It's all a little bitter-sweet for us. We will miss NAPA when it is gone, and we will miss its direct connection to our parents. And I suppose we will miss getting our parts 'at cost.' Our parents never made a lot of money at NAPA, but our father's dream was to 'run his own shop,' and it paid the bills."

-- Nicholas G. Xenos

As times change, fewer 'gear heads,' more corporate stores spell end to parts place

NAPA Auto Parts, 100 Summer St., Sept. 6, 2018. / Bob Sprague photoIn business since 1976 at three Arlington locations. / Bob Sprague photo 

You're backed up in eastbound traffic at the light at Summer and Mill, and you see the large, nondescript NAPA building with signs saying it's closing after 42 years.

What's the deal? More than you might think. Behind the immediate news lies the history of a family.

First, the business news: Napa Auto Parts, at 108 Summer St. since 1992, is having a closing sale.

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"Everything has to go and will be sold at fairly huge discounts," Nicholas G. Xenos told YourArlington. The 1975 Arlington High graduate is a retired lawyer whose office used to be on the building's second floor. "We are aiming for the stock to be gone by mid- to late-October, after which we will need to remove the fixtures and 40-plus years of records and old furniture."

Right now those involved shoot to close the doors during the week of Oct. 15.

Store hours are Monday through Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Saturdays, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

While considering renting the NAPA space, the owners have received some unsolicited offers to buy the property, and one is expected to go through in the coming months.

What's behind closing?

Why is the business closing? Long operated by the Xenos family, Nick says: "Our brother Chuck has been working there for 40-plus years, and wants to try something different. Two nephews also work there but are not inclined to continue."

Further, the business model has changed in recent decades, Nick says, "and not for the better. Mass. Ave. was once lined with gas stations, most of which had repair bays, most of which are now gone; and that type of business is gone as well."

He recalls an earlier time, in the 1970s:

"When I was a kid, many of us worked on cars, souping them up, racing them at New England Dragway in Epping, N.H., on "Grudge Nights" -- when anyone could take their car out onto the quarter-mile drag strip.

"Not much of that business is around any more. Not too many young people, 'gear heads,' in hot rods, buying auto parts."

Once served many local dealers

While automotive dealerships had their own parts departments, Nick explained, "overnight delivery" was expensive and rare back then. So when Arlington Pontiac, Arlington Ford, Hogdon-Noyes Buick or Milla's American Motors and then Milla's Subaru didn't have what they needed, they called NAPA on Summer Street, or one of the other three or four parts places that were then still in town.

"Mirak is now the only dealership remaining," he wrote.

"The phone company fleet of trucks on Broadway was a good customer. Long gone.

Technology changes

"Cars now go 100,000 miles on a set of spark plugs -- barely 10,000 miles back then. "Cap, rotor and points" tune-up? No such thing any more.

"So the business model has changed, and like with many other business, huge 'corporate stores' are now the thing. Even NAPA has very few small privately owned stores remaining -- and those are mostly in rural areas."

Family, business history mix

Nick provided background expressing hopes and challenges -- details encompassed by structures and embraced by family members. The following is his story:

The owners are Charles J. Xenos, who has been operating the business since their father's 2008 death; Peter M. Xenos; Mary E. Marrocco; Thomas D. Xenos and Nicholas. He lives in Maine, and the others reside in Arlington.

All are equal co-owners since their mother's 2014 death. Their parents, Daniel Xenos, originally of Hudson, Mass., and Katherine Perivolaris Xenos, originally of Somerville, opened the business at 663 Mass. Ave. (the Associates Block) on July 5, 1976 -- the day after the national bicentennial.

The business moved to 100 Summer St. -- the space that Scutra currently occupies -- in 1984. It then moved a couple of hundred feet to its present location, at 108 Summer St., in 1992 upon their parents' purchase of that property.

"We were originally going to move it into a house that was at 104 Summer St. -- now the NAPA parking lot. We got a special permit for that space in 1991 and had had the engineering plans drawn up and ready to modify the building for retail use, but the then-owners of 108 Summer offered that property for sale at a fair price. So we got another special permit for 108 and had the house demolished for parking," he wrote.

Dates to 1961

The NAPA building was built around 1961 by a local company originally called Associated Waterproofing, he wrote. One of the two owners was from Arlington.

They eventually renamed themselves "UMACO," an acronym for Universal Masonry Co. They were called UMACO in 1992, when they sold the property to the Xenos family. At the time of that 1992 sale, they had a retail store in the building selling paints and painting supplies.

Their manufacturing had been moved to Woburn years earlier. Offices were rented out on the second floor, as they are today.

