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Little Shop of Tires

There's no parking lot, no garage, no coin-operated air hose, and no grinning Mr. Goodwrench

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"You want the $20 tire or the $35 tire?" yells Ralph over the roar of traffic. A customer hovering over a flimsy wooden counter reaches for his wallet, lifts his head, and inquires, "What's the difference?" Hector, who is tinkering with the rim changer and eavesdropping on the exchange, advises Ralph in Spanish before Ralph obliges the customer. "Fifteen dollar," he deadpans. "I'll go with the $20 tire," the customer responds.

Though it might make for a snappy moment on a bilingual TV sitcom, this is just another day at All Day Tire, a hole-in-the-wall repair shop scrunched at the foot of a three-story apartment building at Wolcott and Division.

Faded yellow paint flakes from the building and a second-floor bay window sags ominously over the shop's narrow entranceway. "Flats Fixed," announces the sign painted in blue over the door. "Open 7 days a week 8 AM-7 PM," says the door. That's what they do at this converted storefront: they fix flats. "You come here once," Hector says humbly, "you come again."

"Gracias, Hector," salutes a customer who pulls away from the corner

in a customized Ford Bronco. Hector, a stocky Puerto Rican man dressed in a dark blue jumpsuit with the sleeves rolled to the shoulders, waves back through the open door, scratches his bushy mustache, and retreats into the jungle of new and used tires, mateless hubcaps, and salvaged rims that makes up the back room.

Ralph, a bearded man who prefers his dingy pants cut off at the knees and doesn't seem to mind the "Jon" that's printed across his shirt, yanks a used Goodyear and lets it fall to the plywood floor, sending each loose sheet of plywood bouncing. He smacks his grease-coated palms against the tire's rubber tread and wheels it out the front door, narrowly missing an ice cream vendor's cart. He rolls the tire to the front end of a late model Oldsmobile parked on Wolcott, jacks the car high, and hoists the tire into place.

Two elderly men quietly survey Ralph's bolt-tightening technique while a middle-aged woman with a frosted hairdo and large sunglasses waits patiently beside her maroon minivan directly behind the Olds. A noisy silver Granada patched with loose rust coasts into a spot on the Division side of the shop and a scrawny 14-year-old named Lenny meets the car with a jack on wheels.

There's no parking lot at this shop, no garage, no coin-operated air hose, and certainly no grinning Mr. Goodwrench. You don't need an appointment at All Day Tire and they don't take credit cards.

"There aren't too many places like this left," says Alice, the woman with the minivan. A regular, she knows better than to venture into the cramped, sticky office area until it's time to pay up. "They know what they're doing, they're cheap--and you get to watch," she says with a chuckle.

Twelve years ago Hector Nieves and his younger brother Anibal bought the building at 1900 W. Division and opened All Day Tire on the first floor, where a grocery used to be. Anibal, who's vacationing in Puerto Rico this day, helps run the place with Hector but is more involved with managing the apartments. "I'm in charge," laughs Hector, who at age 40 could still pass for a jack-cranking rookie.

Ralph and Lenny are Hector's sidekicks. Ralph is also Hector's brother-in-law and Lenny is a nephew to them both. At age 12, Hector, his parents, and his two brothers came here from Puerto Rico. He makes it a rule to hire family when he can. He says it's good for business. Ralph says Hector needs people he can trust. Lenny says he likes working with his uncles in the summer, but the long hours don't give him much time with his girlfriend.

Hector concedes noticing a tide of gentrification that's swept through the Wicker Park and East Village neighborhoods flanking his shop to the north and south, but he claims little has changed at this gritty intersection since they first opened their doors. Least of all, his business.

The frail driver of the worn-out Granada peers over the low plastic window that shields the shop's front counter as if he's awaiting a deli sandwich. He watches intently as Hector pulls the crank on the rim changer, which slips a tire's lip into place on a rim. Another man, a painter from the south side who stumbled upon the place while working a job in the area, keeps an eye on Lenny as he plops a tire into a tub filled with murky water and checks for air bubbles. Hector tells Lenny he's taking too long. Ralph mumbles something in Spanish and Lenny makes a face behind their backs.

It's not unusual for customers to linger as their flats are fixed. Some even lend a hand, says Hector. But gang members are encouraged to drop off their vehicles and pick them up later. "Hector knows who the gang members are," warns Ralph, "and they know him." Hector adds, "It's not good for the neighborhood if something bad happens around here." As Ralph reels off gang-related incidents that have occurred around the business over the years, Hector goes back to work on the rim changer.

"Three dollar," Hector informs the driver of the Granada. Pulling a wad of bills from his left breast pocket, which has long served as the shop's cash register, Hector makes change for a ten and hands it to the customer. Stuffing the bills back into his jumpsuit, he proudly announces, "They're all in order."

The painter takes his eye off Lenny, smiles, and says, "They're cheap and they're quick." The cost of fixing a flat at All Day Tire has always been $3--$5 if they have to remove the tire from the car. Used tires start at $15. Hector says he's never considered raising prices because "that's what it costs."

The screaming siren of an ambulance maneuvering through Division Street traffic clashes with the thump of hip-hop music from a nearby apartment. The late afternoon sun beams off the metal jacks that rest out front, awaiting the shop's next rush. A man from the neighborhood who'd walked by to say hello earlier in the day returns with a 12-pack of 7-Up and a bag of ice.

Hector, Ralph, and Lenny seem glad for a break in the action. Business comes in waves, explains Hector. "It's like when you fish. Sometimes you catch a lot."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Armando Villa.

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