2016-08-05 / Front Page

End of the road for Fritz’s Tire

Injuries force owner Richard Fritz to close the doors after 44 years
By Wm. Duke Harrington Staff Writer


Although owner Richard Fritz will continue his “Timeless Classics” sales online, health issues have forced him to close down his shop, Fritz’s Tire, a local institution located on Route 1 in Arundel, after 44 years in business. (Courtesy image/Duke Harrington photo) Although owner Richard Fritz will continue his “Timeless Classics” sales online, health issues have forced him to close down his shop, Fritz’s Tire, a local institution located on Route 1 in Arundel, after 44 years in business. (Courtesy image/Duke Harrington photo) ARUNDEL — After 44 years in business on Route 1 in Arundel, Fritz’s Tire has reached the end of the road.

A local institution located at 1916 Portland Road, the venerable business was well known, and frequently photographed, for its rustic appearance, with wide, wooden shingles on the small, three bay garage, often fronted by long racks of rubber.

But owner Richard Fritz — know to all by his surname alone — has been forced to give up daily operations after an August 2014 fall left him with a broken back. Perhaps ironically, it was a back injury suffered by his lone employee that finally shuttered the doors.

“I had a young fella who was doing work for me, doing a good job, but he was doing some tires and blew his back out,” Fritz explained Monday, speaking from the hospital bed set up in his dining room, to which he’s been largely confined for the past 18 months.

“He’ll get better, but he’s been out now for a month and I don’t know when he’ll be able to come back,” Fritz said. “And, more than likely, when he does come back the doctors will say, ‘You’ve got to be on light duty.’ Well, there’s no such thing as light duty in my business. I can’t continue to operate with all the expenses that come from owning a business, but without any income coming in.

“So, I’ve decided it’s time to shut the business down,” Fritz said. “For me to hire someone I don’t know, and not be able to go there, to make sure they were doing things the way I want them to be done, and to make sure they’re honest and all of the other things that go into it, I can’t to that.”

An honest day’s work is how Fritz made his reputation, starting from age 13 when he began to do chores at the garage owned by his stepfather, John Mastre. It was located in the Libbytown section of Portland, near where the Denny’s Restaurant is today.

Always athletic, and fast, coaches tried to coax Fritz into joining the track team at Deering High School, but he had just one question before he’d consent to don the uniform — “How much does it pay?”

Since the answer was, “Nothing,” Fritz kept his afterschool job, still working for his step-father, whom he always thought of as “dad,” but also starting to hustle around the city on his own, selling tires out of the back of an old pick-up truck.

Consumed with what he calls a “burning desire” to have his own business, Fritz saved up throughout his 20s while laboring for others. Finally, at 29, he left a job at Crepeau Motors in Kennebunk to buy a Tesla gas station on Main Street in South Portland, next to the giant St. John’s Church.

“It was a phone booth, really,” Fritz says with a laugh, of that first business. But it was his, and he worked there alone, six days a week, from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. until, finally, Mastre stepped in.

“He came in and said, I’m going to work here two days a week so you can get some time off. And, you’re going to pay me,” Fritz recalled, with another giant laugh.

And so it was that Mastre, once the employer, became the employee, and worked for his son for the next quarter century.

“Everybody loved my dad. If you didn’t like my dad, you didn’t like people,” Fritz recalled. “He had a real personality, always liked to joke around.”

But things went south fast in South Portland. When Interstate 295 was completed, it diverted a ton of traffic from what had once been the busiest stretch of road in the state of Maine.

Fritz picked up after two years and moved to a Gibbs gas station in Saco, at the corner of Route 1 and Thornton Avenue. One year after that, he settled in at the shop in Arundel, selling cars and doing mechanical work, and offering state inspections, but mostly dealing in tires — selling them, mounting them, and fixing them.

At the height of the business, during a 13-year stretch when he also recycled tires, taking in more than half a million every year, Fritz employed a crew of 14. But, the escalating costs of workers’ compensation and vehicle insurance spelled the end of that sideline in 2008. Still, Fritz managed to weather a host of competition over more than four decades in Arundel.