Oddly enough, the owners of UMACO had been involved with a similar business that had been in the Arlington Liquors building, called SilPro Masonry Systems Inc. from 1951 until the building was rented to the White Hen Pantry convenience store chain in 1973.

The UMACO folks built their own building 100 feet away and started a competing business. SilPro left Arlington just prior to 1973 because they were being serviced by the railroad, but the service was declining. They continued to conduct business in Avon, Mass., until their corporate dissolution in 2016.

Called 'bitter-sweet'

"It's all a little bitter-sweet for us. We will miss NAPA when it is gone, and we will miss its direct connection to our parents. And I suppose we will miss getting our parts 'at cost.'

"Our parents never made a lot of money at NAPA, but our father's dream was to 'run his own shop,' and it paid the bills."

"They moved to Arlington at the time of their 1949 marriage. Our maternal grandfather didn't want Mum getting married until she finished college. She graduated from BU in 1948. Dad never finished college, as he spent three years in the U.S. Navy, being discharged in 1946. He did some classes at BU under the GI Bill, but never graduated.

"After their marriage, he worked many years for Gates Rubber Co. -- the company that still makes fan belts and hoses for cars and trucks.

What Dad did

"Does anyone remember the thin black boards ringing the walls of gas station repair bays very high up -- with the belts and hoses hanging off of hooks? Our father went around New England nailing those boards up onto the repair bay walls and servicing those garage customers as a salesman.

"18-wheelers used to deliver boxes and boxes of those boards to our home -- first, at a two-family on Parker Street in East Arlington, then on Venner Road until the Route 2 widening in the 1960s caused our house to be taken by the state and knocked down, and finally to our longtime Kensington Park home.

"When the Kensington Park garage was cleaned out in 2015, just before we sold the place, there were all sorts of Gates boards, rust-stained cloth bags of nails, and boxes of hooks and hangers still in there from way-back-when. But that Gates sales job meant that Dad was often away from home for a week or two at a time as he "made the rounds." As the five kids got a little older and a little rambunctious, our mother wanted him at home.

With 5 children, he quit

"So, in 1968, at age 42, with five kids under age 15, Dad quit his job and opened an independent auto parts store in Brighton with a partner. Barely a year later, General Auto Parts in Brighton had failed, and while they worried about losing the house, it never got that bad.

"After a brief return to Gates, he got a job managing an auto parts store in Newton for a gentleman who owned five or six stores and a small-parts warehouse.

"I worked for him in that store for a few months after graduating AHS in 1975. Dad worked in the Newton store until he was comfortable enough with what he was learning to try it again, but this time on his own. So, in 1976, at age 50 with, the oldest son about to get married and leave the house, but still with four of us at home -- he quit his job again and gave it another shot. (I think that that generation was more willing to take a risk -- I all but break out in hives just buying a car, never mind opening a business, and I have zero kids living at home ...)

"During the financially difficult time of the 1968/1969 business failure, and with all five kids then in school, Mum went back to school herself to get her teaching certificate. She worked for many years as a substitute teacher in the Arlington and Somerville public school systems. I had her as a substitute French teacher for a week once. I forget if it was at Arlington High or at Junior High East, but it was a little embarrassing for a teenager. She also taught English as a Second Language for many years in Somerville. When we cleaned out the house, we found quite a few "Thank You" cards and notes from former students whom she had helped to learn English.

1976 was exciting

"It was an exciting time for us in 1976 as the store was made ready to open. We all pitched in one way or another, at one time or another, painting the place and cleaning it up, laying out the shelving and the new stock. My mother did all the paperwork, but it was always Dad's baby. He was a guy who truly loved going to work every day, and he would do whatever it took to take care of a customer in trouble; in the off-hours or on Sundays before it was legal to open--we would get calls at home, and Dad would do what he could.

"Many an early Saturday evening I remember being down there with him behind the counter, a half hour or an hour after closing time, with a line of people still waiting -- 'all jammed up,' as we called it, and my mother calling the store every 10 or 15 minutes to say they were all going to eat dinner without us if we didn't hurry up and get home.

"So the business will be closed. Our preferred buyer is one that we hope and expect to be an asset to the town, and one that, in some small way, would make our parents proud. I had my law office up on the second floor for 16 or so years until my recent retirement, and there are two other tenants remaining now -- one of which recently expanded into my former space. One tenant has been with us almost 25 years; the other close to 10. We have been fussy about making sure that they will be treated fairly, and while one can never be sure, we are hopeful that all will be well with them." 

This business-news feature was published Monday, Sept. 10, 2018.