An ode to the humble parts-store worker

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This is an ode to the humble parts-store worker. Underneath those familiar orange, green, or red marquees sit some of the automotive industry’s hardest-working players. There are a few ways to spot the true professionals, though, and that knowledge comes as you get to know the folks behind the counter.

A professional friendship with your local parts counter staff is a true privilege. You’re probably already remembering your go-to shop, the sound of that beeeenboong door chime. You’ve driven to this store, out of all the others around, because you can trust that the staff will ask the right questions. Even better, they’ll know when to ask nothing at all, skipping much of the rigmarole required by less invested customers—the folks who buy new windshield wipers without knowing which model year their vehicle is.

When the usual “Welcome to So-and-So’s Parts Store, how can I help you?” is replaced up by a calm “What’s up, dude?” you know that you’ve broken that barrier. They remember your vehicle’s model year and driveline—”The ’69 C10, right? 350 cubic inches, two-wheel drive.” The workers may not know as much about the vehicle as you do, but they get to know it, just the same. There’s never any interrogation of unrelated features for parts that don’t need it, either; a savvy counter worker breezes through the usual script to find generic bits like light bulbs, as their own expertise grows across different makes and models. A parts worker is there to solve dozens of problems every day for anything that you can imagine, from Ferraris to Fords, but the good ones still ask about your projects like school parents ask each other about their kids. Many shop staff aren’t there by accident, either. They’re fellow gearheads making a living, and you know them when you see them—sometimes literally, thanks to an assortment of modified cars in the employees’ corner of the parking lot.

Some of the rarest and best parts store staffers are ever-patient as you trial-and-error parts numbers and applications, searching for that elusive upgraded fuel pump or that firmer strut from the performance package your vehicle didn’t have. Even more helpful are those who trust you to crawl behind the shelves to eyeball every coolant hose on the shelves to find one that fits your swapped motor or who, when the exact hose is just simply out of stock, help you rummage for a suitable clone. It was a parts store worker who taught me that serpentine belt part numbers give the dimensions of the belt itself; thanks to him, getting custom-sized belts for projects became a snap. There’s a certain respect that is born when you ask the right—or maybe it’s right kind of weird—questions.

Some staff will notice which vehicle you drive to the store, which can result in little moments of triumph. All too many times a project has spiraled downwards, and I show up at the store looking like a coal miner in despair. Then, a few days later, I’ll pull up with the problem-child vehicle laden with cores to return and fluids to recycle. When the very presence of the car (or truck) in the shop’s parking lot is testament to the know-how of sharp staffers, you’ve found a national treasure of a store.

Triumphant moments aside, manning a parts counter is a tough job. Few people buy parts for fun, and most walk through the door with some degree of stress or frustration. As with many customer service jobs, parts store workers must often struggle with difficult patrons while keeping several callers on the phone line. The hours can be long; many shifts start early in the morning, to allow the stocking of new inventory, and stretch deep into the evening, long after the nine-to-fivers arrive at their dinner tables. Sometimes counter workers have to break bad news to folks, explaining that the component that will get their car back on the road is beyond their budget. There’s much more to the job than following a script.

I’ve been on both sides of the counter. I still remember some customers that were a joy to work with, and I’ll always have my favorite parts stores, those staffed with guys and gals who go the extra mile. For every meme-worthy rookie, there are dozens of professionals in every corner of a parts house that are simply impossible to replace.

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