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Northampton’s Ernie Booth retires from car repair business after 53-year run

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  • Ernie's Garage former owner Ernie Booth, who retired on Jan. 1, pays a visit to the Northampton business on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Ernie's Garage new co-owner Michael Woodard, left, chats with former owner Ernie Booth, right, during his visit to the Northampton business on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Ernie’s Garage new owners Brian DeJordy, left, and Mike Woodard, center, pose with former owner Ernie Booth at the Northampton business on Tuesday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Ernie's Garage former owner Ernie Booth, who retired on Jan. 1, pays a visit to the Northampton business on Tuesday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

For the Gazette
Published: 2/13/2020 11:17:55 PM
Modified: 2/13/2020 11:17:44 PM

NORTHAMPTON — After 53 years of repairing cars on King Street in Northampton, Ernie Booth of Ernie’s Garage retired in January.  

“It was time,” Booth said from his living room recliner last week. “I threw enough wrenches and did enough cursing.”

For Booth, soon to be 82, fixing cars is all he’s ever known. Now, a few weeks into retirement, he is grappling with newfound time, and the garage he made famous among local car owners is adjusting to life without Ernie behind the wheel.

“Once in a while, there’s a question to be answered, so I have to deal with that,” Ernie said. “But they haven’t called that much.”

That’s because Ernie’s Garage, though missing its namesake, is still run by the same mechanics who have worked there for the last few decades.

“We’ve had the same three mechanics for 25 years,” Michael Woodard explained from behind the garage’s counter, once adorned with Texaco memorabilia: toy cars, trucks and planes.

Now, the lobby is decorated with NASCAR toys. The Texaco toys are in a box in Booth’s cellar. Woodard, one of the three mechanics, took over Ernie’s Garage at the beginning of the year with the help of a business partner, Brian DeJordy. Booth knew leaving it in the hands of his mechanics — Woodard, Brian Cox and Wayne Blanchett — was for the best.

Blanchett began working at Ernie’s Garage straight out of high school in 1973. Woodard joined the crew in 1996, and Cox followed the year after.

“I always tried to be fair with people,” Booth said of his business model.

That customer base helped build the garage’s good reputation.

“Ernie has helped me save lots of money by helping me avoid unnecessary repairs,” Barton Byg, a longtime customer, wrote to the Gazette in an email.

Byg has been a decades-long customer of the garage and plans to continue bringing any automobile issues to King Street. “He represented a downtown Northampton business I relied on for so long,” he said. 

“All garages are busy … But it makes a difference if you have a good name, and my customers would come to me,” Booth said. “They knew I wasn’t gonna cheat ’em.”

Ernie’s Garage, which started as a full-service station in 1967, has always run “the old-fashioned way.” Booth would give free estimates to anyone who asked, and if his first fix didn’t solve the problem, he wouldn’t charge customers for the second repair. Until 2015, Ernie’s Garage was one of the last remaining full-service gas stations, where customers didn’t have to lift a finger to have their gas pumped. Cottage Street Motors in Easthampton stopped pumping gas a few months before Ernie’s Garage, and now the only full-service stations that remain in the area are Ren’s Mobil in Amherst and the Citgo on Main Street in Florence.

“They were all full-service stations when I started. There were no convenience stores 50 years ago,” Booth recalled.

Now 81, Ernie is calloused and raspy, hunched over his table filing taxes instead of underneath the belly of a car. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, customers would come in for the gas, and “if they liked your service, they’d continue on and have an oil change or have a car repair,” he said. That’s how full-service stations like Ernie’s Garage built up a clientele. 

“But when you’re 80 years old, 81 years old, you’re old,” Booth said.

Last year, Booth didn’t work Sundays for the first time in his career. Though tax season paperwork has kept him busy for the last few weeks, Booth plans on spending more time outside when the weather is nice and sitting around a lot more.

“I haven’t sat around too much … And now I have ‘Gunsmoke’ in the afternoons,” Booth said with a grin, referring to one of his favorite Westerns. Now he spends the days at home with his wife, Carol.

“As men get older, they get grumpy, and working on cars sometimes is frustrating,” Booth said with a laugh. So, over the last few years, Booth worked less on the cars and more on the paperwork to keep the garage running. That’s how he knew it was time to leave the garage to his loyal mechanics.

“To be honest with you, I don’t even think about the garage,” Booth said as he looked at the black and white cat purring in his lap. “The funny part about it … I give it very little thought and I definitely don’t miss it. And I definitely wouldn’t care to go back.”

“They say if you don’t think about it, then it’s time to be out of there,” Booth said.

For the business he built, it’s the start of a new era.

“Because I could see both sides of the fence, I think I had a pretty good base of customers,” he said. “So long as they don’t ruin that base, they’ll do all right.”

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