-two - because they had - it was a minimum security prison in Minnesota. They put on a talent show. They needed the gongs.

RAZ: Not to mention more obvious customers like yoga studios and car dealerships that want to bang a gong every time there's a sale.

BORAKOVE: You can walk into Target and buy a gong? No. The gongs are here.

RAZ: And from here, they go everywhere. Andrew has shipped gongs to Kuala Lumpur, to Dubai. High quality gongs, he says, are hard to find.

BORAKOVE: But I've shipped Chinese gongs back to Hong Kong several times, and I just always love it. That's my favorite thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF GONG)

RAZ: These days, Andrew is working harder than ever, sometimes well into the night. He has even designed his own gong. He calls it a subatomic gong.

(SOUNDBITE OF GONG)

BORAKOVE: I also feel we may be the reason why so many whales and dolphins are being beached. They're hearing that call, and they're trying to get to Nebraska.

RAZ: Andrew Borakove knows he's never going to get rich selling gongs, but he doesn't miss the brutal life of a Hollywood writer, the feast and the famine. Now - well, now, he's really happy.

BORAKOVE: There's a fear, I think, in every industry, because you always hear these stories: Oh, I was a stockbroker, and I was making $200,000 a year. Now, I can't find - I'm like, well, be an entrepreneur. Be creative. You got to find that side of you. And I was always entrepreneurial because when you have to sell TV shows, you have to come up with an idea, ha-ta-da, and you got to go sell it and all that stuff.

And, come on, we're selling gongs. We should be having a good time. There's got to be some goofiness to it all.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDEN: That's our colleague Guy Raz reporting in from Lincoln, Nebraska with producer Brent Baughman. You can find Andrew Borakove's website at gongs-unlimited.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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