The Last Junkyard
Used car parts were a life's work for the Swisher family. Now it's the Ishretehs' turn.
From the July, 2019 issue
Tessa, liberally tattooed with multiple piercings and wearing black Capri leggings and a short black skirt, just bought a used tire and is waiting for it to be mounted and balanced. Mashouk, dressed in business casual, is waiting for the same service for all four tires on his car. Mike Swisher, his gray Fu Manchu mustache tightly braided at the ends, is affably explaining to Mashouk why there is a twenty-dollar charge to dispose of his old tires. Satisfied, Mashouk sits back down to wait. K.C. and Mike Ishreteh (SHRAY-tah) fly in and out, stopping to ask Mike Swisher questions and answer his. All the while, the phone rings nonstop.
This is Town & Country Auto Parts, an automotive recycling facility, aka junkyard. Mike Swisher's family owned it for forty-six years before selling it to the Ishretehs at the end of 2017.
Though they didn't take over till last May, their influence is already apparent. The office, previously dark and crowded with parts willy-nilly, is now almost Zen-like. The only part in sight is a tire on the floor that seems to be in transition. Outside, three finches are chirping, each in its own cage.
Used cars, parts, tires, and scrap metal were the yard's livelihood under the Swishers. It's pretty much the same for the new owners, but the world around the yard has changed.
When Larry Swisher bought what was then Dyer's Salvage Yard, it was one of three used auto parts businesses in town, and a couple more yards dealt in scrap metal. Now only one scrap metal business, GLR Advanced Recycling on S. State Rd., survives. And Town & Country is the last auto junkyard.
Larry Swisher came to Ann Arbor in the early 1960s, joining family members who'd preceded him from the Upper Peninsula hamlet of Germfask. He worked at Fox Tent and Awning, then at the Pure Oil Gas Station at the corner of Moore and Broadway. He and his brother,
Edward, bought the station in 1964, and the following year, Larry met and married his wife, Sandy. (In addition to Mike they have a daughter, Kay, a homemaker and crafter.)
Around 1970, the Swishers bought NorthSide Towing, and brought in Jim Hurd as a partner. They bought the junkyard from Jim Dyer in 1971. Larry says he's heard that Dyer never had a truck--he drove around in a Cadillac, picking up scrap and putting it in his trunk.
They sold the Pure Oil station and bought the Marathon station across the street, then added the Gulf station on the corner of Fourth Ave. and Huron. How did they do it all? "We had a lot a good help, which you could get back then without too much trouble--and family," Larry says.
Even Sandy worked for her husband at one point, but her tenure was short-lived. She quit, she chuckles, "'cause he wouldn't do what I said."
They sold the gas stations during the 1973 oil crisis--Larry says things got so bad that people were poking holes in the gas tanks of cars to steal the fuel--and gave up the towing business in 1974. Hurd left around the same time. After that, Larry says, he and his brother just "sold junk cars and parts." (Edward died in 1993.)
Larry recalls now-gone competitors: Diehl Auto Parts on Plymouth Rd. next to Brewer's Towing, and Nixon's "out there on Maple and Dexter. I remember when Vern Nixon passed away ... They sold it, and the new owners moved it to Jackson Rd. [in Dexter]. It's still there as Razorback Metals, but they only do scrap metal." Lansky's on N. Main St. did scrap and precious metals. There was also a small specialty metal yard at Broadway and Maiden Ln., where Nine99 condos are going in.
Larry speaks of them respectfully. "The others that were here, they didn't fail ... like Lansky's, I can't consider that a failure because those guys just got old, and the city wanted that property, and Diehl's was the same way." (Lansky's site is now the NEW Center, Diehl's a small retail-residential complex.) Sandy thinks other reasons include no family interest in continuing the business and an unwillingness to engage in technology.
Sandy recalls the time a young family's Volkswagen engine seized up at the nearby Lodi Food Mart while they were on their way to U-M Hospital. The store's owner called Larry, who found another engine in the yard, installed it gratis, and sent the family on their way.
The couple says there were so many similar events that they can't recall them all. "You'd need to write a book," Larry says, miming an oversized tome.
