Village People: Jett, Jim, Josh, Mike, and Fabian of Village Auto Repair
Last week – in the middle of the mess of coronavirus-related closures and several days of seemingly nonstop rain – the inevitable happened: I got a flat tire.
The tire pressure light on my Prius had been on for a few days, so I did what any sensible busy person would do and swung by a gas station to fill the tire with air. Of course, an hour or so later, in the middle of a downpour, I found myself on the side of the road, replacing the once-again completely flat tire with a spare. This time, I did the smart thing, and drove my car over to the Village Auto Repair, which is almost invisibly tucked away in Montecito’s Upper Village, at the far end of a parking lot above Montecito Village Grocery.
Unless you’re already aware of its existence, the only hint that there is such a place as Village Auto Repair is a small wooden sign at the side of a driveway leading uphill from the grocery store’s parking lot. (In fact, I only knew about the shop because my wife had her car serviced there last year.) “It’s really hard to see us up here,” confirms Josh Gospodnetich, Village Auto Repair’s general manager, who has worked there for six years. “You have to know about us to get up here. There are people who come up here all the time saying, ‘I’ve lived here for thirty years, twenty-five years, whatever, and I never realized that you guys were here!’”
Along with Josh, about five mechanics work at Village Auto Repair, including Mike and Jim who have worked at the shop, which first opened in 1965, for 30 and 35 years each, respectively. So far, they say, the shop is taking the coronavirus scare in stride, but business is slow: usually the crew works nonstop all day, fixing about 70 vehicles per week. Now, Josh estimates the volume of work has dropped to at best a third of that volume, and most of the jobs are small.
“It’s been a big drop off,” Josh says. “It’s usually packed, but not now. And it’s all little things, people coming in and asking for washer fluid and then they take off. I get that, but part of the problem is people just don’t know we’re open.” To fight that, Josh has been sending out email blasts to local customers reminding them that they are open through the pandemic as a so-called “essential” business. “It’s great,” he says. “I’ve been getting a lot of responses saying, ‘Oh, I didn’t know you were open; I will bring my car right up!’” Of course there are also the folks who call the shop thinking it’s the hardware store; most of those callers inquired if the shop had any toilet paper available.
The only time anyone can remember Village Auto Repair closing was after the January 9, 2018 debris flow. For a few weeks before the disaster, during the Thomas Fire, Josh says, Village Auto Repair doubled as the Montecito Fire Department’s mechanic yard because the department’s chief mechanic had just retired. “Jim and I were out here helping them out for a few weeks,” he recalls. Fortunately the shop was spared any major damage during the debris flow because the creek which flows right next to the shop goes underground and the debris was thus diverted to either side of the shop. “We were lucky,” says Josh. “We couldn’t get back in for two months and had to be escorted in by the Fire Department.”
Compared to that disaster, Josh adds, the coronavirus crisis doesn’t seem nearly as bad. “It’s just another disaster to us at this point,” he says, laughing.
While my tire is being replaced, Mike shows me around the back of the shop. “We do everything from simple oil changes to major electrical diagnostics,” he says. “We stock all the filters for Priuses, Toyotas, all the recommended oils and coolants, plenty of wiper blades and all the filters we need for all manufacturers. Whatever they call for, we always use the proper types of oils and antifreezes. We keep on top of all of it so we are doing what we are supposed to be doing as far as manufacturer specs. It’s a pretty good, all around useful business up here. We even have sanitized pens so people can be comfortable when they come in they don’t have to grab a dirty pen.”
After my brief tour, while I’m waiting to pay up, another customer who is just leaving waves goodbye to everyone.
“See you, Mike,” the man says. “We’re shutting down, so I’m working remote, until I get the word to come back in.”
“Yeah, we’re essential,” Mike responds optimistically, “so we’re staying open.”
“You are essential,” the man agrees, smiling. “You’ve always been essential!”