Comedy writer Andrew Borakove left California for Lincoln, Neb., to sell gongs.
Comedy writer Andrew Borakove left California for Lincoln, Neb., to sell gongs. Guy Raz
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."
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.
This set of desktop gongs honors prominent Chinese Americans. Small gongs are popular, Borakove says, for workplaces and corporate events.
This set of desktop gongs honors prominent Chinese Americans. Small gongs are popular, Borakove says, for workplaces and corporate events. Guy Raz
"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."