My first encounter with one of those old-fashioned part stores was in the summer of 1973 at Ben’s Auto Parts in the Bronx. I had just graduated high school and recently bought my first car, a 1967 Pontiac Tempest.
With reading glasses perched on the tip of his nose and a cigarette dangling from his lip, a counter guy walked over to me and said, “What do you need?” I replied, “A headlight relay for my ’67 Tempest.” He stared at me for a second and responded, “Why do think you need a headlight relay?” I started to tell him that a friend of mine had the same problem with his car, but before I could finish he said, “Listen, I could sell you the relay, but if it’s not the problem, I ain’t takin’ it back, got it?” I stood there amazed and confused. He then said in a calm voice, “Look, just because your friend had a problem with the relay, it doesn’t mean it’s your problem. Did you check the headlight switch? The wiring? Before you guess, have it checked and come back and see me, OK?”
A few months later I started my automotive career at a repair shop not far from Ben’s. Life in the typical repair garage was much different back then. For the most part, we worked on GMs, Fords and Chryslers. Getting parts from the local parts store was a breeze. They were our main pipeline for all the parts we needed on any given day. And for the more common parts, there was no need to look up the part number. Those guys had the numbers stored in their heads.
While part stores were open to the public, they catered to us, the professional mechanics and independent repair shops. You didn’t go to a store like Ben’s asking for advice or help installing a set of wiper blades. If you couldn’t install the parts you were buying, you had no business buying them in the first place. Was it intimidating? It was for me the first time asking for the headlight relay. But, after a while, you became part of an exclusive culture, and you took pride in that. You spoke the lingo, got grease under your fingernails, and traded war stories. And those old-fashioned part stores rewarded us for our loyalty with friendship and a commitment to service excellence.
The old days are gone, and for the most part, so are those old part stores. Today, many of the major part companies cater to the do-it-yourselfer and to the professional repair shops. When you drive up to some of these modern day part stores, you are inundated by signage that targets the weekend warrior: free battery testing and installation, free loaner tools and free check engine light testing. And once inside, you have to make your way through aisles of car wax, chamois, air fresheners and floor mats. Do-it-yourselfers can even go to the part company’s website, view how-to videos and get loaner tools to do the work themselves. What a difference from the old days back at Ben’s.
I have no problem with do-it-yourselfers. When I walked into Ben’s in 1973, I was a do-it-yourselfer. However, for decades we have fought to raise the image of the auto repair profession. There is a clear difference between what we do as compared to the weekend warrior. I just don’t see that distinction being made clear by many of the major part companies.
Today, the giants say they want our business, but their marketing strategy and window posters tell another story. Their quest for world dominance and their focus on the do-it-yourself market has no place in my heart as a local community independent shop owner. Maybe someday the giants and the independents will find common ground and recreate the culture we once had. I hope it’s not going to take a time machine to make that happen.
If it appears that I am living in the past or passing judgment on these auto parts companies, trust me, I’m not. I get it. It’s all about the bottom line. It’s about Wall Street. But I am not Wall Street, I am Main Street. It is the culture, the relationships and commitment to the independents that I miss.
Back to the headlight problem on my ’67 Tempest: It turned out to be the headlight switch, not the relay. Ben had the switch in stock … and he didn’t have to look up the part number, either.