Penny Carson decided that this week, in the middle of winter, was a good time to buy summer tires. That’s because Century Tire will close Friday after 88 years in business.
On Tuesday, she went to the shop on Kennebec Street in Portland and loaded her Volvo with four new high-performance radials.
“Where else do I go for tires? This is it,” said Carson, whose loyalty to Century Tire goes back to her childhood, when she accompanied her father to buy tires for the family car.
The news of the shop’s closing, announced Tuesday in a newspaper ad, shouldn’t come as a surprise. These days, tires are a commodity, sold just about everywhere. And small, family-owned tire dealers around the nation are struggling to compete against national chains that buy and sell tires by the millions.
Moreover, Century Tire’s location in the up-and-coming Bayside neighborhood makes the land the shop occupies more valuable than the business itself.
Still, the news of the company’s demise has surprised and saddened its loyal customers.
Robert Skilling, 79, who owns an excavation company in Gray, drove to Portland on Wednesday to thank Dick Aronson, 78, who has been working at Century Tire since his father-in-law recruited him into the family business in 1961.
Skilling, who owns nine trucks, said Century Tire has been putting tires on his trucks for 51 years. “He really treated us well,” he said of Aronson while waiting outside his office.
Sporting a tie and a tweed jacket and looking more like an old-fashioned banker than a tire dealer, Aronson smiled when he opened the door and saw Skilling.
“You are the one we are going to miss,” he said, reaching out with two hands to greet his old customer. “It’s the people like you we love.”
Founded as Deering Tire Co., Century Tire is the oldest family-owned tire company in New England, Aronson said. It was founded by Hyman Silverman and his son, Joseph Silverman. It was Joseph who persuaded Aronson to get into the tire business, rather than go to law school.
Aronson worked his way up in the company, and bought it in 1976.
The company at one time had four locations in the Portland area. Since its shop in Portland’s Pine Tree Shopping Center closed in 2012, its only remaining shop has been on Kennebec Street. The tire company has been there since the early 1940s.
Aronson said his age is the primary reason for closing the business. He wants to spend more time with his family, he said, and his three sons all have other careers and don’t want to be in the tire business.
He and his wife, Adele Aronson, a semi-retired real estate broker, are selling the property to a developer who has invested in other properties in Bayside. Aronson would not identify the developer or reveal the selling price. The building and land – just over an acre with frontage on Marginal Way – are assessed by the city at $1.4 million.
The prime location means the developer will build something, rather than keep the business going, said Jimmy Galvin, the shop’s manager, who has been working for Century Tire for 41 years.
The company has 24 employees, and Aronson said he is trying to find jobs for all of them.
The closing of Century Tire is a common story in the industry, said Kevin Rohlwing, a senior vice president with the Tire Industry Association.
Five years ago, the only place to buy a tire was from a tire dealer, he said. But now, car dealerships and auto repair shops sell tires. And because today’s cars are more reliable, auto repair shops are getting into the business of maintaining cars, with services such as selling and changing tires, so they can fill their bays.
“Cutthroat” competition has driven down prices and put more pressure on the bottom line of tire dealers, Rohlwing said.
“That’s just the nature of the business,” he said. “If you’re not growing, you’re dying.”
Dick Cole, who owned Dick Cole Tire Center on St. John Street in Portland before it closed in 2001, said Aronson was an “honorable competitor” in an era when tire dealers would help each other out.
Aronson also has been heavily involved in the community, serving on the boards of several organizations, including the Boys & Girls Clubs of Southern Maine and Maine Mental Health Partners.
“I absolutely respect Dick,” Cole said. “And I feel like a part of the old Portland is going to be gone.”
Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at [email protected]