Thursday, January 3, 2008

61 cool, cool years

61 is the integer following 60 and preceding 62. It is also the 18th prime number. It is the atomic number for the element Promethium. 61 corresponds to the Messier number for the constellation Virgo, and the constellation Pisces in the NGC catalogue. You must dial 61 to place a direct call to Australia. 61 was Richard Nixon's age when he resigned the Presidency, and the age of his successor, Gerald Ford. 61 is the number of home runs Roger Maris hit in '61, breaking Babe Ruth's record. Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan each had 61 career shutouts.

61 is also how many years New Braunfels Radiator Works was in business.

Yesterday was a landmark day for my father-in-law, a bittersweet day filled with a little regret and great relief. After 61 years in the radiator repair business, one started in 1947 by his father after WWII, he signed the papers that sold his repair shop and the land it sits on. As with anything that has had such a long and prosperous run, it is a bit difficult to see it end, but it was time for it to go.

The radiator repair business in New Braunfels has had a stalwart presence for so long. People from from far and wide stopped in over the years to have their automobiles repaired. "If it's hot, we'll cool it," was more than a slogan, it was a way of life for two generations of families. Working over his vat, alone, my father-in-law labored for years and years getting people back on the road, fixing thousands upon thousands of blown head gaskets, damaged fins, and leaky coils. He took pride in his work and his name, like his father before him, and had a reputation for being the best (and having the best prices.)

Shortly after I began dating my father-in-law's daughter, I remember once telling my grandmother, who lives in a neighboring city, of the best place to go if she ever had radiator problems. Like a good stubborn German lady, she cut me off abruptly and said, "I don't care where you tell me to go, I only go to one place, and I've been going their for years: New Braunfels Radiator Works." Needless to say, I didn't try to convince her otherwise.

But throughout the years, the radiator repair business has been in decline. More and more radiators are plastic and disposable, making them difficult and not cost-effective to repair. With the proliferation of auto parts stores, who sell cheap radiators to the average Joe, the business has taken on more of a radiator replacement, rather than repair business in recent years. Even the large industrial radiators that still were repairable quit coming in. As a result, the once thriving prosperous little shop, whose business earned enough money to raise 6 children over two generations, now was struggling to make a profit.

I had consistently urged my father-in-law to diversify into other areas like Air-conditioning or heat coil work, but he told me that would only create ill-will between his business and the businesses already doing that type of work (who sometimes sent him a customer or two.) But that's the type of honorable business he ran, which is why the business was so reputed and respected, but also why it was so hard to see the writing on the wall.

Having researched the prosperous shops nationwide that were still doing well, I even entertained the idea of going into business with him, hiring some people, and making the business expand in size and scope. He always told me know, telling me it was a "dying business." I guess he was trying to protect me, and I can see his point, but my motive was the same as his many, many years ago when he went to work with HIS father. I couldn't see letting such a long-standing, reputable business with a equally reputable name just count the days to its ultimate end. But after several years of being told "no," I eventually gave up the idea.

And so, he continued opening the little two-bay shop on the city's west side each morning at 7:30, worked straight through lunch until closing time at 5:00 each afternoon, 5 days a week. Some days he would have a little work, sometimes nothing at all. But you could always drive by and get a friendly wave from him, whether he was standing over his vat, squatting out front puffing on a cigarette, or sitting behind his counter with a picture of his father over his head, watching traffic go by.

In the end, I think he finally decided that he would not be letting his father down in any way by closing the shop, but rather, he realized that his father would have done the same thing in the same circumstances. There's a difference between "Open for Business," and "Open for Nostalgia." It was time to close the doors on a way of life. And so it was on January 2nd, 2008, the "Best Place in town to take a Leak" was no longer New Braunfels Radiator Works.

1 comment:

Dmac said...

I do understand the economic side of change and the necessity closing a shop such as your FIL's , but I do miss the feel of personal, "Mom & Pop" places that are becoming more scarce around here. Do we want to become a disposable community complete with choices that exist everywhere? Anywhere USA has become more of a reality in NB with each new mega-drug store and chain restaurant that opens. Currently I am cringing at the sale of the Chicago Tribune and it's interest in selling Wrigley Field to the highest bidder for naming rights. I can see returning to Chicago with my kids to attend a game at ole' Fed Ex Walgreen Field to catch the Cubbies. Nostalgia does ensure home feels like no other place on this large planet.