Garage survived on repairs, tire sales
By Jed Lipinski, Staff Writer
Courtesy the Times-Picayune, Sept. 27, 2014
There was a time when Jan Madere could drive through Hahnville and count dozens of cars purchased from Madere’s Garage, the business his family has owned for close to 90 years.
“I’d be thinking, ‘That’s one of our Dodge pickups… that’s our Chrysler… that’s our Jeep Wrangler,” Madere recently recalled at the garage, which he owns with his nephews; David and Michael “Bazoo” Pizzolato.
For decades, Madere’s was the only car dealership in St. Charles Parish. But when Chrysler declared bankruptcy in 2009, Madere’s was one of the 789 dealerships around the country targeted for closure.
Madere’s managed to survive on repairs and tire sales, but the lost franchise agreement cut the business’ revenue in half. Six months ago, when Jan Madere announced he was ready to retire, the Pizzolato brothers agreed to sell the business.
On Sept. 30, the garage that Leon Preston Madere, known as L.P., opened in 1926 will shut down for good, ending 88 years of family ownership. For the current owners, the decision comes with a mix of career anxiety and relief.
“This is the only place any of us has ever worked,” said Bazoo, 50, who got his start mopping the floors of the service department at age 10. But the prospect of doing something else – something unrelated to the car business, perhaps – carried a certain appeal.
“It’s fun seeing everybody come through here,” he said. “But you can get pretty sick of giving people brake tag inspections.”
L.P. Madere was 27 when he opened Madere’s garage as a gas station and repair shop. In the 1950s, he added a car dealership, selling DeSotos and Plymouths to families from Hahnville and surrounding towns. Over the next decade, the garage benefitted from new petrochemical plants in the area, including the Union Carbide facility in Taft, which, put more local families in the market for cars. As business boomed, Madere’s diversified, adding lawnmowers, outboard motors and school buses to its inventory.
The garage’s success was such that L.P. Madere and his wife could afford to support 12 children, of which Jan was the youngest. A now-yellowed newspaper photograph that appeared in the St. Charles Herald around 1945 shows 11 of the kids standing in a row according to age.
“I hadn’t been born yet,” Jan Madere explained. L.P. Madere eventually passed the business down to his eldest son, Charles Preston, and one of his seven daughters, Mildred. The two ran it with their brother-in-law, Frank Pizzolato, until 1990, when Jan, Bazoo and David bought them out.
At its peak in the 1970s and ’80s, the business employed around 20 people, the owners said. By then Madere’s encompassed 20,000-square-feet of building space, including a paint shop and a body shop. New and used cars gleamed in the sprawling parking lot next door.
“We’d sell 20 or 30 cars to the same family over the years – all the relatives and kids,” David Pizzolato, 53, said. His father, Frank, was known to almost everyone in Hahnville. “If someone couldn’t afford the $500 to buy a used car, he’d say, ‘Give me $50 now and the rest when you can.”
There were challenges to being the parish’s only car dealership and garage. Frank allowed his two sons, both mechanics, only a week of vacation each year. The work, he told them, was never finished.
The stress of being on your feet for 30 years, 10 to 12 hours a day, played a part in Bazoo and David Pizzolato’s decision to sell the business when their uncle retired. So did Madere’s reduced workload and workforce.
Jan Madere and the Pizzolato brothers now make up half of Madere’s total staff. The others include Brenda Bergeron, the secretary; Gary Hanson, the service writer; and Bobby Lee, who does paint and body work.
On a recent afternoon, the garage’s paint shop was empty save for a vintage Plymouth Duster that a local collector was having repainted cherry red. As the only mechanics in the repair shop, David and Bazoo scurried between four cars in need of oil changes and tire replacements.
As they worked, a gold-painted Ford Explorer pulled up to the garage door. The driver stepped.out and began filling his front left tire with the shop’s air hose, causing Bazoo, David and the driver himself to burst into laughter. “If he ain’t come in 200 times in the last year… ” David said later. He assumed the man has a leak in his tire but didn’t want to pay for a new one. “We just let him fill it up for free.”
The owners have identified several potential buyers of the garage, though they declined to divulge the asking price. For their part, the Pizzolato brothers hope they make enough from the deal to work fewer hours at another job, a lifestyle they described as “semiretired.”
After 43 years at the garage, Jan Madere said he is looking forward to doing “nothing ” in his retirement. David said he has received employment offers from car dealerships and other companies unrelated to cars. Bazoo remains unclear about his career options, but he anticipates taking a few months off to relax and drive his Harley-Davidson Street Glide. “I’ve always wanted to ride to South Dakota,” he said. “I might just pack some clothes and go.”