In the Pits of the Recession at Martin Stein's Kenilworth 66 Garage

By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 28, 2009

Martin Stein immigrated from Prague at 16, he's run this auto repair shop on this grimy stretch of Kenilworth Avenue for 36 years, and along the way he's learned a few things about surviving hard times, up to and including the current recession.

One is to have an ace security system. Martin -- everybody calls him Martin -- has a three-part beauty.

Part 1 is Sasha the Rottweiler, who once went through the plate-glass window after a burglar. If you walk in to see about your muffler job here at Kenilworth 66, Sasha will probably be asleep on the couch. You are advised not to knock on the glass.

Part 2 is John the Homeless Guy (last name withheld at owner's request). John lives in the Dodge van on the back of the lot. He keeps an ax -- "a personal security device" -- tucked beneath the chassis. When sober, he runs off the men who sometimes come to steal things off the lot after dark. He regrettably was either not present or not sober The Night Those &#%s Stole the Coke Machine.

Part 3 is Dee Dee (ditto), who lives in the green Range Rover a few cars over from John on the days she's beefing with her mother-in-law and can't stay at her father's place. Dee Dee has her issues and watches a lot of television in the back seat of her truck, but she's an extra set of eyes on the 20 or 40 junkers lining the asphalt.

Martin lets them hang around so long as they don't start trouble, a little bit of humanity in a hard place, another thing you pick up along the way.

A lot of America looks like this, people making it on their own in little shops or stores or garages that dot the nation's highways and grease-spot suburbs and corner lots. The people who track such things say that 78 percent of all American businesses have nine or fewer workers, constituting about 18 percent of the total workforce. These owner-operators set their own hours and paychecks and they figure a way to pay the bills by dint of their own physical labor and they chew antacids and they don't wait for government bailouts because none are coming.

Martin is 56. He has been out here on the east side of the Anacostia, in a little burb called Edmonston, making life work out since 1973. He's wedged between other auto garages, third-rate discount stores, palm readers, beer halls, the go-kart place, Mexican restaurants and a bowling alley. Ninety percent of his business is repeat.

"I never wanted one-time customer," he says in the shop one recent afternoon, a Ford Escape XLS on the lift, his Czech-accented English the only noise in the place. "I give customer a good service, maybe they come back 150 times."

Or maybe not.

Business is down more than 30 percent compared to his annual average over the past 30-something years. One recent afternoon he was scrubbing the floors for want of something to do. It's the worst it's ever been, he says.

Somebody tells him that auto repair shops are supposed to be one of the bright spots of the recession -- some places actually report business is up, what with people keeping their aging cars instead of trading up. He figures that would be your higher-end shops, maybe, and he's right: Little businesses like his, whether in auto repair or selling fish bait, are taking it in the teeth.

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