After 33 years of business in Modesto, Auto Life is closing its doors.
The locally owned automotive, hardware, hunting and sporting goods store started a liquidation sale last Friday and will close once its inventories are gone.
Tom Lucas Jr., who runs the store with his father and founder Tom Lucas Sr., said they couldn't continue in the weak economy.
"The family spent every bit of money they could to survive," the younger Lucas said. "But you can't wait for the economy to turn around. We did what we could do, and we thank the local community for all their support, business and time.
"It's just that the community can't afford to buy things from us because of the economy," Lucas said. "And if they're not spending money, you can't make money."
The business was started in 1977 by Lucas senior as a small 2,500-square-foot auto supply store on Crows Landing Road. The business expanded over the years, first on the same site, growing to 10,000 square feet. During that time, it diversified to sell hardware and added hunting and sporting gear.
About seven years ago, the store moved to its 37,000-square-foot space at 901 N. Carpenter Road.
Lucas said once the economy started to go downhill in 2008, the presence of big- box-store competition such as The Home Depot, AutoZone and Bass Pro Shops started to take a toll.
"It gradually got worse and worse and worse," he said. "I think having the big box store come in a good economy would have been a lot easier. The consumer would have still been able to spend money. But having them come in a bad economy, they picked up a lot of business from a lot of little stores. They're from out of state and can weather the storm better and can wait it out."
As business dwindled, Auto Life slashed its staff. In 2008, Lucas estimated, they had 15 employees. Today both he and his father work at the store along with one paid employee.
Lucas said their landlord has been understanding and his customers have been apologetic. When it was announced the shop would close, many contacted him to say they were sad to see the business go and sorry they haven't been able to shop there more.
"We've had so many people e-mail us. They've said we've been a great fixture in the community," he said. "Most of them actually apologized. I mean, honest to God, I've had an e-mail apologizing for not spending money in the last two to three years. Another asked what can we do to keep you. That part is just amazing. People want to do business with people they know."
The local competition was just as sad to see Auto Life go. Darren Daily, owner of Valley Sporting Goods, said he knows exactly what the Lucas family is facing as a small-business owner.
"We are extremely sad to see them go. Technically, they could be considered competition, but as a long-standing local business, we try to support each other," Daily said. He went on to say that Auto Life was their "go-to" shop to send customers if they were out of something.
Daily even shopped there himself for auto and boat parts and was always impressed by the expertise and experience of the staff.
Daily said the tough decisions Auto Life has made in this economy plague all local businesses, like how many employees and how much inventory they can cut and still stay afloat.
"All of us are making choices, I know he was doing the same thing there," he said. "And like him, we have nothing but good feelings for the customer base. When we see our sales plummet, I'm more hurt that it proves our customer base is suffering than anything. His closing brings it home and to heart. It's such a tough battle."
Lucas said he is not sure what he will do once the store closes, though he joked a few months of sleep were in order. Until then, he said, he is happy to hear from and say goodbye to longtime customers.
"We got to speak to people and share stories. We're a family business and people came in here and talked to us like family," Lucas said. "And that's what I told my kid I'll miss the most."
Contact Auto Life at 574-1400.
Bee staff writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2284.