For 37 years, Cooper's keeps Westport moving
Published 9:45 am, Wednesday, July 7, 2010
Henry Ford had a brilliant idea in 1908. If you're thinking it was the Model T, you're only partially right. Granted, the Tin Lizzie changed the world forever and put affordable motorized transportation within the reach of the average person (really, men back then). But Henry's great big idea was the moving assembly line. And the assembly line only became possible when auto parts became identical and interchangeable, and not custom-crafted, hand-wrought little masterpieces with no two exactly alike. The assembly line worked so well that in its first year, Ford delivered an astounding 10,000 Model Ts to an eager public yearning to take a Sunday drive once they figured out what that was. Oh, and one more thing: by standardizing car parts, Ford, without even trying, had invented another little business, the auto parts industry.
Sandy Cooper went to work in his dad's auto parts store in Bridgeport in 1961. He liked working with his dad. He liked the people that came in, he liked cars in general and he was fascinated by the all the car stuff. Cooper was a "gear head." That's a good thing if you're in auto parts.
Cooper also had a really rare talent. He was proficient at saving money. And he saved it, a penny at a time until, in 1973, he had enough to open his own shop. Good son that he is, he wanted to open his store far enough away from his dad so that he wouldn't take away any business from the old man. Two towns away was far enough and that landed him in Westport at 1763 Post Road E., where he still does business today.
People can be, shall we say, mildly neurotic, when it comes to the care of their cars. There are those who buy a car and treat it like an appliance. They get in it in the morning, turn it on, drive it to wherever, drive it home turn it off, and that's it. Oil change when the dealer says, otherwise, they don't even think about the darn thing. On the other end of the spectrum, you've got the "certified" car guy (girl). Their car is a living, breathing family member with wants, needs and a unique, irresistible, and altogether charming personality. No one will drive their car but them, no one will wash their car but them and absolutely no one will ever see under its hood -- after all, that's a very private area, seen only behind closed garage doors -- and late at night.
A lot of Cooper's customers are of the second variety. They come in crestfallen, holding the forlorn remains of a connecting rod extricated from deep in the bowels of an ailing engine. They come in asking for part number 32xut4r5436 for a car model that went out of production 20 years ago. Or they come in holding what's left of something that used to be something else wanting to figure out what it was. That's all fine and dandy. Cooper isn't very easily flustered by requests for oddball car parts. After 40 years behind the counter, there aren't many he's not familiar with.
But here's where Cooper's Auto Parts differs from any of the big box stores. Cooper likes people. He likes his customers and he wants their babies to be "all better." He's part psychologist too. He knows the level of stress, angst and paranoia that can come from a windshield wiper that leaves a barely discernible streak. He understands the feeling of horror, dread and all-consuming helplessness that can come from knowing that a turn signal bulb has blown. So, he spends time talking his customers calmly down off their respective ledges. Bulb out? He'll not only sell you the bulb, but he'll put it in -- right then and there. Same goes for windshield wipers. This sort of attentive and generous service can be so shocking to some people that it leaves them speechless.
"It's just courtesy, you do what you can," says Cooper. "It doesn't take much to be nice."
Asked how people have changed over 40 years, he says, "Now, it's more me, me, me. Trust is gone. You know, there is no such thing as pretty honest. You're either honest or you're not. It would be nice if it was like back in the '50s with screen doors that you don't have to lock. Look, technology has to change, why do people have to change their morals and standards?"
Asked how long he thinks he's going to keep working, he answers: "I've never done anything else my whole life, not a day, not an hour. I'm going to stop now?"
Editor's note: This is part of a series of articles by Downey featuring Westport businesses and organizations that have been running for at least 20 years. If you have an idea for a story, please contact us at email@example.com or 203-255-4561, ext. 111.