From lawn mowers to snowplows, small-engine repair shops weather the seasons

  • Gabe Moon sharpens a lawn mower blade. GAZETTE STAFF/VIVIAN MYRON

  • Gabe Moon of Williamsburg takes notes on a lawnmower's repair in Florence on Wednesday June 27, 2018. GAZETTE STAFF/VIVIAN MYRON

  • Gabe Moon of Williamsburg lets air out of a lawnmower tire in Florence, MA on Wednesday June 27, 2018. GAZETTE STAFF/VIVIAN MYRON

  • Gabe Moon of Williamsburg reattaches a blade to a lawnmower at Advanced Small Engine Sales & Service LLC in Florence on Wednesday June 27, 2018. GAZETTE STAFF/VIVIAN MYRON

  • Gabe Moon of Williamsburg makes repairs to a lawnmower at Advanced Small Engine Sales & Service LLC in Florence on Wednesday June 27, 2018. GAZETTE STAFF/VIVIAN MYRON

  • Gabe Moon of Williamsburg reaches for a tool while making repairs to a lawn mower at Advanced Small Engine Sales & Service LLC in Florence. GAZETTE STAFF/VIVIAN MYRON

  • Keith Wintle, owner of Jonathon's Yard and Garden Repair, works to tune up a STIHL string trimmer June 26, 2018 at the West Hatfield business. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Keith Wintle, owner of Jonathon’s Yard and Garden Repair, replaces the zone cable on a Craftsman lawn mower at the West Hatfield business. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Keith Wintle, owner of Jonathon's Yard and Garden Repair, replaces the zone cable on a Craftsman lawn mower June 26, 2018 at the West Hatfield business. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Keith Wintle, owner of Jonathon’s Yard and Garden Repair, works to tune up a STIHL string trimmer at the West Hatfield business. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • The exterior of Jonathon's Yard and Garden Repair is shown June 26, 2018 in West Hatfield. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

@mjtidwell781
Published: 7/1/2018 8:53:27 PM

HATFIELD — There are only a handful of businesses in the Valley equipped for the intricacies of small engine repair. Buffeted by ever-changing weather, these shops stubbornly stick around season after season to get into the grease with weed wackers and lawn mowers, snowblowers and small garden tractors, greeting repeat customers and tried-to-fix-it-themselves alike.

Keith Wintle is the sole proprietor of Jonathon’s Yard and Garden Equipment Repair in Hatfield.

“We are 100 percent reliant on Mother Nature,” Wintle said. “The weather just raises hell.”

He said that once the weather starts to break, demand picks up in a big way. This spring, he said wait times for customers increased to two weeks in just three days after rainy weather caused lawns to pop up with new growth. His business sees an uptick in September as people want to get their snowblowers ready for winter.

Wintle said the decision to go into small engine repair goes back to elementary school when he took a career test at school and his teachers told his parents he’d better find something to do with his hands. So, he went to Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School, but didn’t want to get grease in his long hair while working on regular sized engines found inside cars and the like.

Repairs for small engines are much different from working on regular sized engines, he said.

“They’re completely different,” Wintle said. “Each machine has its own idiosyncrasies.”

In his shop on a sunny Tuesday afternoon, Wintle worked at a low table surrounded by machines awaiting fixing, shelves lined with tools and chain saws in neat rows on the floor with sharp-edged tines displayed. A riding lawn mower was held up on its haunches behind Wintle as he disassembled small bits of a weed wacker, adjusting and fixing them on a blue napkin.

Wintle said he gets a steady flow of new customers — around 100 or so each year — and also has repeat customers who return either at the same time each year or reliably for repairs as they come up.

“That needs to be cleaned, taken apart. Probably a carburetor problem,” Wintle told a customer who came in with a malfunctioning power washer. “I can do that.”

