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The seeming demise of the “old school parts house”

Hello, forum. I need to vent. I haven’t been on in a while. I sort of took a hiatus / semi-banned myself due to some folks taking offense at off topic references I made that were offensive to folks that seem overly offendable, in my opinion. But nowhere else would be interested in discussing this probably.

To the point. Has the older model of the auto parts store finally died for the most part? Ten years ago or less, there were at least two parts stores in town that seemed knowledgeable. The guys were older. They smoked at work. They offered sound advice. They had computers to look up parts, but they also had thick books with yellowing pages that they sometimes reverted to for an oddball vehicle or part. They measured things with calipers. They could match a bolt, washer, etc that you brought in, and then they would sell you one of those items if you wanted, rather than an $8 packet that contains an assortment of various sizes - most of which are the wrong size and you’ll probably never use. You don’t see that kind of place much anymore. It’s all chain stores or mail order.

Case in point, I changed the transmission fluid in my wife’s toyota recently. I just pulled the drain plug and changed the fluid. Probably should do the filter also, but I skimped. I didn’t replace the crush washer on the drain bolt, because I didn’t have one and I thought I might get by. But alas, fluid seeped from the drain bolt. So off to the auto parts stores I go. My old standby store has closed. So I try Oreillys. I like the folks there ok, and they seem to be fairly knowledgeable at my location. But the washers they sale are in an assortment - $8 or so for the pack. I find the same at Autozone. I don’t like our Autozone much anyway. The folks don’t seem to know much there and seem hell bent on selling fuel system cleaner or paper shop towels. Finally I try the old Napa- which is now an Advanced Auto Parts. I find another assortment pack for $8. But I tell the guy at the counter (who’s smoking a cigarette) that I’m pretty sure it’s an M18 washer and I only need one. He goes to the back and retrieves one fiber washer and says “you were right on the size”. “What do you want to pay, will $1 work?” Yes. Yes it will. Problem solved. But I think that type of parts store is going by the wayside.

Yes, this trend continues. The “mom-and-pop” kind of shops and stores are going away, in many categories. Hardware is another example. I need a single washer or other fastener; if I didn’t have the local hardware store that has the bins, I’d go to Home Depot or Lowe’s and buy a pack (always in a pack so you can’t pull a single one out for comparison to make sure you’ve got the right one). So now I have 6 or 10 or 12 when I needed one. The owner of the hardware store is older and I think he may end up closing it up when he retires.
It wouldn’t surprise me that in 10 or 20 years, consumers will begin valuing service more and retail will swing the other way a little.

I think there are 2 things going on:

First is that profit is not enough in todays business climate. It’s the rate of return on investment that counts. That’s why McDonalds is closing places and opening up a new one a mile away - faster profits!

The second one is that it cost money to stock parts - and it’s more profitable to have a package of assorted washers that includes some that the buyer doesn’t need, rather than a bunch of singles.

But I think there is also a 3rd and 4th thing:

The internet can provide odd parts that are just not economical for the local store to stock.

And that big box stores are putting small businesses out of business. They sell the really profitable items at loss-leader prices, to get folks to buy more cheaply made (and more profitable) items - and a small local business just can’t keep up.


It has been a lot of years since I’ve been in an auto parts store that still had “the books!” I agree that this old school type parts store, and its analog, the mom-and-pop hardware store is almost gone. When I first started working on cars the “old school” was the norm. As you say, retired mechanics, smoking away, who could tell you when the book was wrong and give you the right part anyway. The place where to first question wasn’t “what car are you working on” when you brought in a bolt or sealing washer. These guys got replaced by people who could work the computer but couldn’t tell a tapered roller bearing from a ball bearing let alone if the computer got it wrong.

The package parts store was the place to buy cheap parts for a car you are selling next week. The old school place sold parts the local shops would buy as quality replacements for their customers. The package store is now the norm. Packed with employees, only one of whom might know their u-joint from a CV joint. It means I need to be more knowledgeable to get the right part. At least I have the internet. I can find the part I want, see if my local package parts store has one, and go there and say, I want THIS, and it is in location 123,AB. Or I can order off the internet and wait 3-4 days.

For some parts, such as your crush washer example, I sometimes phone (to save a wasted trip) my local car dealership to see if they stock the item. Sometimes they do and sometimes at a reasonable price.

Their parts department is pretty much still the older model auto parts store, for the most part.

Besides… they deserve to make a profit because they stock items the other McParts Stores won’t stock because it’s not profitable.

For many parts I check the dealer. Surprisingly, or not, I have had times when they have a genuine part in stock for less money than a generic. It Doesn’t hurt to ask.


I agree the dealer should be on your go-to list. I have saved time and frustration, and some times but not often money, at the dealer. And there’s the confidence of having the exact right part, so you’re less likely to need one more trip, or have to do the project over.

The old school parts house: along one wall was a set of metal drawers, black and orange, with all sorts of smaller parts, especially threaded parts. Anyone remember the brand name?
That’s where the needed part was to be found, with no need for a book or a computer.

Yeah, you can find stuff like that on Amazon. Only trouble is they’re classified as “Addon” products which means you have to get something like $35 worth of other junk you don’t need just to buy the one thing you do. So, same situation as the local big box store, but more expensive.

I bet other retailers will follow that trend because who wouldn’t want to force customers to unnecessarily spend $35 more than they needed to?

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… Dorman.

