When Pat Abe, owner of Seventh Avenue Service, retired at the end of May, a much beloved auto repair shop in the International District closed its doors after nearly 70 years of business.
Abe, who turned 80 in January, has operated Seventh Avenue Service since 1972. He purchased the business from Ted Imanaka, who first started the auto repair shop and gas station in 1946 with partners Charles Toshi and George Koyama.
“It’s been a good life,” Abe said simply. “I just love cars. That’s all. I like to figure out what makes them tick. When they break down, I want to figure out why they break down.”
Last week, nearly a month after he shuttered his business, Abe was still seen returning to the shop nearly daily to haul out supplies and mementos and clear out mounds of clutter. In between a trip to Goodwill and Salvation Army to drop off his cache of well-worn auto manuals, Abe took time to answer questions about his four-decade-long career as the trusted “go-to” mechanic to hundreds of loyal customers in the International District.
“We’ll miss him very much,” said Curtis Marr, co-owner of CMarr Automotive, which opened across the street from Abe’s business, on the north side of Jackson, 14 years ago. Curtis runs the business with his brother Eric. “Pat’s been providing great service to the community for a long time.” The brothers say that when they began their business, Abe provided valuable assistance. “Pat helped us figure out where to shop for supplies, where to purchase oil, how to set up accounts with the sales representatives,” Eric said.
Curtis added: “I would like for Pat to stay in business because it’s great to have someone like him to bounce things off of, but I respect his decision. If either of us had a problem, we always felt comfortable calling one another, and there wasn’t that feeling of competition.”
Abe was born on January 24, 1935 in Seattle. “My grandmother on my mom’s side was a midwife,” he said. “So she’s the one who brought me into this world. Her name was Mrs. Beppu. My grandfather on my dad’s side came from Japan in 1907. So we’ve been here over 100 years.”
Abe attended Bailey Gatzert Elementary, Washington Junior High, and Garfield High School. Abe said his father and his grandfather before him were in the grocery business. His dad operated the Dearborn Cash Grocery on Eighth Avenue and Dearborn: “When he was ready to retire, he thought that I was going to take it over. My younger brother Bruce Abe had just graduated from college and so I told my dad, ‘Let Bruce take over.’ I went to repair cars. That was my hobby.”
Abe said he began fixing cars from age 14. “I guess I was just blessed because I had mechanical ability, mentally,” he said. “My feeling was: If somebody can invent something and put it together, I could take it apart and see what he invented.
“I got my first bicycle when I was in the sixth grade. It was a brand new bike. I had it for one week, and when my dad came home, I had the rear brakes all apart. He said, ‘What’s wrong with the bike?’ I said, ‘Nothing, dad.’ He said, ‘How come it’s apart?’ I said, ‘I just want to see how it was made.’
“When I was going to junior high school, it was not legal, but we used to buy junk cars and fix them up and drive them to school,” Abe said, laughing. He said he would park the car three blocks away from the school to evade discovery by teachers.
Abe recalls fondly that his first car was a ’54 two-door, dark green Ford. He said he took it apart and rebuilt the motor. “When I was in high school, I wanted to have the fastest car,” he said. “It turned out it was pretty fast. I kept it until I wrecked it.”
Prior to Seventh Avenue Service, Abe had worked for over five years as an auto mechanic for Jack Habu and his son Arthur at Automotive Brakes on 14th Avenue and South Jackson Street. “I heard that Mr. Imanaka was trying to sell his business and I thought I would rather be my own boss,” he recalled.
After Abe bought Seventh Avenue Service, Imanaka continued to work for Abe until he retired in 1991. Imanaka had been assisting at the gas station, which closed. “We were pumping gas for a while until the gasoline was too expensive,” Abe said. “There was no money in gas. At that time, you probably made about four cents a gallon on gasoline. So it was not profitable.”
How was Abe able to build up the business and sustain his shop for so many years? “My customers tell me that I’m honest and my prices were right,” Abe said. “I didn’t overcharge. So I think I built up my clientele that way. It’s from word of mouth. It just kept spreading that everything I do was guaranteed it would work.”
Over the years, Abe would emphasize to his customers the value of regularly changing a car’s oil to maintain the health of their cars. “It’s like brushing your teeth,” he would say.
Abe said the “technology” of the oil in today’s cars is much better. “If you change the oil often enough, the car will last a long time,” he said. “Back in those days, the oil wasn’t as good as it is today. If you didn’t change your oil, it would just accumulate waste.”
Abe said he began thinking about retirement last year after his best friend from childhood, Kay Takeuchi, passed away on Thanksgiving Day. “So after that, my wife kept saying, ‘Maybe you should start trying to retire and enjoy part of your living life,’” Abe said.
Abe admitted that he doesn’t really have any hobbies. What then does he plan to do with all the spare time? “Just enjoy life,” he said. “I’ve got five grandkids. I’ve got seven great-grandkids. So the great-grandkids are the ones that are of concern to me. I like to take care of them.”