Dave Carrara stood underneath the crusty ’62 Cadillac Coup deVille undercarriage, holding a cup of coffee in one hand and a tiny black flashlight in the other.
His sagebrush mustache, camouflage suspenders, pistol tucked into the back of his black denim jeans and long, pale hair inspire shades of Sam Elliott mixed with a splash of Ted Nugent.
“I’m going to sit down, because I’m an old man,” Carrara said last week in the lobby of his small business, Carrara’s Auto Clinic, Inc. at 1225 Atwood Ave. “That’s why I’m retiring.”
After more than four decades operating in Johnston, Carrara’s garage doors will close forever in May. He hopes to sell the property — a prime piece of main drag real estate — possibly to a developer. Buyer interest has already been fierce.
“If junior here wanted to take the place over then we wouldn’t close it,” he said, putting his feet up in a soft, worn waiting room recliner, and looking toward his 44-year-old son Jay, who stood in the gateway between the lobby and the garage.
Jay looked down at the ground for just a second and then corrected course, meeting his father’s gaze. It’s complicated. In family, and business, it’s always complicated.
In a perfect world, the shop would stay in the family; a lasting entrepreneurial legacy. Carrara’s quick to dispel a classic American myth; we don’t live in a perfect world.
“There’s a part of me that wishes very much that he would take this garage and keep it going, but there’s a bigger part of me that’s very gratified by how he took what he learned and made himself better,” Carrara said, reasoning with himself. “He doesn’t have to work as hard as I do. He doesn’t have to get dirty. He doesn’t have to hurt himself. He doesn’t have to be here until 10 o’clock at night, because this job needs to be finished.”
“Jay doesn’t have to do any of that stuff, and that’s because of what he learned and how he used it,” Carrara said, looking to his son, Jay, who’s 44 and works for AAA. “So ultimately that’s good.”
Jay Carrara reached out to the Johnston Sun Rise without his father’s knowledge. He thought 44 years in business in Johnston deserved a story. He was right.
At 67, Carrara said he’s worked hard enough and it’s time to spend his remaining hours with his grandchildren rather than your broken transmission.
“Doing business for yourself has changed dramatically throughout my lifetime,” he said slowly, sternly, with a distinct, deliberate and informed matter-of-fact cadence. Carrara has a seasoned mechanic’s convincing manner of speech — developed over the years, explaining complicated automotive issues to penny-pinching laymen.
He tells the story of his business in chopped-up flashbacks — vivid illustrations ripped from the volumes of his memory. The tale jumps across the decades, but always lands back in the present, and his decision to close up shop.
He got his start tweaking engines for Benny’s Automotive Center after graduating from high school. Benny’s opened a garage attached to its Smithfield location, across the street from the A&W Root Beer stand. Eventually, Carrara was transferred to another Benny’s and then went to work for a few smaller shops.
He sees parallels between Benny’s, the quintessential Ocean State small business start-up success and eventual failure story arc, and his own little auto clinic.
“Benny’s is probably the most sorely missed business this state has lost,” said Carrara, their former faithful employee. “They had 29 stores, in Rhode Island and eastern Connecticut … great operation, great people … kind of sort of like this. The grandfather started it, father kept it going and the kids threw up their hands and said this is just way too much work and effort and responsibility.”
Dave’s father Peter, a music teacher, helped sway his son into owning his own business. They had hoped to pass it on to Dave’s son, Jay. When Jay passed at the chance, Carrara decided the sun had set on his small proprietorship.
“And (Benny’s) kids were smart enough, for themselves and their families, to cash in when the writing was on the wall,” he said. “That’s kind of the same as us.”
Guns ‘N Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine” started to play in the background over the garage radio. Slash’s whining guitar riff filled the shop’s waiting room with a somber heavy metal nostalgia dating back to the same year Carrara bought the garage outright from the building’s former owner, in 1987.
“The old man came to me and said I want to open up a garage,” Carrara recalled. “There was a lot of different things that happened before we ended up here, but we ended up here. I came to work. Dad went back to the music studio waiting for the point where we were making enough money for him to be able to come here and get a paycheck. He lasted about 8 years. Being in business isn’t all that much fun a lot of times. It was tough. There wasn’t a boatload of money. He was frustrated by it. He left. He sold me all of it for a dollar and walked away.”
Carrara dates the beginning of his auto clinic back to Oct. 15, 1979, when his son was about a year old. It took some time to land a permanent brick-and-mortar location, but once he had his own place, there was no looking back.
