During their many years as the owners of Bow Wow Auto Parts on the Boise Bench, Mike and Pat Thornton followed two guiding philosophies.
The first: Keep regular hours. In the Thorntons’ case, that meant 10-hour work days during the week, six hours on Saturdays.
The second: “If you say you’re going to do something, do it,” said Pat.
Mike died in 2015. Pat continued to run the shop that specializes in Volkswagen and foreign car parts with the help of longtime employees, extended family and legions of customers. Now, Pat is retiring, and the 45-year-old shop on Emerald Street will close for good on June 3.
When Bow Wow sells its last auto part, it will mean the end of an institution and the loss of one of the last independent auto parts stores in the Treasure Valley.
Some customers, like Merlyn Knight, visit the store every week. He’s such a regular that the staffers at Bow Wow recognize his voice on the phone. He and his grandson, Haydon Harmon, 15, are working on the 1967 Volkswagen that originally belonged to Merlyn’s father. They’re getting the car ready for Haydon to drive.
“It’s a four-generation car. It’s not a restoration. It has nothing to do with what will come of the value of that car,” said Knight. “It’s a grandfather and grandson working together.”
Haydon, said Knight, is learning a lot of things he couldn’t learn working on a new car.
“I’d bet there aren’t a half-dozen 15-year-olds in Boise who know how to hand-pack a wheel bearing,” said Knight.
Knight said he doesn’t know what he’ll do without Bow Wow and the staffers there who can identify Volkswagen parts from the vaguest descriptions. And the pressure is on. Haydon’s younger cousin, Calvin Knight, has already said he wants to be the next in line to inherit the old Volkswagen when Haydon is done with it.
“I’m heartbroken,” said Knight. “It’s almost a tearful thing.”
The Thorntons, high school sweethearts, moved to Boise from Seattle and opened the store in 1972, a few years after Mike returned from Vietnam. He’d made friends with Warren Buser, owner of Bow Wow, a well-established Seattle auto parts store. Buser liked Mike — because he’d served in the war, said Pat — and offered to help the Thorntons start their business in Boise. He let them use the Bow Wow name and connected them with suppliers.
“Back then, everybody in Boise knew each other,” Pat said.
Mike loved the desert. Boise was a good fit, a place for them to raise their two daughters and run a business that became, said one daughter, Tricia Burns, like the “ ‘Cheers’ of auto parts.”
The line between customer, friend, co-worker and family often blurred at Bow Wow. Many Thornton family members and family friends worked there over the years. The Thorntons inherited the Bow Wow name along with the familiar cartoon dog logo. But the Thorntons loved dogs anyway. There were always dogs in the shop — six dogs through the decades — said Pat. And there are dogs now, two large Airedales named Link and Dobby, “the one who jumps on everyone,” said Pat.
Practical jokes were big at Bow Wow, like the time staffers got revenge on an annoying UPS man by giving him a doughnut frosted with Ex-Lax. There was drama — the time someone drove through the front window. There was loyalty — the customer who trusted the Thorntons’ expertise so much he had them ship a motor to him in Germany.
Then there were memorable customers like Al Blood. The retired military man got off the bus in front of the store at the same time every day, Monday through Friday, and sometimes on Saturdays.
“He was our end-of-the-day man,” said Pat.
He’d walk in, do the dishes, clean everything in the store and “make sure everything was in order for the next day,” she said. He never filled out a time card. He was never an employee.
“But he absolutely loved it here. He made Bow Wow a part of his life until he died,” said Pat.
A call back
Kent Beckman was the Thorntons’ first employee. They hired him in 1972 when he was just 19 to work at the front counter. Beckman went on to run his own Volkswagen shop for 17 years and work in the auto field.
“I never could get out of this trade,” he said.
When Mike was diagnosed with dementia a few years before he died, Beckman saw it as his “call back.”
Beckman returned to his job at the front counter, the same job he’d had when he was barely out of his teenage years.
“Mike was the inspiration for everyone who came in the store,” said Beckman. “He had a dune buggy and off-road cars that he raced. He got people excited about cars.”
Back then, Beckman had just bought his first Volkswagen. Mike taught him how to take care of his car, and soon had Beckman “tearing into motors,” honing his own expertise. Beyond the cars, Beckman credits Mike with “influencing me my whole life. His values. He had strong opinions, he helped me become an adult,” Beckman said.
When Bow Wow closes, Beckman, too, will retire. But returning to his old post, ending his career where it began, has been, for him, “one of the best things I’ve done in my life.”
‘You unpack boxes, you know what you have’
Pat said that she and Mike might have retired years ago to spend time at the mountain house they built together in Centerville. But after his diagnosis, Pat decided to keep the shop open so Mike would have the routine of coming to work.
“Familiarity was everything,” she said.
His long illness and death came with lessons.
“Some customers — ones you might not consider friends, or might not even like — some of them were the most gracious,” said Pat.
Though Mike has been gone for nearly two years, his presence in the store remains strong. He racked up awards and titles through his buggy racing.
“If his car didn’t break, he always won,” said Pat.
Photographs of him with his team and his cars dot the walls of the shop, along with the commendation he received from then-Boise Mayor Dirk Kempthorne in 1991 for “heroism and courage” after he pulled two people out of a burning house.
That was the kind of person Mike was, said Pat. She recalled a couple traveling through Boise in 1976 on their way to a new life in Montana. Their trip coincided with the Teton Dam break in East Idaho. Mike suggested an alternative route through Sun Valley. He and Pat also took the couple to the bank and helped them cash a check so they’d have money for their trip. The couple decided to stay in Sun Valley and later told Pat, “We never would have found our home if we hadn’t met Mike.”
“He always had good ideas. That’s his story. I’m sorry he’s not here to tell you about it. But he might not have anyway.”
Pat is modest about her own knowledge of cars and mechanics.
“You unpack boxes. You know what you have. Even though you know what eggs are used for, it doesn’t mean anyone will ask you to make an omelet,” she said.
But that modesty seems misplaced for anyone who’s overheard her conversations with customers or seen how closely those customers listen to her when she talks.
Now she’s ready to use her talents in other ways.
“I never was a person of faith. But I want to take the opportunity to give back, whatever the calling might be,” she said. She recently took a mission trip with her church, the Idaho City Christian Center, and thinks she might like to do more of that.
She, Kent Beckman and the other Bow Wow employees will work through the shop’s last day. Miralem “Miki” Dzaferovic came to Boise as a Bosnian refugee in 1997 when he was 12. He’s worked at Bow Wow for 11 years. He’ll take some time off for Ramadan, then look for another job armed with top recommendations from Pat. Greg Sincel will spend June 3 at Bow Wow. He got a job at the shop in 1977 when he was 16. He stayed for 27 years before leaving.
“I thought of the Thorntons’ daughters as my little sisters,” he said. “We all stayed close. I raised a family while I was here.”
“Things change,” said Pat. “They don’t stay the same.”
But sometimes, like in the case of Bow Wow Auto Parts, they stay the same for a good long time.
Open house/closing house
Come say your farewells. Pat Thornton, her family and staff will host a public event from noon to 5 p.m. Thursday, June 1 at Bow Wow Auto Parts, 4722 Emerald St.
All are welcome to “stop by, hang around and see someone you haven’t seen in a while,” said Pat.
Call the shop at 208-345-6451 for more information.