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Petaluman finds niche at auto parts store

In an ever-changing world, familiar faces, great service and personal attention are all important factors when choosing which businesses we support and where we shop.

In Petaluma, longtime residents and those acquainted with our history can easily identify most of our friendliest and longest serving local businesses: the Argus-Courier, Lace House Linen, Van Bebber Brothers, Rex Hardware, Kresky Signs, Hunt & Behrens and Volpi’s Ristorante & Bar. Several others round out the top 10, followed by a couple of bars and taverns.

What may come as surprise to some is the longevity and high ranking of Petaluma Auto Parts, established around 1948, and the length of time — 50 years — its owner Ross Leask, has been working there. The business has outlasted a number of competing auto parts stores including Western Auto, Leher Auto Parts, Preston Auto Parts and Grand Auto, and currently is one of three in town.

Originally called Auto Parts Supply and founded by Bob McDonald and Ken Carlson, the business was located next door to long-gone Forman Hardware, at 218 Main St. From its inception, the store has been a member of the National Auto Parts Association, which was created in 1925 to meet America’s growing demand for replacement parts and accessories.

Petaluma-born Ross and his brother Bob are the sons of Gordon and Ione Leask, who moved to Petaluma from San Francisco in 1941. The family lived on Raymond Heights and then on Laurel Avenue, where Ross home delivered the Argus-Courier and mowed neighborhood lawns for spending money.

Sports-minded and athletic, he played for the Elk’s during Petaluma Little League’s 1957 inaugural season, and for Moch Lucchesi’s Petaluma Giants. Summertime was spent hanging around McNear Park playing pick-up baseball games. At Petaluma High School, class of ’63, he was a curve-ball throwing right-hander who earned the nickname Stu Miller, after the S.F. Giants slightly-built off-speed relief pitcher.

Leask did not have any aspirations or particular job skills when he entered Santa Rosa Junior College, where he also played baseball, “mainly as a batting practice pitcher.” His resume included working at several service stations, washing dishes at Lund’s Drive-In and laboring at a salad dressing manufacturer. Hired by Auto Parts Supply as a stock boy in April 1966, he earned $2.65 an hour for stocking shelves, delivering parts and working behind the counter for the parts store, which had moved to 32 Fourth St. and was renamed Petaluma Auto Parts around 1973.

Over the years the auto parts industry has changed tremendously and is no longer dependent on the do-it-yourself home mechanic stopping in to purchase tune-up kits or engine parts. With advanced technology, cars that used to last for about 80,000 miles routinely last up to 200,000 miles. Store inventory is three times what it once was and computers have replaced the numerous parts catalogs. Hot rod and classic car buffs can still purchase high performance parts and carburetor kits but few people are looking to buy seat covers anymore. According to Leask, the only things that haven’t changed at his store are him and the restrooms.

Around 1980, Leask, McDonald and Jim McCarter partnered together to purchase Sonoma Auto Parts, which was managed by McCarter, who passed away earlier this year. Several years later, he and McCarter took over ownership of the Petaluma store, and later divided them, with Leask taking over the Petaluma location.

Leask married classmate Laurie Ronsheimer in 1967 and together they raised their two children, Gina and Josh. Laurie, who taught elementary school in Vallejo for 24 years, continues her work by mentoring new teachers.

Working alongside a staff of 17 employees, Leask no longer maintains the long, labor-intensive hours he used to, and thanks to his highly skilled office manager Ann Marie Reid, who’s been with him since 1978, he has plenty of time to work on his already top-notch golf game. Pursuing his passion, he’s a three-time club champion (2001, 2003, 2014) of the Petaluma Golf Country Club.

(Harlan Osborne’s column Toolin’ Around Town appears every two weeks. Contact him at harlan@sonic.net.)