Keeping In Tune

Whether plying a tune or a tune-up, Bob Amos keeps his customers coming back

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

photo Bob Amos, the owner of Bob’s Auto Service in Essex Junction, has a long list of repeat customers who appreciate his quick wit almost as much as his talents with their engines.

Bob Amos is the kind of guy many of us would like to be. He does what he wants and follows his heart, but with an ear tuned to the common-sense suggestions of his mind and intuition.

Amos is the owner of Bob’s Auto Service, on Vermont 2A right next to the exit of the Circumferential Highway in Essex Junction, where it’s been for 20 years. Bob’s is housed in a dark red building attached to the back of Simon’s deli and service station.

A native of Sutton, W. Va., Amos says he’s been working on cars since he was a child growing up in Elyria, Ohio. He had a natural affinity for it.

“When I was a kid in high school,” he says, “I worked at a Shell station near my house doing oil changes, pumping gas, that kind of thing. Then, when I was 17, my Uncle Ron Rollins offered me a job working on Volkswagens, so I moved here and went to work for him at the Airport Mobil.”

That was 1971, and his Uncle Ron had the biggest Volkswagen business around, says Amos. Volkswagens weren’t the only cars he worked on, though. “Ronnie was a certified mechanic,” says Amos, “and I just learned it from him. Of course, then you go to seminars--on brakes, ignition, a school on fuel injection--you have to go to classes for that stuff, you can’t just do it.”

Amos worked with Rollins for five years, then switched to working for another relative, this time at Chuck’s Mobil in Winooski. “Chuck was Ronnie’s brother,” Amos says with a grin. “I was there, I think, for four more years.” He stops to backtrack. “Let’s see, I’m 51 now, was 28 when I started my own business, was working for Uncle Ron when I was 17 — so five of that at Ronnie’s and the other six at Chuck’s.”

photoBob Amos’ son, Robbie, takes time to work on his own truck in the garage. Eventually, Amos hopes to leave the business to his sons; he’s just not sure when.

This recap is classic Amos. His affable, folksy style is one of the things that keep customers coming back.

Not long after Amos made the move to Chuck’s, a decision was made to turn the garage’s office into a store. “When he did that,” Amos says, “I started leasing his bays, because he didn’t want to be in mechanical work any more.” Thus was born Bob’s Auto Service.

In 1986, wanting to find a place of his own, Amos rented the garage in Essex Junction where the business remains. Seven years later, he bought the property in partnership with longtime friend Dave Antone, who ran Marvin’s Market on that site for years.

“I owned the property with Dave,” says Amos. “He ran his store, I ran my garage, but we owned the whole property together.”

That early space was tight, with two bays and a tiny office, maybe 6 by 10 feet, walled off at one side, where Amos had an old metal desk and a tall, three-drawer file cabinet. A bench seat that had been pulled out of the back of a Dodge Caravan was along the wall for customers waiting for repairs to be finished.

On every vertical surface were calendars, a piece on Bob’s that ran in The Burlington Free Press when the Circ Highway was in the planning stages, notices, notes from satisfied customers and silly auto mechanic cartoons and humor, such as a rate schedule: “Answers that require thought, $2; Correct answers $4; Dumb looks are still free.

Once he owned the property, Amos expanded, adding an office space about 15 by 20 feet with a door through to the garage, which was also enlarged. Although a wooden pew has replaced the car seat, the desk sits as a reminder of former days. On a shelf along a side wall sits a computer, which Amos uses to access the Alldata Repair System. “It gives you all the information you need for looking at codes and finding technical answers,” he says.

In 2001, Amos bought out Antone’s interest in the property and went into what he thought would be semi--retirement — running the store with his wife, Deb, while he cooked his “famous chili.”

Deb is the former Deborah Murray, whom Amos met while he was working at Airport Mobil and married while he was at Chuck’s (his way of answering the question about when they were married). In 2001, their son, Robbie, then 23, had been working in the business for some time, as had Richard, one of Deb’s three children from a former marriage. Amos turned the business over to them and opened Bob & Deb’s where Marvin’s Market had been.

photoThe garage at Bob’s Auto Service has everything the crew needs to diagnose and work on cars of all makes. Richard Superneau, Amos’ stepson, works in one of the bays.

“We went into making homemade hot food, and we did really well,” he says. “We were in the store for four years.”

What brought an end to the project was their realization that running a retail store and food business is about as far from retirement — semi or not — as a person can get. In true Amos style, he admitted his mistake and made a change.

“I don’t think anybody around here ever sold as much chili as I would sell,” says Amos wistfully, “but I was tired of working seven days a week. A store’s like a farm. A person should know that before they get in there. I didn’t know it was going to be that bad.”

Feeling it was time, Amos decided to sell the property and become a renter again. He sold to the owners of Simon’s markets, one of the Handy family companies known as Sisters and Brothers Investment Group, and cut a deal for a 15-year lease. “By then, hopefully, we’ll still work out something else,” he says.

The boys were delighted to have him return to the business, says Amos. “They really had a lot of pressure on them, so they were glad I came back to help out.”

The list of faithful customers is a long one, but their reasons for coming back to Bob’s have a similar ring. “I have a fleet of cars,” quips Victoria St. John, who’s been a regular at Bob’s for seven years. “I have a Subaru, a Honda and two Toyotas. I don’t believe so much in one fancy car; I like a fleet so if one breaks down or needs an oil change, I can use the other one. I’m a Vermont girl, so Bob is who I go to, because I know he’ll tell me the truth, and I recommend him to all my friends. I always know that when I talk to Bob, he’ll make sure that what needs to be fixed gets fixed.”

Being out of the food service business has meant more time for Amos to pursue his other two loves (after Deb): country music and motorcycle riding. An accomplished guitarist, he has been playing since 1975, when he picked up a book and started studying chords. Over the years, he has been part of three country bands: Blue Horizon (“I think in 1975,” he says), then Crossroads Connection and, most recently, Backroads, which he started a few years ago.

photoBob Amos tried what he called “semi-retirement” a few years ago, when he bought Marvin’s Market and opened a hot food business with his wife, Deb. They learned just how difficult food service can be.

“We play at the VFW in Burlington, the Moose Club in Barre and the Royal Veterans Association in Winooski,” says Amos, “then parties and stuff like that.”

He and Deb ride Harleys, “usually just go have some lunch over to Plattsburgh, then back home,” he says.

Eventually, Amos hopes his sons will take over the business completely, but he’s not sure when that might be. He’s proud of the devoted clientele he has built up over the years, and sees it as a good legacy for the boys.

“You know, it will matter a little bit if you go from this building to another business, but this phone number here is worth a million dollars, so if I walked away and said, ‘Here, you can have this phone number,’ that’s all you would need.”

“I’m just a basic person,” he adds. “I get up and go to work, do the best I can, and go home. Of course, I do like to torment people and joke around, but everybody loves it, because when they come in, there’s no stress, and they know they’re going to be treated just like the last guy.”