The grey building sits midway down one of Bangor, Maine's tree streets, its western false front at odds with the exposed gable roofs of its more traditional neighbors. A sedan of respectable age sits idle in front of the lone garage door. The grounds are tidy, well-kept. A dumpster rests on the far corner of the building. It’s getting in the picture.
“You want me to move?” asks Gabe Barnes, the building’s owner. I’m trying to frame the facade’s retro commercial signage in line with his face. It’s hard—the angles are all wrong. The dumpster keeps sneaking into the shot.
“How about if I turn this way?” he says. We try again.
Barnes, the owner of Bangor Seat Cover here, is good at self-promotion. He’s comfortable with the camera and honest with his selling points. It doesn’t come off as self-aggrandizing. It comes off as the truth. He knows what his business’s strengths are and why, nestled down this innocuous Bangor street for nearly sixty years, customers still keep coming back.
“I'm picky about my work,” said Barnes. “You have to have attention to detail. I'm picky about the quality of materials I use, the appearance. So customers, I find, like quality and they're willing to pay for a job well done. There's not very many other people in the area that do what we do.”
What they do is seat repair, plain and simple. It’s right in the business name. Most of Barnes’ business is in automotive work, replacing upholstery and headliners on classic cars, things like that. They also do ATVs, aircraft, boats, furniture, and commercial seating. Customers come from as near as the next street over to places as far-flung as Washington, D.C., and Nova Scotia. Pilots fly into Bangor to have their aircraft serviced here. If you’ve sat in a Denny’s booth, laid on an exam table, or visited a dentist around here in the past decade or so, you’ve probably experienced Barnes’ work.
He didn’t set out to be a respected upholsterer. He started apprenticing here in 2006, back when the business was owned by Dave Lawler. Lawler asked him to come onboard. Barnes knew nothing about the business.
“I said, ‘Sure, I’ll take the challenge,” said Barnes. “So I came over, and it worked.” He found himself working part-time under a reupholstering veteran by name of David Jordan. Jordan specialized in convertible tops, and taught Barnes what he knew. After a few years, Jordan stepped back and Barnes took a more central role. Eventually, Barnes assumed ownership of the business and began diversifying its services.
“Since 2006 I've hustled and I've gone out and I met with doctor’s offices, I've met with dentist offices, and I met with restaurant managers and I've said ‘Hey, I'm Gabe and I'm from Bangor Seat Cover. We're not a fly-by-night company. We've been here for 60 years. Would you give us a try?’ And a lot of them would say, ‘I never even heard of you guys before,’” said Barnes. “And I’d get the business.”
I don’t ask how old Barnes is. He’s not old in the way you’d expect an upholstering expert to be. The gray in his hair hasn’t been there long. He’s active, talkative, with a dizzying array of interests—hiking, dining, travel. Karaoke. Reading. Crystal Pepsi. The walls of his workshop are lined with the stuff. Seven hundred and seventy four bottles, as a matter of fact, give or take a few to account for consumption. Barnes loves the stuff. He remembers the short-lived 1990s release; when it was re-released a few years ago in limited quantities, he bought it in bulk.
In a back room is a half-dozen vintage couches, restored and ready to sell. They’re covered with massive stuffed animals, the kind you find at a carnival. We chat about the furniture for a while, but I can’t help myself—what’s with the stuffed animals? He tells me that he bought a carnival game a few years back, a mechanized thing that involves one deftly threading a rotating steel spiral through a hand-held metal ring. If the two touch, an “Operation”-style buzzer heralds your failure. He practices, he says, to “beat the house.” Once he’s amassed enough winnings (i.e., stuffed animals), he’s going to deliver them to local childrens’ cancer care centers.
To illustrate, he leads me past an old Corvair seat he’s working on, past a sleigh bench he’s restored, to the machine itself. He demonstrates it, and I see what he means by attention to detail. He’s intent, exacting. He gets it on the second try. “I’m a little rusty,” he says.
He considers his next closest upholstering competitor to be in Kittery, Maine, nearly two hours south. He knows there’s a market for this, but no one’s doing it—today’s work ethic is lacking, it’s hard work. It's not easy. Nobody wants to do convertible tops, to put in the hours to be an expert.
He looks out the window at my aging pickup truck.
“If you get a hole in the seat of your Toyota, if you find it ripped or the seam lets go, then who do you call?” he asked. “We look like a little hole in the wall tucked away in Bangor. But the business has been here for 60 years. And as long as I'm in good health I'm going to be right here for another 30. Hopefully, I'll find someone that can take over the business and continue it. But there's not many people that do what I do.”
This article was originally published in The Weekly, January 2018.