Green geeks
Immaculate Computers offers eco-friendly computers and service.

By Annalee Newitz

IMMACULATE COMPUTERS DOESN'T look like your typical computer store. Located on the second floor of an Arts and Crafts style house in the Marina District, it feels more like the sort of place you'd buy antique glassware than a retail zone for custom computers. But for owner Shaun Smith, an inventor who is fascinated by devices that are "efficient, clean, and environmentally friendly," the beautiful little shop is the perfect spot to grow his unusual business.

Specializing in custom-built computers for small businesses and home users, Immaculate Computers, which opened just a few months ago on a popular stretch of Union Street (1782 Union, S.F. 415-593-0451), offers more than really fast boxes (although it stocks those too). The store's signature system, the Green Machine computer, is made with parts that contain far less lead and halogen than comparable products from other vendors. "Everybody benefits from something that's good for the environment," says Erik Braa, the company's system integrator and designer. "Plus, [the video game] Unreal plays really well on it."

Naturally I have to see for myself, so Braa and Smith take me to inspect the first Green Machine they built in their "game room" – soon to be packed with Xboxes – for a demonstration. After shutting the door, they turn off all the computers in the room except the Green Machine and instruct me to listen carefully. I can't hear anything. "That's the sound of the Green Machine!" Braa enthuses. "It's totally quiet!" And it's true: the thing is not only low in lead, but it also doesn't put out any noise pollution.

Packed with excellent components, including an AMD Athalon XP chip that runs at a superfast 3.2 gigahertz, the $1,500 Green Machine will appeal to business owners who need affordable high-end machines, or video game nerds who just want a really excellent game box. Also, Smith adds, "We can create a custom machine with whatever you want in it." So how do they remove the computer's typical whining hum? "It's all about good fans and insulation," Braa says, pulling off one side of the box to show me its large, quiet fans and noise-absorbing foam.

A former Web designer and teacher, Smith opened the shop with money he got from refinancing his house. "I'm living a little bit on the edge," he admits. But he's convinced his green geek business model can work. "We like the little guys, the small-business owners, and we want them to have technology that's geared to them," he says. That's why his shop offers support and service as well as computers. "We have people dropping in off the street asking about repairs." Braa adds that they'll tackle any repair or setup job, however big or small. The company can set up a computer network for a business or help a family get its PC running again.

And Smith and Braa say they want their business to become more than just a store. They imagine Immaculate Computers as a place where locals can come hang out in the game room or the "local-music area," where bands can make their CDs and MP3s available for downloading. They're also "setting up free WiFi for the whole block," Smith says, so neighbors can surf the Web too. "We're more concerned about the social effects of our work, rather than making huge profits," he explains.

Friendly and neighborhood-focused, the shop is a perfect antidote to the CompUSA brand of retail for anyone who wants a little individualized attention while buying a computer or getting one serviced. And if Immaculate Computers can succeed, it stands to become one of the first examples of a new geek business: the mom-and-pop computer store.

April 21, 2004