Mike started working with his dad as a ten-year-old, and says growing up in a junkyard has its advantages. "I know how stuff will fit," he says. "I got a 1965 Mustang in California. It's got Granada front brakes on it; it's got Mitsubishi rear brakes on it ... My friends in California call it Frankenstang ... I took it to this electric shop one time, and this guy says 'that Ford won't work with a Chrysler alternator,' and I said, 'Shhhh, don't tell it, 'cause I've been driving it that way for four months.'"
But in the last years of the Swishers' ownership, business faltered. Sandy blames "the Internet ... [there were] so many places people could buy auto parts, and China stopped buying scrap metal."
"It seemed you could never get far enough ahead of what you had to spend," Larry adds. "And there wasn't a soul in the world that wanted to loan you any money."
"You know the old adage that you have to spend money to make money?" Mike asks. "We didn't have the money to spend to make the money back."
The five Ishreteh brothers did. Their life and work histories are almost a mirror of the Swishers', except that instead of immigrating from the U.P., they're from Jordan.
K.C. says an uncle was the first family member to come to the U.S., in 1994. Over the next seven years he was joined by K.C. and Mike, their three brothers, their four sisters, and their parents.
What drew them here? In this country "you have a chance," K.C. says. "You have different things you can do."
When K.C. arrived, his wife at the time had family members who owned gas stations and other businesses. He started out working for them, then became a partner in an Ypsilanti car repair business. In 2008, he joined Mike and their brothers Mo and Ed at Packard Auto Repair and Packard Towing (all are certified mechanics).
Asked if the brothers Americanized their names, K.C. laughs. "I didn't really change my name," he says. "People changed my name. Like, my first name is Khalid ... They started calling me K.C." Customers actually nicknamed two brothers Mike, but that was too, confusing, so one now goes by Mo.
"We worked hard," K.C. says. "We had nothing for years, and we worked together, and tried to save a little bit here and a little bit there, and pooled our money together until we start other businesses."
As they did, they broke into teams to run them. When they bought a small junkyard on Willis Rd. in 2015, K.C. and Mike went to work there, while Ed and Mo stayed at Packard Auto Repair. Their youngest brother, Sam, took over the towing business, now First Class Towing.
"Nothing was handed to us," K.C. says. "We work six days, seven days. We work twelve hours a day. Mike [Swisher] does the same. Sundays when we have to."
The hard-working families' paths crossed at the Willis Rd. junkyard. When Town & Country didn't have a part a customer needed, Mike Swisher would sometimes pick it up there. The brothers told him they wanted a bigger space--like Town & Country's ten acres.
"They'd approached my dad years ago, but he wasn't interested," Mike says. "But then he decided to retire and sold the business."
Larry says his upcoming seventy-seventh birthday was among the reasons he'd decided to sell. Mike says of his father's decision, "I'm glad the stress of owning the place is gone." He says wistfully that he wishes he could've afforded to buy it himself, "but watching my dad, it's sometimes better to be an employee someplace."
The Ishretehs were glad to take it on. "I've been in Ann Arbor over twenty years, and I love Ann Arbor," K.C. says. In fact, he lives just two minutes away from Larry and Sandy Swisher, down the road from T&C.
Mike says the yard already is "busier than ever." The brothers, he explains, "have the capital to spend $40,000 to buy, like, 2010 and newer wrecked cars at car insurance auctions in order to resell high-end items like engines and transmissions." They're also spending $1,500 a month to list T&C's inventory online--something the Swishers could never afford.
"They're not afraid to spend money to fix it up and make it work," Larry says. "I think they're gonna do real well."
K.C. attributes his family's closeness to his parents. They all lived in the same small house in Jordan, and though they're now scattered around the area, all get together every Friday night at his home.
He now counts Mike Swisher as part of the clan: "He's part of our business," K.C. says. "He's part of our family."
K.C. says there are many things they would like to do--replace the fence and plant flowers, get bigger signage, install a light--but Lodi Township doesn't want to see much change. They want "to keep this place the way it was in the sixties," he says.
But he's philosophical: "We try to make no enemies, we follow the law, we try to do things right," he says. "I've learned that everything can be done legally.
"Right now we are in the process of building," he says. "We're not making any money; we are working for free now, you know, my brothers and me. But that's part of it.
"By the time we're done with this, in like three to five years, I'm sure we'll be making money."
[Originally published in July, 2019.]
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