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Years ago when a someone wanted to replace a light duty transmission with a heavier duty model, i.e., TH350 to TH400 the job was made simpler with an odd U-joint that matched the output yoke to the shaft yoke and every local mom and pop parts store had at least one man on the counter who knew off the top of his head the correct part number for most swaps. The last man with that knowledge locally died last year I wonder where someone could go to find the answer. But then who these days would need such a part?

I love the old time service, at the local hardware store I sometimes think the time an associate spent helping find the part was more in wages than the total cost of the part.


I still have access to a local hardware store that carries the racks of nuts, bolts, washers, etc., in the cardboard boxes that slide in and out on steel plates. So far they have been the go to place for the 3 grommets you need, the washer, the set of 6 metric 8 x 30, 1.25 thread bolts and locking nuts. Car parts stores are a waste of time for that stuff. For replacement parts the local store can be OK if the vehicle is fairly common, but I often find that ordering it online gets the piece to me faster and cheaper. What really ticks me off is checking with a dealer for a piece that seems pretty standard but is unique to one of their cars and finding them saying they have to order it, 5 days or so, and I can drive cross town to get it (and pay sales tax), when I can order it online and have it in my hands, at home, quicker.

That all assumes I know exactly what I need, of course.

Yes. Packing all the various drain plug washers together in a multi-pack is the only way the McParts stores can profitably sell them. The old mom and pop stores considered the time spent dealing with such parts as necessary costs of business. There are thousands of other products packaged in quantities to make handling worthwhile and out on the shelves where the customer’s time is spent finding the correct widget instead of someone on the clock.When the customer selects a package full of widgets and opens them and finds the part isn’t exactly correct it’s their problem and they must go buy another selection and hope for success. Can you blame them? The mom and pop stores put an outrageous markup on sales to walk in customers while selling to regular shop owners at fantastic discounts. The growth in DIY business gave Auto Shack chain stores the running start it needed to rush ahead of local stores.


I agree, but the closest Toyota dealer is 30 miles away or so. And this particular dealer would probably want $5 or $6 for a single washer. Which isn’t the end of the world if I was closer to them. I did buy the trans fluid from them as I was concerned about using anything other than the called for “world standard” atf. So I guess it was my fault not getting the washer when I was there. First time I’ve had to replace a washer or gasket on a drain bolt though. Never had a leak before, so didn’t really think about it beforehand and assumed it was the same / similar to the oil drain bolt. Nope!

From past experience, that particular dealer marked up a $189 part to $289 - but they did price match and sell the part for $189. I didn’t ask them to. After I asked how much the part was, they asked why I didn’t want it. After I told them the online price I’d found for the oem part with free shipping, they asked if I’d buy the part from them at that price. Well, sure! Very little positive experiences at dealerships in general for me, unfortunately. emphasized text

There’s also a u joint used to adapt a GM 1/2 ton driveshaft to a GM light duty 3/4 ton axle yoke. I’ve had to use that part before. The GM 14 bolt axle was a pretty common upgrade for the 1/2 ton trucks back 20 or more years ago.

Heck, it may be the same joint as in the application you described.

Agreed on the cost aspect. I guess it was more of a service thing for them, and they hoped you’d come back for the bigger purchase later on. Unfortunately, a lot of those places weren’t open on the weekend or after 5, which made the chain stores pretty tempting. Ultimately, convenience and price killed off the majority of mom and pop places, I guess.

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You know, our local Tractor Supply sells the single bolt or fastener. They may have drain bolt gaskets also. Didn’t think of them.

When I was a girl, my parents had an OTASCO store (Oklahoma Tire and Supply Company). Normally, my dad or the hired man / mechanic or my brother handled everything on the auto supply / hardware side of the store. Mom and I often helped on the housewares side. But on occasion everyone else was busy and I would help a customer needing a hardware item or auto part. So I learned to look up items in the parts books and go to the right bin.

Only sales I was not allowed to handle were firearms and ammunition, tires and other mechanical services. But I’ve sold mufflers to DIYers. :blush:

A surprising number of customers were patient about being waited on by a young girl and often would generously answer my curious questions about what the item they were buying was used for. But then that was a rural small town at the time when children often worked some in the family business on weekends, after school, and during summer. Another time, place, and culture from today.


I have a Ford dealer nearby. They sell parts and the Mercon LV transmission fluid and Motorcraft Gold coolant that others won’t stock at better than the McParts store prices.

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Benz uses copper washers on their engine oil drain plugs

They’re supposed to be one-time use

I’ve seen a lot of guys think they know better and re-use them, thinking they’re particularly smart. And they pat themselves on the back.

But I’ve also seen a lot engine oil leaks BECAUSE they reused them

A lot of times, you can get away with reusing them, but there will be those other times, when it just seal well after reuse

It’s not as uncommon as you think

As far as those fiber and/or nylon oil drain plug seals, I always replace them. I’ve had very poor luck, when forced to reuse them. Not fast drips, but a good amount of seepage

I went back and re-read some of your comments and discussions from several months back

While your comments from a few months back were indeed interesting, and made for good reading . . . I don’t agree that the other folks were “overly offendable”

I’m not looking to pick a fight . . . merely having a friendly difference of opinion :smiley:

In any case, welcome back! :dog:

I often reuse copper washers on drains and on banjo bolts without ever having a problem. I lay a piece of 1000 grit wet/dry on a good flat surface and polish both sides until there it is obvious that the entire surface has been polished even if there are still rings discernible. I kept a piece of 1000 grit pasted to the end of several tool boxes at the shop.

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