PALO ALTO — It's 11 a.m. at the Apple Store in downtown Palo Alto and the Geniuses are hard at work being, well, geniuses.
You can see it from across the room: the way they stand there so sure of themselves, the way they move in Zen-like slo-mo, the way they seem to care so deeply about those poor souls coming through the door with their Apple dreams and their iOS demons.
On this recent day, during a visit by this newspaper arranged by the company's famously protective PR machine, we watch as the Geniuses are put to the test — the customers with the MacBook Pro that won't start, the unsendable text message, the iPhone with the mischievous disposition.
These blue-shirted, mostly young men and women hovering at the trademark Genius Bar are what some customers call the heart and soul of Apple Stores. And in the 13 years since Apple launched its first tech-support station at its first store in Virginia, these digital doyens have helped make the planet's 424 Apple Stores the revenue-churning envy of the retail world.
Day after day, this and every other Apple Store from Berkeley to San Francisco and beyond become stages for that tortured tango between man and machine. And joining in the dance are the Geniuses who, usually for free, almost always make everything OK.
"I wanted to become a Genius because I love the idea of really helping people get their relationship with their machine back on track," says Matt Gallion, the soft-spoken 28-year-old Lead Genius at what many consider Apple's flagship store. (Steve Jobs lived nearby and used to frequent the store down the street, which this one replaced in 2012.) "Sometimes," says Gallion, "it's a simple misunderstanding, so I'm there to help the customer and their product have the best relationship they possibly can."
Throughout the day, a steady parade of customers enters from University Avenue, most of them with a scheduled appointment and a common dilemma: Whether it's due to a hardware or software glitch or a user error, they and their Apple products are clearly not on the same home-page. It could be a tongue-tied Siri or someone's iCloud having a rainy day. And it can sometimes lead to big drama, especially when a broken iPhone's involved.
Says Gallion: "We don't see much anger, but we do see a lot of anxiety.
"People today have so much of their personal stories as well as business tools they use for their livelihood all there inside these products. And when they come in for help, all that stuff becomes just as important to us as it is to them."
A bundle of anxiety, in fact, just walked in. A long way from her South African home, a visibly nervous history researcher named Kate Law sits down with Genius Daniel Brewster. Her pickle? The card-reader in her MacBook Pro is not reading the photos she took of archival documents over at Stanford University, where she's a visiting lecturer. And photos are her meat-and-potatoes.
"I really need to get these uploaded because I'm leaving tomorrow for a conference in Toronto," she tells Brewster, a skinny 26-year-old from Atlanta who put his graphic-design education on hold after getting his first Genius Bar gig in 2011.
"Let's see what we can do," he calmly tells Law, quickly checking the card and running diagnostics on the laptop. He sits on a stool beside Law at the "360 design" Genius Bar, a new format that encourages the collaborative customer-Genius interaction that Apple instills in its employees during training. The company, by the way, refused to disclose just what training its Geniuses get, how much they are paid, or even how many hours they typically work each week.
In minutes, Brewster tells Law that the photo card appears to be fine, while tests show the laptop's reader needs to be replaced. He makes a call to a nearby Apple Store that has the part and can install it today, while a relieved Law heads for the door.
"I've used the Genius Bar before and they've always resolved my problems," she says. "Honestly, the Geniuses are one of the main reasons I've kept buying Apple products."
While customer service like that has helped made this chain the greatest revenue generator per square foot among U.S. retailers, according to a recent study by eMarketer, the Apple Store has not always been an oasis of calm. The past few years have seen loud and public complaints by employees over pay, a situation addressed by sizable pay hikes in 2012. And CEO Tim Cook has had to deal with a multiyear management shake-up that ended with the recent appointment of Burberry CEO Angela Ahrendt to run Apple Stores. She's reportedly planning a major overhaul of the retail experience.
As Law exits, Gallion helps retired Stanford math professor Greg Brumfiel, who has what he describes as "a text message that's hung up in my iPhone 5s, just spinning its wheels and not going anywhere."
Gallion talks first with Brumfiel about the phone's damaged case, replaces it for him, then examines the iPhone while his customer looks on. In typical Genius fashion, Gallion slowly explains to the customer everything he's doing, often offering different options as possible fixes. Options are big here. So is the idea of treating the customer more like a problem-solving teammate than a customer.
Asked whether a Genius had ever been unable to solve a problem, Brumfiel joked: "One time, something kept beeping inside my laptop and they couldn't figure it out after running all these tests. So, yes, the Genius couldn't solve that problem."
Brumfiel pauses. "But when I got home, I realized the beeping was from a little stopwatch in my backpack."
It's now early afternoon and Brewster takes a few minutes to talk about his love for all things Apple. It's a common trait among employees here, with every Genius able to wax poetically about the first time they fell in love with an Apple product. For Brewster, it was working extra chores and saving up all his money as a kid "to buy the second-generation iPod classic while I was in middle school.
"For me, it was the incredible attention to detail that blew me away," he says, as the lunchtime crowd fills the store. "It was as if someone looked at a dream machine inside my imagination and then made it real. It had everything I could possibly hope for, before I'd even realized what I'd wanted."
Contact Patrick May at 408-920-5689 or follow him at Twitter.com/patmaymerc
A few Genius Bar facts:
The first Apple Store and Genius Bar opened May 19, 2001 at Tysons Corner, Va.
Apple currently has 424 stores in 15 countries and all have Genius Bars.
85 percent of repairs for products coming in to the downtown Palo Alto store are done in-house, and the majority are turned around on the same day.
The downtown Palo Alto Genius Bar sees about 1,300 customers each week with Geniuses there seeing on average 20-30 customers each day.