Renovations Transform Firestone Complete Auto Care in Reading
It's been years since anyone walked into the building at 244 Penn St. and asked for four tires and a washing machine. But for many of the 70 or so years that the Firestone business, now called Firestone Complete Auto Care, resided on the corner of Third and Penn streets, customers could do exactly that.
"They used to sell bicycles and appliances here," said Firestone store manager Kevin Gallagher.
Now 60, Gallagher has spent virtually his entire working life - more than 40 years - at the downtown Reading location.
"They were just getting out of (the department-store business) when I was starting (in 1977)," Gallagher said.
In fact, in the days before big box stores and huge department stores were everywhere, Firestone stores in many locations across the country, including Reading, were doing more than putting rubber on the road.
They were destinations for Christmas shoppers, as is evidenced by a vintage Firestone newspaper advertisement from 1947 that reads "Gifts For Everyone at Firestone" on it.
Irons, refrigerators, washers and dryers, pots, pans, golf clubs, snow shovels and vacuum cleaners could be had at many Firestone stores.
Firestone bicycles, fancy bikes with big seats, wide handlebars, and reliable, fat tires are now collectors items that ooze nostalgia for the good old days.
Cosmetic rebootThe wheels of change are turning once again at the Firestone at Third and Penn streets. The 10,900-square-foot location is in the final phases of a cosmetic reboot.
Firestone doesn't sell appliances and bikes anymore: just tires, brakes, tuneups and state inspections, to name a few of the services.
The drab flooring is gone. New vinyl is in its place.
The traditional counters that once separated customers from the help are gone. Three pods with oval-shaped desks, computer workstations and inviting signage create a new, touchy-feely vibe.
"Counters are like a barrier between you and the customer," Gallagher said.
Now customers can approach these little work islands from all sides. "I had a customer stand right next to me and watch me build her work order," said Aries Franklin Ortiz, manager of tire sales at the location.
The voluminous showroom and customer waiting area, which in ancient times probably looked more like a department store than a tire store, has been cleaned up and is being retrofitted with display literature explaining the differences between passenger tires, truck tires, touring tires and performance tires, among other things.
A TV and a new row of leather chairs have replaced the previous well-worn relics. A free Wi-Fi connection allows customers to roam the internet.
Fresh coat of paintThe exterior, which was showing signs of age, has been perked up with new, brighter signs and a fresh coat of paint.
"It's just more modernized," Gallagher said of the renovation that began last year. "It's a more customer-friendly waiting area."
On an average day, the store's eight employees service about 20 cars. That means there are slow days, and what Gallagher said are "days like yesterday," where that total nearly doubled.
The barrel-shaped garage where the cars get worked on is an architectural relic with a barrel-style roof.
"Architects will comment sometimes: they don't build them like this anymore," Gallagher said.
And, with the possible exception of a 1987 Chevrolet Cavalier that was up on the lift, they don't build cars like they used to anymore, Gallagher said.
That means technicians are not only trained in the basics of changing tires, they must be more technologically savvy, both for the cars and the machines they depend on for servicing them.
The big focus of the renovation underway now, he said, is really about the customers.
"If you don't have them, you don't have anything," Gallagher said.
After 70-plus years, he said, "we must be doing something right."
This article, written by Lauren A. Little, first appeared in readingeagle.com