Tom Bove has been getting calls lately from his customers, many of them longtime patrons, who are saddened and surprised to hear that after 30 years, he will be retiring and closing his auto body shop on Middle Country Road in Calverton by April.
It was a surprise to Mr. Bove, too. The property, part of which he had leased for his shop, was sold to a new owner. He learned about plans to convert the shop, which is paired with a gas station near the intersection of routes 25 and 25A, into a Dunkin’ Donuts after reading it in the Riverhead News-Review. He later received a lease release request.
Mr. Bove, 70, considered resisting the move and said his attempt to relocate to a different shop down the road fell through. So he decided the time had come to shut down Tom’s County Auto.
“So now I’m going to retire,” he said, sitting in his shop’s small lobby Friday morning, wearing a mechanic’s jumpsuit complete with a nametag. His hands were dirty from work. “This was 30 years in the making. And I’ve got a lot of great customers.”
Five thousand customers will have to find a new spot for inspections and repairs, he said. And his two full-time employees will have to find new jobs.
Mr. Bove said he always knew he was going to work on cars. His father, Anthony, was a mechanic and owned a gas station and shop on Cross Bay Boulevard in Broad Channel, Queens, next to a clam bar just off the Rockaway Bridge. They lived for several years above the shop.
He planned to go into business with his father and brother, Daniel, after graduating from high school.
“But then the draft papers came,” Mr. Bove said.
He served in Vietnam from 1967 to 1968 during the Tet Offensive.
Two months after he returned, the family opened a service station in Brentwood and stayed there for 20 years until their contract expired. His father retired and his brother went on to work as a commercial pilot.
And Mr. Bove relocated his shop to Calverton.
“I’ve had people, as a matter of fact just yesterday, who went to my Brentwood station,” Mr. Bove said. “I pulled people from Brentwood to come out here. Not that I tried, but they found out where I was and they just came.”
His customers made it nice to come to work every day, he said, between the people who “once in a blue moon” would expect their inspections to be passed even if their cars didn’t comply.
He also gained customers just by knowing his stuff.
Mr. Bove recalled a time, before cars more than 25 years old needed emissions inspections, when he stopped by a car show in front of a shop where the Walmart in Middle Island now stands.
He spotted a cool 1950 Mercury with an inspection rejection ticket on it. But he heard the car run and it sounded good to him. He asked the owner why it failed and found it didn’t pass a fuel emissions test. Nobody could fix it, the man told him.
“I gave him my card,” Mr. Bove said. The man came by the shop and, a few adjustments later, the car made the grade — and performed better, he said.
“Next thing you know, all his friends come in here,” Mr. Bove said, describing the vintage and kit cars that made their way to his shop. It prompted him to snap Polaroid photos of the dozens and dozens of interesting cars he worked on — including 1934 Fords and 1960 Corvettes. He now keeps those photos in a binder, like one would keep baseball cards.
Other longtime customers live locally, and have brought their children’s and even their grandchildren’s cars to Mr. Bove.
Robin Guzzello has lived in Calverton about as long as Mr. Bove’s shop has been there and has taken different cars and family members’ cars to him.
“I’m very sad he’s leaving,” she said. “I don’t know where I’m going.”
Ms. Guzzello mentioned that any time she “strayed” to other mechanics over the years, she always ended up back at Tom’s for additional adjustments.
“You go in there and they know you,” she said. “He’s always been reliable for me.”
Mr. Bove wants to direct his loyal customers to new shops for inspections in his absence. He’s telling people around Riverhead to go to Dynamic Radiator in Calverton, and recommends that those farther west to go to Sultan Auto Repair in Ridge.
“I just want my customers to know this is not something I would have done if I had been given a choice,” Mr. Bove said.