By Alison Rooney
Is there someone in one of our local stores or businesses who always makes you feel welcome, or well taken care of? In Philipstown, we often interact multiple times daily with people we don’t know much about, but whose company we enjoy, even though briefly. This is the second of a series of stories about that interesting person, Behind the Counter. The first featured Michelle Risko of Yannitelli’s (look for it in the People/Passages section). The first few will be chosen by the People/Passages editor. After that, we hand it over to you; please email your suggestions to email@example.com, and we’ll turn the spotlight on your choices.
“Let Me Have a Look at It”
How is it possible that a visit to an auto repair shop can be reassuring? That two-word combination, auto…repair, generally produces feelings on the same end of the spectrum as dentist…drill or taxes…due. Yet for many Philipstowners, that state of anxiety induced upon hearing those telltale rattles and rolls in your vehicle is allayed when you pull into Nelsonville’s Thrift King and encounter the calm demeanor of owner Harold Garrabrant. Harold probably utters the same phrase at least 15 times a day in response to hyperventilating car owners worried about their safety and their wallets: “Let me have a look at it.”
Harold has been the owner of the three-bay facility for 24 years now. He has seen the auto manufacturing and repair business change radically during that time. For one thing, “there are over 1,200 makes and models now. It’s not like a doctor who has just two.” And then there’s the new technology. Asked if it was more of a diagnostic help or a hindrance, Harold replied “it’s bittersweet. At first it was a hindrance. The European manufacturers wouldn’t release their information. The electronic stuff is the hardest. It can still be hard, but the computers are better now. We get online updates ever day. And we do a lot of classes. I go at night for sometimes two and a half, three hours, always learning something new.”
Still, figuring things out is a challenge Harold enjoys. Fixing cars is in his blood. His dad was a mechanic, and unlike his two brothers, who didn’t have much interest in following in their father’s footsteps, Harold went to BOCES, and then worked at a gas station for two years, where he got the real hands-on experience needed to do the job well. He then served in the infantry in Vietnam, where he spent quite a while “at a Michelin rubber plantation – never wanted to see a Michelin tire again!” Back home again, Harold worked at General Motors for seven years, where he came to know anything and everything about Chevrolets. Maybe too much in fact — “Just one car can get boring. All [a customer] had to do was mention what wasn’t working and we knew the answer.”
In 1977, Harold took the leap into ownership, and bought the gas station near Garrison School. He worked there from ’77 to ’86 and it was there that he came to know many of the customers who are still with him today. In ’86 an opportunity came up, when the Nelsonville business became available. “I said to myself, I had to do something. I took a chance, but I knew the customers.” Asked how he came up with the unusual name “Thrift King” he said “Oh I knew that would come up. People wonder about it. When I bought it [the first one, near Garrison School] it was part of a chain then in operation. There was an existing establishment by that name in Baldwin Place, and they were running huge ads in the Pennysaver so people knew the name. I hate the name, but after 33 years, I’m not changing it!”
Here it is, decades later, and Harold is now getting multiple generations of customers. “I’ve had parents, kids, grandkids. Just recently I had the parents bringing their college kids’ cars in. It’s seasonal. Fall and spring tune ups, then snow tires.” According to Harold “most people are pretty good with their maintenance. When they bring it here, we always check everything.” In general Thrift King services 10 to 15 vehicles each day, although “you could do 20 oil changes or have one major issue in a car you can’t solve. We try to do them one at a time.”
Harold claims “it’s the parts which are “the hardest part of the business now. Years ago you could stock everything, but now that’s impossible with all the makes and models. There’s nothing local, so now I have to look to Beacon, Wappingers, Mt. Kisco. It can take 4 or 5 calls just for one part.”
Some people drop their cars off and go off to work, but others will wait, and sometimes stroll down in the hill along Main Street, have a meal and come back to collect the car. Thrift King does a lot of recommended service checks, which otherwise might be done at dealerships. Harold notes “not many are close. There is a law passed, where manufacturers have to honor the warranty as long as you have receipts showing you’ve serviced the vehicle. It’s all computerized.” Thrift King sometimes helps out with Town trucks if they get backed up, and has had a fire truck or two come in from time to time. Thrift King is a New York State-certified inspection facility.
(Note: at this point in the after-hours interview, a woman came into Harold’s back office area, expressing happiness that he was still open, handing him her car keys, saying “it stalls when you go slow. What do you think it’s about?” Harold gave his standard answer, like clockwork: “I’ll have to have a look at it.”)
Harold has three employees, Doug, who has been there 15 years; Frank, 7 or 8, and T.J., who came to Thrift King more recently, but with lots of experience. Harold is still putting in 10-hour days himself though, as Thrift King is busy most of the time. The reasons for this may be explained by Harold’s philosophy about his business. “Know your customers. Know how much they want to spend and work with them. Ask them questions: ‘how much do they drive?’ I look at that — the use of the vehicle. ‘How long are you going to keep the car?’ If it’s not long, I tell them not to buy an eight-year battery; buy a less expensive one.” When speaking of Harold and Thrift King with many people around Philipstown, there is a constant refrain: “… never feel cheated … feel the car is in good hands …Harold’s a good guy … I trust them…”
Does Harold worry if a customer finally gives up on a car that they’ve been sinking a lot of money into with multiple visits to Thrift King, and that customer goes and finally buys a new vehicle? “Nope. There’s always maintenance, and cars get old quick.” (Don’t we all know it!)
Thrift King is located at 7 Peekskill Road in Nelsonville, and is open from Monday to Friday, closed weekends. The phone number is 265-9448.