"If I could just get my car running I could go out and look for a job. I have to make some money soon, my car needs a new engine."
Life in Maine sometimes seems a struggle between man and machine. Between man and his own automobile. In the summer, men are ahead. Almost anything will run . . . on bald tires . . . with broken windows rolled down. Anything that starts goes.
But the odds change in winter. The battle becomes grimmer. Snow and cold move in and only the strong survive. The poor must struggle hardest. The man who can buy a new car every two years hops from warranty to warranty and the manufacturer has to keep him driving. But for the poor—faced with six dollars an hour labor charges and exorbitant prices for oil and parts—it's not easy.
Even a do-it-himself mechanic has to lie in a foot of cold slush, often taking time off work to catch the daylight. Still there are some tools only a garage has and he eventually has to spend some cash like everyone else. But now, in two Maine towns, people are finally breaking that cycle of repair-to-work-to-repair by organizing Cooperative Garages.
In a garage on Pine Street across the river from the Kennebec Pulp Paper Company in Madison, Vern Clavette is tuning up an old Chevy. Vern used to work up Main Street at Flannagan's Chevrolet where the rate for a mechanic is six dollars an hour. Vern was making $1.80 an hour there. As resident mechanic at the Co-op he makes two dollars with a raise to three if he's hired permanently.
Vern stops working on the Chevy. "This might have cost fifteen dollars somewhere else," he says, "but at this garage we don't charge for mechanic work."
Vern's wife, Lucy, is the Co-op secretary and Vern, a quiet man of 19, has a simple explanation for their membership in the Co-op. "It makes good sense."
It does make good sense. Each family buys a $10 share in the garage to join and monthly dues are four dollars. All repairs are free and all parts are bought at a dealer's discount. Members may work on their own cars or have Vern do it.
The man behind the Madison Co-op Garage is the Reverend Maynard Krider. Reverend Krider is the minister at the Starks United Presbyterian church and he has a lot to say about the Co-op. "The idea began when I was helping distribute surplus commodities in our area. It became evident that transportation was a problem for everyone, especially in Maine's more rural areas. There is no public transportation and some of the older people found it impossible to come in and pick up their commodities.
"As the garage project evolved, we dis-affiliated with the Community Action Program (CAP) because we didn't want to help just the poor. The garage needs everyone's support and, in turn, even the new car owner can save money here. We're lucky to have good facilities with a fine heating system. Just have a warm place to put on my snow chains in the winter makes a difference. There's a great potential for savings here. I saved enough money buying my tires through the Co- op to more than cover my membership and dues."
I asked Reverend Krider how other garages and auto stores were reacting to the Co-op, "Well, for the most part, they're helpful . . . some more than others. If there's a resentment we don't see it.
"You know we aren't just in Madison. We have 71 members some as far away as Winslow. And in that area are a lot of parts dealers. Some say they're giving us the dealers' discount—which should be from 20 - 40%—and then only give us 10% off. The more familiar a member is with parts prices the less likely they'll fool him.
"Eventually we'd like to have one person do all our buying. He'd know the business and do the best for our members. Our philosophy is everyone working together, rich and poor. If other garages say we are undermining the free enterprise system, we say we have 70 people who just bought into the system. They have a share in this. At the beginning they knew they'd have to get out and scare up members if we were going; to succeed.
"Besides," says Vern, "we're helping by keeping some cars on the road that people wouldn't have been able to repair otherwise. These cars are going around needing gas and oil. So we do help the other garages."
"The garage is doing well now," Reverend Krider explains, "but with 70 members, we have a lot of room. Our goal is 200. I try to explain it to people as insurance . . . Medi-car, if you will. It's there when you need it, and when you don't you pay little. Like preventative medicine, we stress preventative mechanics. Maintenance and education. People can learn to do these things and save money later."
Old people, perhaps the most handicapped by Maine's poor transportation, are not forgotten at the Co-op. Reverend Krider explained the Older Americans Grant that the Co-op has received from the government. "This allocates funds for our mechanic to visit older people at their homes, work on their cars and bring them to the garage if necessary. Those on commodities over 55 or those over 65 can become Co-op members without the membership fee or dues. We hassled with Augusta for awhile but now these older people are full voting members of the Co-op."
An AOA (Administration On Aging) poster in the office pronounces: "Adequate available transportation for the elderly is vital to successful living in later years." The garage co-op is dealing with this statement by sharing its facilities with a bus service for older people, funded by the Regional Health Agency and supervised by CAP. The free bus takes old persons to receive medical treatment.
Mike Breton, the bus driver, is an enthusiastic Co-op member. "It helped me out. Vern fixed a muffler, fixed the underneath, put in a new riveted floor. All for free. The muffler cost $7.46 and I know they sell for $11 - 18."
Secretary Catherine Codge puts down the telephone. "I was just talking to this lady with the longest breath. You know, you just try to get in between it. Yes, my husband and I are both members. We've bought 12 tires, rebuilt a floor and we got my '59 Pontiac ready for inspection. It's really been great. We're giving people responsibility too, and that teaches a lot."
Reverend Krider encourages people to join the Madison Co-op or start their own. "We'd be happy to help others get set up. Pine Tree Legal helped us with our by-laws. We'll mail anyone a copy. Our future is hopeful. We've investigated selling gasoline but we'd have to install two enormous tanks. A fuel oil cooperative or a food buying club is more likely. Our Co-op has a broad charter and this garage should only be one enterprise."
The concept of a group of Maine people hiring themselves a mechanic is working in Hartland too. The Hartland Co-op Garage now has 41 members since formation last October.
It's located on Route 152 in Hartland and is run by mechanic Calvin La Breck, his wife Lucy and another Hartland mechanic, Charley Brown. "We're a little different here," says Lucy, "because Hartland is different from Madison. A little wilder, you know."
Local parts dealers and garages have been less willing to recognize the Hartland Co-op as a legitimate garage and grant them the dealer's discounts. "Until we got our battery charger," says Calvin, "they were soaking us two dollars for a battery charge up the road."
Perhaps, since Hartland is more isolated than Madison, they haven't the wide range of dealers to trade with. But more specifically there may be hostility to a repair shop set up to help people rather than to make someone a profit. The Hartland Co-op charges no dues after a $10 entrance fee, but gets two dollars an hour labor or fifty cents if members work on their own cars. Members may buy tires cheaply and two grades of oil are sold. Quaker State 10-W-30, a superior oil, costs members 45 cents a quart The Mammoth Mart in Waterville sells it at 67 cents and gas stations get 75 - 90 cents for the same product
Calvin says the co-op would like to have 250 members. "About 27 out of the 41 members use the garage regularly. One lady who doesn't have a car donated her membership. Other folks we see in here only once in a while.
"There's some hostility around about the garage. Of course you can't hire a mechanic who will suit everyone. Others think—because it's CAP—that their taxes are going to fix someone else's cars. We're trying hard to get some kind of grant and we've sent out 21 applications recently. The Catholic Foundation in Portland may help us some."
Calvin is hopeful about the growth of co-ops. Still, he understands why some poor people don't join and get inexpensive auto repairs. "People say they can't afford it and then they go out and pay $6 an hour for labor. But they can charge it there so they think they're not paying. Of course we can't take charges."
Both co-ops are open Monday through Saturday and at night by appointments. They are struggling to bring about something new in Maine. What they bring forth may be the answer for car owners who are up against the system.