16 June 2009

Part Museum Part Gearhead Social Club

The Toyota and Chevrolet dealerships across the street shut their doors for good last year. A corporate auto-parts chain just opened up a store two blocks away. The parts suppliers are folding their tents and padlocking the warehouses. The latest generation of hot-rod kids buys its speed parts online. Repeated crowbar shots continue to thud into the kidneys of the California economy. How can it be possible that this old-time downtown parts store- this anachronism- has survived this far into the 21st century?

Step off the sidewalk of Alameda's main drag onto the creaky wooden floor of World Famous Lee Auto Supply. Past the 1956-vintage Hurst shifter display and the photo of Kenny Stabler posing with a '40 Ford dirt-track car at Vallejo Speedway. Continue on beyond the 1975 NHRA Champions Of Drag Racing poster from Fremont Raceway and the East Bay car-club plaques going back to the 1920s, and lean up against the beat-to-hell, decal-encrusted parts counter. There you will find... parts men. Battle-scarred automotive veterans, honest-to-god Doctors Of Partsology who can tell the difference between an FMX and a Fordomatic, who know the number of the outfit in L.A. that can overnight-ship floats for the ailing SU carbs in your Volvo 144. Must be a half-ton of well-thumbed parts books behind the counter, and you'll never get a puzzled look when you say you think the IHC Scout you just bought has a mid-70s AMC 360, but the distributor seems to be older and you need points for it.

For all the nostalgic hand-wringing over "the death of Main Street" we hear as mega-chains crush little downtown shops and department stores- or, rather, as we vote with our dollars for cheapness and convenience- it remains possible for us to purchase most of what we need in the big chains; the soul may be dying, but the body lives. Not so with the independent auto-parts store. When the last one dies, we'll lose the expertise of the guys behind the counter, and we'll be left with corporate employees authorized only to check year, make, and model on a terminal. We'll still be able to buy car parts, but the whole process will be much more difficult.

When I was 15, the gas station near my house had a customer abandon a '69 Toyota Corona after dropping it off for a minor repair. Just $50 later, I had my very first car. My very first visit to Lee Auto took place soon after. That was nearly 30 years ago, and the place hasn't changed in any substantial way in all that time; looking at photographs of the store in the early 60s, it's clear that time has simply slowed down here. Duane Watson, whose father bought the store in 1959 (it was a chain of three stores then, one in Alameda and two in next-door Oakland), is still in charge. You'll usually find two or three grizzled old-time Alameda gearheads, knuckles permanently tattooed from a lifetime of underhood grime, holding court from the stools lined by the parts counter. You'll see some young guys there, too, all tatts and attitude, talking cylinder heads and pearlescent paint jobs; the hot-rodding tradition in Alameda goes back unbroken for generations.

The little brick building, located between a Wienerschnitzel and an antiques store is a block or so from City Hall. It's been a car-parts store since it was built in 1922, and the back room still has hooks labeled for Kaiser-Frazer and Packard parts. A retired Model A circle-track racer body sits on the roof in back, over the machine shop that had to be closed down when the last of the old engine machinists retired. There's no parking lot; you'll parallel-park your Civic out front the way previous generations parked their Chieftans and Wagonaires.

Times are hard, Duane admits, harder than they've ever been- the loss of parts business from now-shuttered Good Chevrolet across the street has hit especially hard- but Lee Auto remains afloat. He's been forced to lay off some full-time employees and work more hours himself, and there's no more Lee Auto-sponsored racing these days, but the OPEN sign goes up every morning at 9:00 AM.

If your town still has an independent auto parts store run by a guy like Duane Watson, we want to know. Please use the comments section below to tell us all about that crusty old jewel of a store where you can find points for your 1960 Rambler or have your MG brake drums turned. And if you want to send us a photo of your favorite parts store or counterman, please enter "Parts Store Photos" in the subject line along with the name of the store or person and send them to ideas@hagerty.com

Auto Parts Stores and the Dodo

As recently as the late 1970s and 1980s, the independent auto parts store reigned supreme. Every town had at least one of these slightly dingy stores, where a crusty old guy with a dangling cigarette or a young motor head stood behind a long rack of parts books. A team of young drivers delivered parts to dealerships and garages, sometimes bringing back engines, cranks or brake drums for machine work to be completed in the nethermost parts of the store.

Sure there might have been a chain automotive supplier at the local shopping center, but they were for off-the-rack parts like oil, filters and anti-freeze. If you needed points or plugs, a thermostat, pistons or a master cylinder, you went to places like Lee Auto Supply or Thul Auto Supply or Scott Reider Auto Parts, where the guys behind the counter really knew what they were doing and could recognize an exhaust system for a Malibu from either its shape or its part number. These days, the old-time parts store sure looks like it's going the way of the dodo, but when they're gone, there will be nobody left to help you find a part for a car that's 25 years old and isn't listed on the computer.

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