My 2004 Subaru interior needed cleaning—badly. And since I was looking to start a new job where I would be driving my car, it was urgent that I get it done soon. I did a quick Facebook search and found a local car detailing business. The reviews were glowing. But besides the votes of confidence, it was hard to get much in the way of crucial information from what the page offered. A bead on the location would have been helpful. I called the number and the proprietor said he charged $150. I would need to leave the car all day Monday. Later, when I had questions, a couple of my text queries went unanswered.
It was a pain dropping the vehicle off. Other detailing businesses I’d seen offered to come to you with their supplies. And it complicated things that the detailing business lacked clear signage. “Across the street from the Toyota dealership” wasn’t helping me. I pulled into a body shop that seemed close to the description of where I was to turn and asked the woman behind the desk whether anyone recognized the name of the business I was looking for. No, they’d never heard of it. Customers seated against the walls of the cramped pre-fab office regarded me with interest. I pulled back out onto the busy highway and finally found the establishment behind a car wash.
It would have been convenient to have the use of my car that day, since I had a job interview. As it was, I had to arrange for someone pick me up, drop me off at the prospective job site, pick me up again, and allow me to ride around in their car until my own vehicle was ready. When I got there anticipating the professional transformation—well, it was more like a home makeover. It was definitely vacuumed and a little scrubbed and shined up. Too shined up, in fact. I suspected that whoever had cleaned my car had whipped through it, making it definitely more acceptable for a work car. However, he had lavished polishing compound on the hard surfaces until they were oily to the touch. They were so greasy that they would have ruined my clothes when I brushed up against them. The back seat, for which I had requested special attention, had been cleaned, and was less grimy looking, but still obviously stained.
Feeling self-conscious, I went in the garage to ask for a rag to wipe off the polish. The owner emerged from the back, and a coworker whose head and shoulders appeared over a vehicle’s side stared at me as I fumbled with the words of my request. (This would have been an appropriate moment for the owner to cue the slack-jawed employee with, “Now Ruprecht, what do we say to the nice lady customers?” And then after some odd utterance, the guy would start banging hub caps and running in circles.) The owner acquiesced with the towel, and I spent some time rubbing down my interior and then running the dirty car through the car wash out front. I wonder now whether I should have given some kind of customer satisfaction feedback when I handed back the towel—but I felt foolish enough asking for the towel in the first place. I guessed, however, that the trucks and boats left with these guys got spiffed up beautifully. The rage of a truck-proud man gypped by his detailer must be spectacular.
Local business attracts regular fanfare and cheerleading—on Facebook, in store displays, and elsewhere, we are given messages about the benefits of frequenting small, locally owned enterprises . But experiences like mine with the car detailer make me wonder whether there is a tendency of some long-time residents to be complacent about their regular customer stream and not feel the need to deliver much beyond their basic strengths. For example, I have gone to the same hairdresser in town for the last thirteen years. I found her when I moved here, and she still trims my hair for under twenty dollars (I also tip her), and washing and styling for fun is free. She knows how to make a flattering cut, in the style one is looking for. In the last few years, she’s been busier, and it’s harder to get in. Then the phone frequently doesn’t get answered. I leave a message. No call back. A second message might not yield results, either. However, I’m not nearly ready to go somewhere else. I know which side of my curling iron is hot . . . Or something like that.
My daughter got a job at a popular pizza joint last summer. I was concerned, because actually the place was a seedy bar with “saloon” in its name. Inside, it’s dingy, and thousands of customers have carved their messages into the tables and walls. Nice. However, I ate there, and really it was more pizza establishment than bar. Turns out that despite few hints outside the weather-beaten building, and in spite of the designation “Saloon” and short swinging doors one would expect some gun-slinging cowpoke to come stumbling out of at any moment, the place churns out nearly 2,000 pizzas a day. Somehow—by word of mouth, or by some potent online presence—the anonymous grey building, like a giant magnet, silently draws in tourists from all over the US and beyond. The customers who manage to grope their way through the dim, sawdust-carpeted dining area to the ordering window find themselves able to also buy beer from a setup off to the side of the restaurant.
But beer is just a bonus for some. Most are really there for the delicious, chewy-crusted pizzas. The second generation owner, with almost more business than she can handle, probably sees no need to renovate, provide adequate signage, or even let customers know that the back door is a legitimate entrance, too. Maybe if she did do that, even perhaps brighten it up and call it “Amy’s Family Restaurant,” the summer stampede would turn into a crush. Or maybe not. Maybe the ostensible casual neglect is part of the charm.