When I was about 7 or 8 years old, I heard my dad talk in a strange language. He said stuff about wholesale and retail and used a weird term called a “jobber” at the kitchen table when he spoke to my mother.
I knew he was talking about his job, so I assumed it was someone who worked for him. At this point in my life, I was already fully immersed in cars and racing. I daydreamed of building a coaster car called a “Buffy Porsen” that would be a miniature version of my dad’s 1960 Morgan Plus-4, which was sitting in the garage with the fenders off. At the tender age of 2, I decided to help restore the Morgan by spray-painting part of it with a yellow-rattle can that I found. By the time I was 12, I had already built my first racecar, a Quarter Midget, that I managed to qualify on pole position in its first race.
Years earlier, my dad made a horse trade for some dune-buggy parts to get my brother, sister and me into racing Quarter Midgets. We bought six of them in pieces! All of this was possible because of the “store” he owned, selling auto parts to the public and shops in the area. The store specialized in selling VW parts, but we later branched out into all imports as well as the performance and racing segments.
The Beginning of My Journey
After a few years of sweeping floors and cleaning shelves in the store, I finally got my chance to be a real paid employee as a junior in high school, working as a shipping and receiving clerk. I had a desk (more like a workbench) with tape and pens and plenty of boxes. Orders would come in and I would box everything up, weigh it, label it and ship it off to the customer wherever they lived. It was great. Little did I know that being gainfully employed and making a few bucks a week at the store was just the beginning of my journey in this industry.
We seemed to have a lot of stuff even though we were supposedly poor. We mainly had a lot of cars, parts and tools. Our garage at home had a Formula 5000 car with a five-liter Chevy engine that could wake up the whole neighborhood. When my dad came home from work, he went out to the garage many nights and I would hang around trying to figure out what he was doing.
At the store, things were going well, and we were opening more locations. My grandfather also was a partner with my dad, and he worked at the store closest to where we lived. We saw him frequently as we stopped in to say hello or drop off parts, run errands and so forth. He mostly worked alone in this location, so he couldn’t leave.
This was all before we had computers to look up parts and see what we had in inventory. The veteran counter pros could memorize part numbers and seemed to know what they did or did not have in stock. We were always ordering new parts to stock the shelves. I know this because part of my job was to stock the shelves and check the parts that came in that day or week. We tallied all the sales up on paper. There was a form, slip or checklist for everything. Paperwork piled high in the manager’s office to be tallied up every night after closing.
Then one day, it changed.
Too Much Technology?
My dad invested in a computer system. At the time, computers were just beginning to be used in retail businesses. He purchased a system that he custom-programmed for the parts business. It could keep track of inventory and had several workstations for entering data and printing out invoices.
It seemed simple enough, but that machine cost $50,000 back in the 1980s and had a hard drive (which consisted of tapes) that only held maybe 40 megabytes (yes, megabytes – not gigabytes). There were no fancy windows or mouse controls. It was straight DOS. After the first year, the computer broke down more than it ran. It threw all kinds of confusion into the works because to keep sales and parts moving, we had to write everything down the old-fashioned way. We had duplicates.
Was it too much technology? One of my bosses used to say that it’s better to be cutting-edge than bleeding-edge when it comes to technology implementation. My dad was undoubtedly bleeding on the edge of his computer system that had become an expensive brick. Eventually, he had to sue the company that sold him the machine, and we went back to manual invoices. There was something about the manual way that was comforting. We all trusted it more, and the act of writing it up in front of the customer was a good way to add on more sales as you wrote more and more on the list.
We had essentially split the company into two divisions: retail/wholesale operations and mail-order. We ran ads in enthusiast magazines and got calls all day for the mail-order department. We were producing a catalog every six months or so to send out to our mail-order customers. Orders were coming in, and parts were being shipped out.
The retail side ran itself. We had several wholesale accounts now too, and I was tapped to drive around in our rusty brown ‘71 VW bus with a souped-up dual-port 1,600-cc engine, Hurst shifter, Jackman wheels and EMPI glass-pack exhaust system, delivering parts. I spent half the day driving all over town. I got to see so many shops back then, and a few were just glorified junkyards with more broken cars than fixed ones.
The VW business began to slow down. However, we still had diehards who bought the usual Bosch performance ignition parts, heater boxes and exhausts, not to mention the many brake shoes (remanufactured), generators and wheel cylinders. As the air-cooled VWs began to rust out and more and more Japanese brands replaced them, we covered those too. My grandpa had a brand new Corolla with a Kamei front spoiler. It was the only aftermarket goodie he added to the otherwise pristine stock Toyota.
The slow death of the retail store was preceded by the relatively quick death (and debt) from the mail-order business. Combined with the failure of the expensive mainframe computer system and high price tag, things were not looking good in the mid 80s. While many Americans were getting richer, we were getting poorer. Even as a teenager, I could see the signs with my own eyes. We shut down half the building where the mail-order business was housed and went back to just a single retail location.
The store was healthy, but everything else was sucking up too much cash. We were a family of six living in a huge old farmhouse with several acres that needed upkeep. The interest rates in the 1980s were pretty high too, so that didn’t help.
My dad was all in with the business and had taken a second mortgage to keep things going, but the foundation was beginning to crack. He took another job during the day and left our manager and me to run the place. We lost several employees to layoffs and firings for various reasons, but the bottom line was there wasn’t enough work to keep everyone. My dad had hired friends and family and it was hard for him to let them all go … but he had to make the tough choices.
Of all of the success stories you hear of auto parts retailers that kept growing and never slowed down, we experienced just the opposite. It was as if my dad was trying to kill it now. The writing was on the wall and the last-ditch effort was to pass it on to my younger brother – who was now barely old enough to work – and me. I became the manager and opened the store most days because my dad didn’t want to come in before noon.
The store was mine if I wanted it. But I didn’t want it. We didn’t have any inventory, and most calls ended in telling customers that we had to order the part if they wanted it because we didn’t have much left in stock. We had to make deals with some of our suppliers to buy parts COD to keep the doors open and hopefully pay down the rest of the bills. But by the end of the 1980s, it was apparent that a turnaround was not going to happen. The store that I grew up in was closed.
It was probably one of the most painful things that our family had to go through. We lost the old farmhouse that we all loved. It was a new era and time to move on. I was moving to Canada to attend a prestigious racing school and hopefully start my career in motorsports. But my family had to suffer the brutal reality of downsizing and losing most of what they had worked to achieve for the past two decades. It was almost easier to be out of the country so I didn’t have constant reminders of everything lost. But overall, it was a good run.
Years later, I can see where my dad was a visionary and ahead of his time, but he also was a bit foolish in the risks he took and how some of his employees mismanaged things. He told me not long before he passed away in 2018 that he still had dreams about part numbers. As we cleaned out our storage space last year, we found some of the old ledgers and notes from the store, and it brought back some good memories and some painful ones.
He ran out of passion for keeping things going after some of his big ideas failed. But failure is part of life, and I think we have learned more from the aftermath of losing our home and livelihood than we would’ve learned with easy success. The parts business has changed a great deal in the past 30 years, and the chances of remaining an independent parts store were slim. My dad hated working for other people, so his only hope was to have something to pass on to his kids. However, he taught us more than he could ever realize. And the business lesson I got out of it is that you have to be fully committed to serving your customers first and taking calculated risks in a retail operation.
Some people say everything happens for a reason. In my case, maybe all of my past experiences led me to where I am today, doing something I enjoy almost as much as racing and working on cars: writing about them. I’m still immersed in the automotive world, and I have a unique appreciation for all of the parts jobbers that have found a way to survive – and for those that didn’t make it.