The Christmans’ Maynard Battery is in the Allen Creek valley on Miller, just east of the railroad bridge. The blue paint on its sign is so chipped and pitted it’s nearly impossible to read, and the cinder-block facade is so nondescript it’s almost invisible. Inside, three riding lawn tractors and an old high-handlebar scooter are for sale, lined up on the gray plank floor. Weed whackers, leaf blowers, and chainsaws hang on the walls, and the faint yet heady aroma of motor oil is in the air.
When Maynard Battery moved to Miller in 1965, Ann Arbor was full of places like this. “There were car dealerships downtown!” remembers owner Dave Christman with a big smile. “There was the Buick dealership on the corner of Huron and Ashley, and across the street on First and Ashley was Jim White Chevrolet–that’s where my ’64 Corvette came from. The Dodge dealership was on Huron and First, the south corner.
“Just down the hill was Herb Estes Volvo, right by the railroad tracks on Huron,” the normally laconic Christman continues. “He used to have Herb Estes Ford, but he sold it, and it became Henderson Ford. That was over where the Campus Inn is now.”
The car dealerships all left long ago, moving either east onto Washtenaw Avenue or west to Scio Township. But for Christman, fifty-seven, the era when downtown was the city’s Gasoline Alley remains vivid in his memory, and it lives on in his business.
I go to Maynard Battery once a year to get my reel mower cleaned and sharpened–it’s the only place around that still works on human-powered mowers. Christman tells me they get four or five of them a week. “We do a lot more power mowers,” he says, “probably seven a day” from June through August.
Only three months? “Yep, people want to get them sharpened at the start of the season. After that it’s the same but a lot less–until it snows, then we get a lot of snow blowers right away.”
Mower repairs are most of Maynard Battery’s work now, but its name evokes an earlier history. When the business was founded in 1923, “they rebuilt Tar Top batteries,” Christman says. “They’d take out the cell that had gone bad and put in a new cell. And we repaired everything and rebuilt just about everything from starters to carburetors.
“My dad bought the business in 1959 from Mr. Maynard, that’s Morris Maynard,” explains Christman. He gets up and points to a couple of pictures hanging against the back wall. “That’s my dad, Wilfred Christman,” he says, pointing to a framed black and white photograph of a silver-haired man. “That picture was taken by a U-M photography student back in ’84. He was going to take my picture, but he wanted somebody with more character–and my Dad had a lot of character! And that’s me about thirty years ago,” he says, pointing to a color photograph of a younger, hairier David with a lot more attitude than the pleasant, slightly ironic David holding down the front counter. His father died eighteen years ago, but “we kept the name Maynard Battery because people in Ann Arbor knew it.”
They moved the business from East Washington in 1965. “Right before my dad bought it, this building was a moving company’s warehouse, but it was originally built as a bottling factory. They used to make Dad’s Root Beer.”
Cars were still a big part of the business then and a big part of Dave’s life. He bought the Corvette in 1968 from his sister and her husband. “I had it in high school–I had Miss Ann Arbor back there during the ’69 homecoming parade, my senior year. The parade had floats–the kids used to build them at somebody’s house out of a hay wagon they’d get from some farmer–and they’d close Main Street and take them down to Pioneer’s Hollway Field and drive them around. There were the floats and the cars, and there was a marching band. And afterwards we used to have huge bonfires–and I mean they were huge!” For Christman, the only downside was “I burned out my clutch with all that stopping and starting.”
After the car dealers left in the ’70s, Maynard Battery stayed, but its customers changed. “Cars are built better now,” Christman says. “You used to have to do tune-ups every ten to twelve thousand miles–not anymore. And fuel injection is so much better than carburetors.”
Christman’s own love affair with the automobile continues–he still has the ‘Vette, and the tail-finned Cadillac awaiting restoration in the shop’s parking lot is his, too. But while he and his five employees still work on cars, most of their business now is in lawn mower repair. They always did it as a sideline, but now the ratio’s reversed: where it used to be ten cars to every mower, now it’s ten mowers to every car.
Christman and his wife, Susan, live out on Dexter Road. They have two grown children but no grandchildren–yet. Asked what his retirement plan is, Christman looks at me like I’m nuts. “I don’t know what the plan is, but it won’t be the next generation of Christmans. I don’t think my son wants to do it. He doesn’t want to work that hard!” Asked what his son does, Christman hands me a green flyer for Clear Cut Lawn Service.
A middle-aged woman comes in, pays Christman, and says with a big smile, “I’m so thankful for this man.” After she leaves, he explains. “We have lots of regular customers, and we still do pickups and deliveries. But we can’t just leave the bills hanging for a month or two like we used to in the old days–except sometimes we do.”
Paul Tinkerhess of Fourth Ave Birkenstock used to have a side business in the Maynard Battery building called Green Light Transport, selling electric cars and bikes. “Dave was more than just a landlord to me. He really became kind of a partner,” Tinkerhess recalls. “Dave is a tinkerer with an intuitive mechanical mind, a one-man Click and Clack who’s interested in helping people. I’m not sure if he is a businessman from times gone by or from the future, but he’s certainly unique in our time in that he is willing to work with people.
“Plus he’s a very nice guy, a decent guy. He’s honest, he works hard, and he’s in it for the long haul. He made a commitment to that neighborhood and to our town. And he’s successful. Just look in his parking lot: there’s always some new car or piece of landscaping equipment being dropped off or picked up. It’s not easy to stay in business in 2010 in Michigan, and this guy is doing it without any pretense–and without any advertising!
“A lot of companies do marketing to find out what their customers want and where they are,” concludes Tinkerhess. “Not Dave: he doesn’t do marketing. For him, it’s his life.”
This article has been edited since it appeared in the September 2010 Ann Arbor Observer. The spelling of Hollway Field was corrected.