John Kraska Jr. started helping out in his father’s auto parts store at age 7, rolling tires into the building.
On Saturday, the tires will have to go somewhere else as Kraska Corp., the last mom-and-pop auto parts store in the city, shuts its doors after 67 years.
“It’s time,” Kraska, now 74, said in an interview Monday. “As my Polish grandfather said, there are two things money can’t buy: health and time. While I’m healthy, I want to use my time wisely.”
Kraska Corp. was established near Kelley Square in 1954 by Kraska’s father, John Sr., who had run a gas station and realized Worcester’s independent and smaller mechanics needed more regular deliveries of parts. The business grew and, in 1960, the store moved to Blackstone River Road in Quinsigamond Village. It has been there ever since, serving local service stations, auto body shops, dealerships and used car lots, as well as the weekend tinkerer with the classic car in the garage.
Kraska, who described the store as his father’s “other child,” was a regular presence. But after John Sr. had two heart attacks while Kraska was a junior at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, the store became a career option.
“Maybe he had the heart attacks because he thought I was going to be a design engineer,” Kraska joked on Monday.
Kraska switched to a management degree and began working full-time after his graduation in 1968.
He has become a reliable source of parts and auto knowledge for customers ever since.
“He’s like a computer; he knows old cars like anyone,” said employee Mary Ann Houle.
Kraska said his business success was pretty simple.
“We’re knowledgeable and we get the right parts the first time,” Kraska said. “It’s just establishing a rapport with customers.”
That rapport was on display Monday as several customers came into the shop to offer well wishes on retirement.
“He’s been great to us,” Joe Moroski, the lead electrician at Clark University, said as he picked up motor oil and offered his well wishes to Kraska. “Now where am I going to go?”
That rapport also developed between Kraska and his employees.
“I have another job, but I never mind coming here,” Houle, an employee of 52 years, said. “The customers are nice. John’s nice. He’s the most honest man I know.”
But the auto parts business has changed since Kraska took over in 1968.
While he offers name-brand parts, his competitors at the big box stores often buy parts and repackage and resell them, Kraska said, so you can’t always tell what you’re getting. Moreover, leasing vehicles has changed the game some, as leased vehicles are predominantly serviced by dealerships.
“It used to be you’d buy a used car for your first car and tinker with it,” Kraska said. “Now people want a rent receipt for their home and a rent receipt for the car they have.”
Then, of course, there was COVID.
Kraska reported that within the last year, three of his major customers died, four retired, and two closed because of the pandemic and never reopened.
With his two sons interested in other careers outside of Worcester, Kraska said it was time to retire. He said he has grandchildren to visit and golf to play.
“I’ve had some customers say it’s the end of an era,” Kraska said. “Some even say that even the smell of the place is like an old-time parts store.”
Then he smiled. “But you get to a point where you don’t want to work anymore,” Kraska said.