“When I first came here you didn’t have VIP. You didn’t have Tire Warehouse. You didn’t have Poulin’s, Discount Tire, Walmart or Town Fair Tire. I was the only guy from Biddeford to Kennebunk on Route 1 selling tires,” he said. “I survived when all the others came because I had a lot of regular customers, and because I was always competitive on prices. Because I owned the business for so long, I didn’t have to go for the long buck. I could work on less of a margin and still do OK, and I always offered free mounting and balancing.”

However, while he kept up with the times, one thing Fritz never changed was the exterior look of his business.

“I remodeled the inside of the building to bring it all up to code, but I never changed the outside because my customers asked me not to,” he said. “They liked the rustic-looking building, especially the people I dealt with who were into the classic cars and tires.”

Between them, Fritz and his wife Pauline raised nine children, enjoying, to date, 17 grandkids and two great-grandchildren. And, along the way, Fritz continued to work hard, putting in the kind of daily manual labor that eventually earned him two new knees and a pair of replacement hips.

“I’ve been a physical guy my whole life. But I always told everybody, I was very fortunate in that when my body gave out, my brain kept on functioning, so I was able to stay in business,” he jokes.

And then came the fall. Two years ago now, at age 72, Fritz was climbing the back steps to his home, built 20 years ago on his property, not far from the tire shop. At the top of the steps, he walked directly into a spider web that had not been there when he’d left that morning.

Frtiz instinctively threw his hands up, but in doing so lost his balance, tumbling backward down seven steps, ending in a heaping thud on the flagstone walkway below. Still, he managed to pick himself up and get to the walk-in clinic in Saco.

The clinic took X-rays, and saw Fritz’s back was fractured, but they were far more concerned about his high blood pressure, he said. Told his back would heal, Fritz was awaiting an appointment to see a neurologist when, two weeks later, his left knee gave out. Again told the back would heal — an MRI could find no connection between the back and the knee — Fritz nearly collapsed in his home one day when his right knee gave out. Taken in for another MRI, doctors finally found what Fritz had felt all along. They scheduled him surgery before he was even out of the machine.

What followed was a nine-hour surgery that welded a steel plate and 16 bolts to his spine. But after nine days in ICU, Fritz was only in rebab for three when he was rushed back. His lungs were filling with fluid, his kidneys were shutting down, and he was suffering congestive heart failure.

“If I had been Catholic, they would have called for Last Rites, that’s how bad it was. They really didn’t think I was going to make it,” he said.

After another nine days in ICU, Fritz finally got to go home, but then suffered a series of four heart attacks.

Finally, with his lone employee out of work, Fritz decided it was time to throw in the towel. Although he had held up hope of returning to work, if only because his favorite aspect of the job over the years was dealing with the public, and chatting up his customers, Fritz had to face facts — “I’m never going to return to work there,” he said.

“I don’t want people to think I gave that up,” he said, while reclining in the home hospital bed where he now spends most of his days, when not working on the rehab walking bars set up in his living room. “I just want to say thank you to everybody who ever came here to my business, to let them know I didn’t go out because I wanted to.”

For now, Fritz says he will continue to trade in classic tires through his website, fritzstire.com, while he tries to sell the iconic shop on Route 1. The property will make a good location for someone he says, given construction of 257 seasonal housing units next door at the Cape Arundel Cottage Preserve. The site could host something to service those homes, or, because it sits on the last lot zoned for industrial use before entering Kennebunk, it could suit a larger purpose.

Either way, an auction will be scheduled soon to sell off all of the remaining inventory, tools and fixtures of the shop that served customers up and down the Route 1 corridor for so long,

“When that happens, I’ll go up for a while in my wheelchair and try and say hi to some people,” Fritz said, “But it will be emotional. It’s hard to say goodbye.”

After that, Fritz and Pauline plan a move to Florida.

“Around here when it snows I won’t be able to go out, and I want to be able to get out of the house and do things, even if I am in a wheelchair,” he said.

But even then, Fritz says, he expects to spend a lot of time reflecting on what had been the achievement of his life’s dream — to simply be his own boss. And for that, Fritz knows, he has a lot of people to thank.

“I had a lot of good customers over the years,” he said, looking from his bed out the window, in the direction of his garage where, after 44 years and countless tires sold and mounted, the journey is finally over.

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@kennebunkpost.com.

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