Bob Kaufman, 89, said his favorite thing to do is to get to know his customers and build a relationship with them.
Fifteen years ago, Bob Kaufman was shopping at Best Buy on South Tamiami Trail in Sarasota with his wife when they noticed a kiosk promoting working for the company.
Kaufman, who was 74 at the time and retired, certainly had the relevant experience to get a job at the big-box electronics retailer. After all, he's been working on computers since 1958 — back when they were the size of tables and used punched cards for program creation and storage. Even still, Kaufman said he was unsure that Best Buy would hire an associate in their 70s.
"I said, 'Look, I'm 74 years old. They're not going to hire me, I'm too old.' And of course I was wrong," he said. His wife encouraged him to apply, and the rest is history.
Today, 15 years later, the Sarasota sales associate at the University Town Center store is the oldest employee in the entire company. On Sunday, April 7, he celebrated his 89th birthday.
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Kaufman was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, and grew up in Newton, which is right outside of Boston. After serving stateside in the Air Force Reserves during the Korean War, he worked for a family business where he sold automotive accessories and other merchandise like toys, lawn and garden supplies and electronics in 35 stores across New England. He eventually went into data processing, where he did payrolls and installed computers.
Around the time he retired at age 62, he did work on the side with a data processing company he started with someone else. They processed surveys sent to companies in the printing industry. He's been in Sarasota for 25 years.
He thinks he probably wrote thousands of computer programs back in the day.
"Computers were the size of these desks," Kaufman said, gesturing to the rectangular folding table in the Best Buy break room where we were having our interview. "I can still remember somebody telling me, 'You know, some day they're going to have a computer on a desk,' and I said, 'I'll believe it when I see it.' This was even before they had tape drives, before they had disk drives and all of that."
At Best Buy, he originally worked in the appliance department at the store on South Tamiami Trail, selling things like refrigerators, stoves, dishwashers and microwaves. Back then, if you wanted to sell computers, you had to be able to lift them, which he wasn't able to do. But that has changed, and today, his colleagues are happy to help him with the physical tasks he can't do on his own.
He transferred to the University Town Center store seven years ago and went into the computing department. Theoretically, he said, he can sell anything in the store.
"Somebody will come in and I'll greet them, and they'll say, 'You sold me a refrigerator 12 years ago.' I'll say, 'How did you like it?' and they'll say, 'Oh, we love it,'" he said.
Among his colleagues, Kaufman said he is just one of the guys.
"Employees love working with him. You would think some of these younger kids would not want to pick up the physical aspect of what he can't do, but they don't," General Manager Bobby Borges said. "They really truly enjoy working with him because I think he sets the example for all the younger kids today."
Kaufman generally works about 12 hours a week, but he's always looking to work more, Borges said. He's also curious about learning as much as he can about new products and other things — he knows how to say "thank you" in 26 languages.
"When you think of our line of work, it changes more than anybody else, in retail. Not only do we all have to stay on top of it, for a gentlemen who has other things going on in his life, he's still looking, he's still hungry," Borges said. "He wants more info, he's always asking for anything he can get. That's a breath of fresh air for someone who is doing it because he wants to versus he has to."
Kaufman said his greatest joy is getting to know the customers. Everybody who comes into the store has a story to tell. Whenever he meets someone new, he asks for their name and gets to know them. They're there to buy, and he's out to help them buy what fits their needs, rather than pushing them toward any specific product.
He said he's kind of amazed at the buzz his status as the company's oldest employee has generated. The day of our interview, a co-worker told him that a blog post from Best Buy about his status as the oldest employee was being shared around the internet.
The thing is, Kaufman said, he likes what he does. He could be sitting back at his house watching television, but he doesn't want to do that.
"When you're 89 years old, how many people are you going to meet and make friends with and learn about? This way I meet hundreds of people — I just enjoy it," he said. "People come in and say 'What are you doing working at your age?' I say, 'This isn't work.' You get to talk to people, I get to share a bit of my knowledge. This is what I do for fun. The nice thing is getting paid. That doesn't hurt, but it's not my primary objective, obviously."
Laura Finaldi, the Herald-Tribune's retail and tourism reporter, can be reached at 941-361-4951 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @lauraefinaldi. Join her Sarasota-Manatee Retail News page on Facebook at facebook.com/groups/sarasotamanateeretail/.
This story originally published to heraldtribune.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the GateHouse Media network.