Hilary Cheda’s automotive legacy

11/05/2020

Talk about your family business: Cheda’s Garage in Point Reyes Station spans four generations and almost 100 years. The painted sign on the front of the building boldly proclaims, “Cheda’s Garage Est. 1923” and identifies itself as the “Oldest AAA Contract Station in the USA.” Deer and elk heads, one moose head and an assortment of antlers line the entrance wall. The shelves of vintage car manuals collecting dust in the back room enhance the retro feel, as does the cavernous old garage on main street. It has the nostalgic feel of times past, days when proprietors were on the premises every day working alongside their employees. The scene could easily be the subject of a Norman Rockwell painting.

The current proprietor, Hilary Cheda, is a fourth-generation Cheda, the great-great-granddaughter of Lewis, a Swiss Italian dairyman who arrived in Point Reyes Station in the 1920s. His son, Adolph, rented the building that is now Gallery Route One, where he sold cars and pumped gas. Cheda’s moved to its current location in the mid-1970s, when Adolph was able to buy the building. They continued to sell Chevrolets into the 1990s. 

Hilary is the first woman in her family to head the operation. When she took over in 2011, she recalls that “a few customers were surprised to see a young female” at the helm of a business that was traditionally a man’s domain. (She was a petite 35-year-old then, and she’s still petite!) But times have changed, and gender is no longer an issue. Anyone she encounters immediately senses competence and realizes she is in charge. With many years of experience behind her, she can usually diagnose problems, even if she can’t repair the cars herself. 

When Hilary married 19 years ago, she and her husband, Paul Sechler, a Marin deputy sheriff, soon decided to buy an affordable home in Petaluma. It was also convenient for both of their jobs—hers in Novato at the Fireman’s Fund and his in San Rafael. They have raised their two children there, a son now 16 and a daughter now 13. Yet Hilary’s heart is clearly in West Marin, where she grew up and attended school. During her childhood and young adulthood, her parents were always accessible—dad at the shop and mom across the street, working at the post office. Many of her classmates still live here, and she enjoys running into them and reconnecting with her community.

In 2010, Hilary took leave from her job to care for her father, Gary, whose health was failing. It was during this time that he asked her to carry on the business. Hilary was familiar with the operation, having done bookkeeping for him for years, and was excited by the challenge.

Lots has happened in the intervening time, and lately, of course, the pandemic that has forced this essential business to make necessary changes. The vast interior and small number of employees easily allow for social distancing, and with doors open both in front and back, the space is well ventilated. All cars are wiped down on arrival and before they are returned.  Customers have the option of dropping off their car without entering the building, and all financial transactions can be handled over the phone. Employees are encouraged to stay safe in their private lives.

At the start of the shutdown, when few ventured outside, Point Reyes Station was virtually empty. “People, especially the elderly, stayed away,” Hilary recalls. After a month or two, as people settled into new routines, work at Cheda’s became steady and has continued so. 

The Woodward Fire also affected business. Summer tourists were scarce because of the smokey air, so there was a lull in the AAA towing service Cheda’s provides and fewer repairs for the visitors who sometimes experience car trouble far from home. But, like her father and grandfathers before her, Hilary relies on the loyalty and trust of the West Marin community to keep business going. 

One of the greatest challenges for Cheda’s, as for many local businesses, is the difficulty recruiting workers to West Marin. Fortunately for now, all the mechanics live locally. Each is trained to work on both domestic and foreign cars. The business takes care to follow up with customers after a service or a repair. In the past “such a contact might have been viewed as pushy,” Hilary said, but as people’s lives have gotten busier, they appreciate being informed of potential problems with their vehicle. 

Nothing much has changed at Cheda’s since Hilary took over. Unlike many 21st-century garages, customers do not receive computer printouts, but rather a handwritten invoice. Everyone takes lunch at the same time, and the thunderous sound of the large front gate rolling down signals that it is exactly noon. “The business always had good practices,” Hilary said proudly. “I have rolled with the punches, and changed with what came along.” 

Well, why change something that has worked well for almost 100 years? 

 

Ellen Shehadeh has written for the Light, the West Marin Citizen, The Pacific Sun and the North Bay Bohemian, and interviewed artists and authors on KWMR, for 14 years. She lives in Inverness.