Keeping The Real Parts Store Afloat

By the time I was able to drive—and just as important, modify my car—physical parts retailers were practically a thing of the past. Part of that comes down to growing up in Middle Tennessee, but a majority stems from powerhouses like Summit Racing, JEGS, and even Amazon taking over the world of parts catalogues. BimmerWorld, Turner, Pelican, and others all help ensure that our BMWs, both modern and classic, stay on the road—without our ever having to leave our own homes.

Performance shops and tuners are still booming in business, but parts houses, on the other hand? The shops that don’t try to upsell you an oil change because they don’t actually work on cars? They’re fleeting at best.

I recently found myself working on my better half’s ’68 1600. In need of tune-up bits, I sought out the typical odds and ends, and in all-too-familiar fashion, I waited until the weekend to get started. Even overnight shipping would delay progress, so my standard online ordering habits went right out the window. I considered the big-name box stores, but dealing with an uninformed layman on the other side of the counter almost always leaves me frustrated.

On the other hand, down the street from our garage lies a relic of the past, somehow but thankfully still standing, decades later: A small storefront perched just off the main strip of town here in bustling Southern California is home to a treasure trove of BMW odds and ends—and best of all, knowledge.

It’s quiet inside. Faint rock-and-roll plays on the radio at the back of the storefront, and a pair of cats spring from their perches and navigate the chaotic mess of BMW parts in an effort to earn a scratch behind the ears. Don’t let their charade fool you, though; they’re hardly starved for attention. You’re just the next sucker in their feline scheme.

Behind the counter sits a man named Jim, and chances are a number of readers knew that already. Reaching the counter at the back of the room requires some finesse, with parts in pandemonium prohibiting passage. Jim’s words are short and tight, contrary to the long, southern drawl I’d expect back home; it’s only a moment before it’s clear that he’s honed his talents and his trade. He asks what I need, and after I name the first part, he recites the part number back from memory, turns to the wall behind him, and retrieves it with confidence.

For the next part on my list, he navigates the clutter, the dust, and the seeming mess, returning with new spark-plug wires in hand. He goes to cross-reference some part numbers, and while he does, I have a look around. I’ve been in his store many times, but there’s always something I’ve missed in prior visits.

Vintage BMW motorsports posters cling to the wall, bleached from the sun, sporting only cyan ink in a ghost of its former self. A few old model cars sit here and there, their dust disturbed by the occasional cat print. It takes a step over a differential, and then another step, to navigate to one of the store’s walls. Situated upon the shelves are a number of different mismatched taillights, but my gut tells me that he’s probably got what you’re looking for. Beside the lights are boxes of filters and parts, and some have clearly been there for a long, long time.

To be totally honest, I can’t help but ask myself, how does he stay afloat? I catch myself being hurtfully pessimistic. In a world of automated everything, where parts magically appear at my door 24 hours after ordering them, it makes me wonder.

Nevertheless, his pricing was as good as any, and his knowledge more so, ensuring that I got the round-peg condenser versus the square-peg counterpart, despite their sharing the same part number these days. He made a suggestion for spark plugs, contrary to the off-the-shelf prescribed pieces, his years of experience with these classics having helped find the best part for any purpose.

It was a delightfully refreshing experience, having spent countless thousands of dollars over the past number of years putting cars together through an online parts list. I left his store reminded that there are some things that simply can’t be replaced by online storefronts: it’s human interaction and, as Jim’s store exemplifies, human character, too.

On my way out, another patron entered, armed with a list of parts for his E46. There’s nothing too old or too new for Jim; he’s only interested in keeping BMWs on the road. So do some searching, and you may be surprised at what’s not far from you. Seek out your own local parts shop, and chances are you’ll find someone both passionate and knowledgeable about what they do behind the counter. Maybe, with a bit of luck, and the desire we have to keep our own cars on the road, we can help keep them around, too.—Mike Burroughs

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