He said he named the shop for his eldest son, but neither of his two sons have expressed an interest in taking on the family business. He’s been running Jonathon’s since 1973 when he started in his own two-car garage at his house, and has been open at the Hatfield location for around five years now. Now “60-plus,” he’s hoping to ease into retirement where he plans on doing select repairs for friends and long-time customers from his house once again.

Right now, he wakes at 5:15 each morning. He orders parts — trying to put in bulk orders for several different customers to keep shipping costs down — works on his repairs and talks with customers. Around 5:30 each evening, he loads up his truck and drives around the Valley doing pickups and drop offs, then ends his work day around 7:30 or 8 p.m.

“If the snow doesn’t come in winter or the rain doesn’t come in summer, business dies,” Wintle said. “And you need snow before Thanksgiving to be sure you’re going to make it through the year.”

He doesn’t sell goods at his shop because he doesn’t want to absorb the costs of inventory sitting around. His highest expense each month is rent and purchasing parts, which can be an $8,000 to $10,000 expense each spring when he orders in bulk. He’s a sole proprietor to minimize payroll expenses and needs three and a half billable hours per day at $69.95 an hour to make ends meet.

He said he hasn’t paid for advertising in five years. He can’t even set up a reliable budget, because he has no idea what the weather will bring this week, or next or the season after that.

Florence shop

Over in Florence, Andrew Mortimer and his wife, Amanda, operate Advanced Small Engine Sales and Service LLC. Mortimer said his wife used to restore tractors as a hobby and he grew up on a farm fixing whatever broke, so their foray into small engine repair came from “lots and lots of practice.”

“That’s what a farmer does,” Mortimer said. “Something breaks, you get in there and try and fix it.”

While Wintle’s shop only offers repairs, the Mortimers also sell machines at 187 Locust St. They employee four full-time workers at the store, which they opened in 2014 at the site of the old Green Valley Small Engine Repair Shop.

Mortimer said he’s noticed there are some people who like to buy a high-quality piece of equipment and get it tuned and repaired regularly, while others would rather purchase an inexpensive machine and replace it with a new one when it breaks down.

“But I think people are starting to get sick of throwing equipment away every two or three years and come to us instead,” Mortimer said.

He said the shop has seen more and more customers each year and also has a steady stream of regular customers who come in for checkups on their equipment. Business is very cyclic and highly dependent on the weather, Mortimer said. They do drop-offs and pickups twice a week.

“Last month when the weather turned warm, we got buried, absolutely buried,” Mortimer said. “You just try to play your cards close to your chest.”

A few other places also offer small engine repair locally, such as C&A Repair and Equipment in Whately and Boyden & Perron Inc. lawn care service in Amherst. Wintle said some landscaping companies do their own repairs in house because they are operating on a tight schedule and can’t afford wait times during high demand seasons. Homeowners with mechanical knowledge call Wintle to walk through fixing their machines themselves. Some are successful, he said, others, are not.

Both Wintle and Mortimer said they rely mainly on word of mouth or people in need of a fix searching on Google or driving past. The biggest issue they see, each said, is ethanol in gasoline that breaks down and causes problems with small engines. Mortimer said he sells a lot of fuel stabilizer to address the problems with ethanol in gasoline.

“Ethanol is raising hell with everything,” Wintle said.

To stay up to date, small engine repairers can take online training courses or training with the brands they work with, like Briggs and Stratton, Kawasaki and Honda.

There’s also a series of small engine repair classes that has been taught at Smith Voc High School by David Travers, the school’s mechanics shop teacher, for more than 25 years. This year’s series comes Sept. 24 through Nov. 5 and boasts training in the “differences between L-Head, OHV and OHC style engines as well as vertical and horizontal configurations” and how “four-stroke and two-stroke theory is the heart of what makes a small engine tick.”

For those without mechanical skill, however, it’s a good thing there are small engine repair shops like Wintle’s and Mortimer’s sticking it out rain, snow or shine.

M.J. Tidwell can be reached at mjtidwell@gazettenet.com.


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