CC Outtake: Scenes from an Old Car Upholstery Shop

This shop was around for a long, long, long time in Northeast Seattle’s Roosevelt Way. The bottom of the shopfront windowframe surely must’ve started out as a straight line; I don’t know how it could’ve gone that frowny (the photo understates it; it was really bent!) and not let in all of the rain, but it didn’t seem to. The owner of the place—as far as I know, he worked alone—seemed older than whatever god you might care to name. And speaking of names, he wasn’t Paul; he was Karl. Whoever Paul was, he’d gone before I came round.

Karl was an old-fashioned craftsman. He knew what he was doing, and he sure as all hell didn’t need (or take) any bulk wrap from they who felt compelled to coach him on how to treat their car or how to do his work. Wanna start mouthin’ around, makin’ out like you know what’s what? Knock it off one time; you’re a doctor or a lawyer, a writer or a photographer or a short-order cook or whatever it is you do—he’s an upholsterer. Or start the conversation by asking the price, or otherwise signal your likelihood of being a difficult customer? Not having any of that, either. He wouldn’t tell you to take a flying hike in a rolling lake, he’d just quote you a price high enough to get you out of there quicklike, once and for all.

No, the right way was to be a grownup about it. There are limited hours in a workday and limited years in a life, so don’t waste his time; just tell him what you’ve got and what you want, then shut your mouth all the way shut. He’d ask questions as needed, quote a reasonable price and a rough approximation of when it would be done. And then you’d go away. If he hadn’t rung before the rough timeframe was up, then (and only then) you’d check in with him. When it was done, you went in promptly and you paid the tab without any backtalk, even if it was a little over the quote; craftwork is sometimes like that. It wasn’t all that hard; just coöperate and in the end everyone was all smiles.

Along with auto interior refurbishment, he had a reputation for making extremely good convertible tops…boat seats…plane seats…you name it. There was always an assortment of interesting cars in the workshop, some of which were very posh onehow or another. And there were upholstery materials everywhere. Big overstuffed swatchbooks in the front office, too.

This Peugeot 403 was a seemingly permanent fixture at Paul’s, looking bugeyed with its American-spec headlamps (larger than the European ones). I don’t know what year the car was, but it’s a ’63 or later if the amber front turn signals are telling the truth. I don’t recall the details of that car’s story, but it was complicated. Mountains of cubic dollars had been poured into its fastidious restoration—I remember that bit—and then something like the owner died and either didn’t leave a will or the will didn’t adequately specify the car’s disposition; there were issues with the car’s title, there was a bunch of family acrimony, lawsuits and countersuits, etc. Karl was stuck with the car; nobody could come get it (or pay the very large bill on its very fine complete interior renewal), and he couldn’t sell it. He could scarcely touch it! It was in the shop the first time I walked in, and the last.

And whatever this grand old car might be, it is very old and quite grand.

I never got the chance to have Karl do anything for any of my cars. He did terrific work renewing the cushions and upholstery in some great old furniture I inherited from my grandparents—you can see one of the cushions in the foreground of the photo just above, there on the bench on the right. One time he called me in before buttoning up the job so he could show me the improvements he’d made. He was right to be proud; his work has held up well.

Roosevelt Way got torn up for reconfiguration; it dragged on and on, as these things do. Made it difficult getting in and out of the shop’s parking lot, and Karl was peeved about how the whole thing was handled with respect (or lack of it) to the local businesses. Whether or not that dealt the final blow, Paul’s closed down forever. Street View informs me the building was extensively renovated—that frowny front window has gone—and it’s now a used car boutique leaning toward premium models.

But before, in one corner of the shop was this timer switch, I guess for a (neon?) sign that used to be out front. As I say, Paul’s was around for a long time!