By Royal Brevvaxling Special to Published Aug 20, 2011 at 5:32 AM

James Richey opened Captain Install, Inc., 2231 N. Humboldt Ave., 16 years ago. Store manager Betsy Beardsley joined him soon after, and they have been selling and installing custom car audio and electronics happily, together, ever since.

In 1996, Beardsley came to Captain Install for a power antenna on her car. "I wasn't sure where to go, I didn't like a lot of these (car installation) guys who had done work for me before, but his voice sounded nice over the phone," says Beardsley.

They went out for coffee that day. "It's unprofessional to hit on customers, you just shouldn't do it," says Richey.

But Richey knew right away that there was something special about Beardsley. Two days later, Beardsley brought Snickers bars in for all the workers during break; shortly thereafter, she started working at Captain Install. The rest, as they say, is history. But Richey and Beardsley say they're just getting started with their highly accomplished business.

"People come in with 6-year-olds, and all of a sudden, these kids are 18 and back with their own car," Beardsley says.

The work at Captain Install runs the gamut of car electronics installations and customization. In addition to audio and stereo in cars, trucks, motorcycles and boats, Captain Install does window tinting, custom lights, wheels, rims, car alarms and remote starts. Their work comes with a life-time warranty.

"And we do a lot of fleet work. Such as GPS tracking devices in semis, and we did the communications systems in City of Milwaukee vehicles," says Richey.

Boats come to the shop, or they'll go to the larger ones in the marina. Mike Plumeri, who's been an installer for 10 years, seven at Captain Install, remembers a big boat job that took several months to complete. "We did all kinds of lights and stereos," says Plumeri.

They also install "KiddieAlert," which is a backup alarm on buses and, after the recent spate of children left in buses and daycare vans, they've installed alarms in many local fleets that remind drivers to look for children when they turn off their vehicles.

"Intoxalock" devices, which drivers with court orders are required to blow into periodically to ensure they're sober or their cars stop running, are also routine installation jobs at Captain Install.

Richey has been in the installation business for 35 years and has years of training with various manufacturers. Beardsley says most of Richey's diplomas, plaques and awards are tucked in a cabinet along one wall of the showroom floor. "I haven't had time to hang them on the wall," she says.

Before Captain Install, Richey worked at another install place in Wisconsin, then worked in California for many years, first in San Francisco, then Redwood City, where many of his customers were 49ers. He was also a car audio sound judge while in California.

"California is a great place to visit, but everybody was always on something; I had to come back here for some sanity," says Richey.

Captain Install has five employees and a floater, who does the window tinting, but they used to employ 12 workers. "With the economy and because of the Humboldt Avenue bridge being out for over two years, we lost a lot of customers," says Richey.

Captain Install's customers have come from all corners, from all over Wisconsin and as far away as Seattle and Houston. They include everyone from a Drug Enforcement Agency head, masonry workers, security guards, to Brewers and Bucks players. Former Bucks center Joel Przybilla, according to Richey and Beardsley, told them how much he appreciated their level of service and the fact they didn't overcharge him.

"We charge a rich basketball star the same as we charge a guy with a rusty Chevy," says Richey. He says that some places will charge anybody who seems to have a lot of money more on the same install than they'd charge a seemingly "regular" customer.

"I don't look at people like walking wallets. I want to know what they're into, give them what they want. And there's a whole lot to car audio other than spending a bunch of money," says Richey.

Once, just to prove his point, Richey entered a car audio content using the cheapest sub-woofers and components on the market. His entry was just one decibel away from taking first place for loudest audio.

"It's about engineering the right enclosure. You build the box right to make it sound right," says Richey.

The "pony-tail guy from Milwaukee" as Richey, who now sports much shorter hair, was once known, wants to "turn people's thought patterns around" regarding smoke detectors.

Richey has developed a smoke detector he says is "engineered to be space-age" and that works without the batteries that so many people never change, or even remove because the detector goes off too many times while they're cooking. The look of the detector was designed by the Brooks Stevens design agency, whose founder was famous for Miller Beer logos and his designs of Studebakers, Harley-Davidsons and "wiener mobiles."

Richey's detector is lead-free, with military-grade components that work for 10 years on a sealed power supply. It has a transmitter and receiver to turn the detector off remotely during nuisance alarms, but the detector will override the remote if the smoke is strong enough.

Smoke detectors are considered bombs by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), since the most common kind of smoke detectors contain americium-241. The radioactive substance present in sealed ionization chambers that detects the particles in smoke can conceivably be used to make a weapon.

Receiving approval to manufacture his smoke detector in the United States has been challenging, and Richey had to hire an agent to negotiate with the NRC, but he is determined.

"Car audio is cool. But I gotta try to do something that leaves a mark. If my smoke detector saves just one life, everything will be worth it," Richey says.

Many people know Captain Install for its building, its lightning bolt logo and for the superhero that once blazoned its work bay door. Riverwest artist Jim Hawley did the door logo, as well as logos for Sprecher and Pizza Shuttle, among others. But the door fell apart and finally had to be replaced.

The superhero may be gone, but Captain Install is still in its original location, now in two buildings on the same block. One of them, which used to house the now defunct Yellow Jacket Vintage before it moved to its final resting place on Brady Street, is currently the Captain Install office and showroom, but Richey and Beardsley don't like it.

"The new area was supposed to improve retail, but it hasn't," says Richey.

The couple is busy renovating new retail space inside the install garage, where they'll put the showroom and office back. The garage used to have windows which opened onto the shop floor and people walked through the install bays to get to the office and waiting area.

"People liked it before, because the knew you weren't them – they could see the work being done and liked what they saw," says Beardsley.

They used to call the place a "chopper shop," where people would have their rides customized, and be seen working on everything from car audio, rims and interiors to motorcycles.

"That's what we used to have, it had this feel, a place where people could see all that's possible just by walking through the shop to the office. I've got to get back to that," says Richey.

Royal Brevvaxling Special to
Royal Brevväxling is a writer, educator and visual artist. As a photo essayist, he also likes to tell stories with pictures. In his writing, Royal focuses on the people who make Milwaukee an inviting, interesting and inspiring place to live.

Royal has taught courses in critical pedagogy, writing, rhetoric and cultural studies at several schools in Wisconsin and Minnesota. He is currently Adjunct Associate Professor of Humanities at Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design.

Royal lives in Walker’s Point with his family and uses the light of the Polish Moon to illuminate his way home.