He credits his entrepreneurial spirit with his “inability to work for anybody else.”
“My dad opened it with his dad Peter when I was a small child, and several lifetimes and a family full of relationships in the Johnston community exist because of it,” said Jay Carrara.
The prodigal son stood next to his father’s glass display case full of tiny, die-cast classic cars.
“My entire career and credibility is built on everything that I grew up here learning,” Jay admitted. He’s proud of his own success, but he’s also proud of his father’s decades spent cultivating a small seed, watching it grow and waiting for fruit. The fruit kept them alive.
The garage has survived “as amazing changes in the Johnston landscape and culture” transformed the neighborhood, Jay Carrara recalled.
Dave Carrara had loads of mechanical experience, and in the beginning, specialized in fixing Hondas.
Initially, the business began in that niche.
He dabbled in drag racing and motorcycle club racing.
“I was brought up on stock cars, so quarter-mile straight lines just never really did it for me to any great degree,” Carrara said.
“We were going to fix Hondas,” he recalled. “We waited and not much happened.”
His father helped him move into the business — everything packed into the back of a 1973 Datsun pickup truck.
“We moved in with that Datsun full of stuff and we had $3,000 of real money to start the business,” he remembered. They bought the garage off a man Carrara described as a “real honest to goodness hoodlum.”
“So here we sit, three grand in the bank, no business,” Carrara recalled. “A couple of tool boxes, a bench press, a tire machine, an old fashioned bubble balancer … nothing to do. I’m looking through the Journal, I see a ’73 Honda CB750 for sale for a thousand bucks. I say to my old man, ‘Pop, I could probably get two grand for that bike. It looks decent.’”
They bought it. Parked it outside.
And “like flies to honey,” people started coming through the door, asking “Do you fix motorcycles?”
“The first time they asked me I said no,” Carrara said. “The second time somebody asked me I said no. The third time somebody asked, I said, ‘Of course we do.’ And we began fixing motorcycles.”
Every morning, throughout the early 1980s, Dave Carrara and his family pushed 30 bikes out of the small garage onto the surrounding lot. And every night, they pushed those same bikes back into the building.
Eventually, the shop would drift back to fixing automobiles. They eventually invested in a dealer license and even rented U-Haul trucks from the site. The business grew and contracted, then swelled and shrunk again over the decades. Ultimately, the clinic found its clientele, and they rewarded stellar mechanical service with loyalty.
“My first actual memory of this place is sitting right there,” Jay remembered, pointing toward a window ledge they affectionately call “The Shelf.” “This rack wasn’t here. You’d sit there on Thursday nights and wait.”
He’d wait for his dad to finish work for the night. There was no timecard to punch. The workday was over when the work was finished.
Carrara’s Auto Clinic has been a AAA Approved Repair Shop for the last 20 of its 44 years. Dave Carrara showed off his magnetic Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) badges, neatly arranged on a tool chest in the back of the garage.
Dave Carrara said he thanks and appreciates “the literally thousands of customers for whom he's worked over the years.”
“As he closes up, he wants to say ‘thank you’ to the over 200 current clients who he serviced in 2022 with their approximate 500 different vehicles,” Jay explained, speaking for his dad after the interview ended. “He also appreciates their kind words of congratulations and well wishes upon retirement.”
Dave Carrara has set May 12 as his last day of service. Then he plans to take a nice long break.
“It will be the longest Memorial Day holiday on record,” he joked, standing underneath the Cadillac he’s been restoring for a client. “This place is for sale and some folks are coming in to take a tour.”
The garage sits on a half-acre of land along heavily trafficked Atwood Avenue. A local broker’s handling the sale. Carrara’s asking $799,000 for the business and the land. He’s hoping the sale will help fund his retirement.
“If it sells, it sells,” he said, walking through the garage.
He hates to say goodbye, but he’s finished. The business is finished.
“To get a real technician in here, you probably need to pay $35-40 an hour,” Carrara explained. “It’s not here; believe me when I tell you it’s not here. The days of (a business) going from one guy to the next — I saw it myself in other garages I worked in — where the older generation would move on and the younger generation would move in; they kept it going, kept it working ... That’s over. It’s not going to happen.”
After May 12, Carrara plans to spend more time in the woods, hunting and fishing.
And he’s done keeping his kids, and grandchildren, waiting. The work is done.
Carrara’s son simply won’t have to work as hard as he did, for so little. That’s the new American Dream.