It’s important where we live and why. At the Crozet Gazette, we listen when you talk about the people, places and institutions that are a meaningful part of Crozet’s way of life. This article is 14th in a series.
Last March, just before the pandemic began, Richard McGlothlin celebrated 40 years with his Crozet business by hosting an open house, serving a sheet cake frosted in white and trimmed with icing in the sunny shade of orange that’s a distinctive part of the Fisher Auto Parts brand. As employees of an essential business, he and his staff adapted quickly to the pandemic’s new reality, keeping an eye on numbers of customers inside the store and imposing another layer of cleanliness on the already tidy shelves of inventory.
As year 41 approaches, McGlothlin spent a few minutes reflecting on his choice of a long-time career. In the end, he said, it all comes down to his love for Crozet. “This is home,” he said. He’s a community leader, a lifetime member of the Crozet Fire Department, and he served as president there as well as president of the Peachtree Baseball and Softball Leagues. He worked in the Charlottesville store for a year, but didn’t like the traffic, nor being that far from home.
An enterprising teenager, McGlothlin attended Western Albemarle High School and was working part time in the meat department of the IGA (now Crozet Market) when he heard there was an opening a few doors down at the auto parts store, which was then Coiner Auto Parts. At 15, he was yet to get his driver’s license, but he was already more interested in gears than in groceries. He remembers the days when almost everyone with access to an automobile knew a thing or two about tinkering with it.
“It’s harder now,” he said. It’s not only that people are busier than ever, but cars have become more mysterious. “There’s a lot of things that you can’t possibly diagnose on your own.” Electronic sensors, computerized diagnostics, specialized tools and the sheer number of systems crammed under the hood make it a lot harder to be your own mechanic, he said, although local orchard crews with a lot of vehicles often do their own maintenance and repair, and there are a few old-school car owners who still do some skilled tinkering.
One of them is Fred Williamson. “In doing my own mechanic work, I’ve often turned to the parts store guy for advice, and I immediately found Richard very knowledgeable about all manner of make and model vehicles,” Williamson said in an e-mail.
Williamson noted the monumental changes and challenges to small businesses over the years. “He’s had to keep up his employee base to provide good customer service, he’s had to weather the crash of 2008 and everything since, he’s had to deal with a changing customer base and the local mechanic facilities that use his services, the changing credit card systems, on and on. He does it all with equanimity and no complaints.” Williamson showed his gratitude for years of good service by making and fitting the molding around the sharp edges of some counters that were installed a few years back.
His respect for McGlothlin increased when, during a chance visit to the store, he noticed a bold new look. “I came in to find him with a shaved head,” Williamson said. McGlothlin had done it to honor his brother, who’d lost his hair from chemo.
The biggest group of private customers are more likely to buy after-market parts, like wipers, door handles, fuses and light bulbs, McGlothlin said. Sometimes he or his staff are called upon to take a look at an ailing vehicle in the parking lot of the store, but he said he tries to maintain a balance there. He’s glad to advise them on replacing a fuse or a wiper blade, but, “If it’s a job for a local garage, we send them there.” Local garages are his biggest customers, and he takes a lot of pride in being able to get parts to them in a hurry. What he doesn’t stock, he can get in a flash from Fisher’s huge warehouse in Staunton, where the chain started.
Over the years, he’s become a repository of trivia that might not make sense to anyone else. His wife Deanna said she used to think he was showing off when he would refer to parts by their catalogue numbers, but she soon realized he’d memorized a huge chunk of the Fisher’s inventory by number.
There are many light-hearted moments in the store, McGlothlin said. One of the funniest he remembers is when a customer came in looking for a #710 cap. “I’d never heard of it,” he said. Everyone searched inventory and the catalogues and found no such cap, but the customer insisted. Finally, he figured out that the customer was reading the cap (it said “oil”) upside down.
He’s learned a little Spanish to communicate with his Spanish-speaking customers, but he said it tends to take a little time for him to fill their orders. “We’ll point and talk, and point and talk, and finally get it right.” He misses Jerry Finazzo, now deceased, who was part owner of Sal’s Pizza, spoke both Italian and Spanish, and stepped into the role of translator when McGlothlin’s rudimentary command of the language did not suffice. Now, he said, he does have a couple of bi-lingual volunteers on speed dial. When you’re dealing with technical terms, he’s found, a translation app doesn’t work so well.
McGlothlin said that he and his long-time staff members don’t mind providing the extra service, not only the translation, but occasional deliveries to elderly clients, parking lot pick up and, in general, whatever it takes to make customers happy. There’s another informal role he fills: “Because I’ve been here so long, people call here to see what’s going on in the shopping center,” he said, “and it’s common for people to stop in looking for local news or just to say hello.”