Lots of things have changed in Wilmington through the years, and it seems the list gets longer every day.
Amid all that change, however, the towering, red-and-white canopy for Hughes Bros. tire and auto shop at 11th and Market streets has remained constant, and so has the business beneath it.
Hughes Bros., which opened back in 1921, is celebrating a century of serving the public this year, the latest of more than a dozen Wilmington businesses that can claim 100 or more years of longevity.
“When you go in a place, you kind of want to see the same faces. That’s what’s kept us going,” said John Allen, who’s been the owner of Hughes Bros. since 1980. “We got grandkids of customers coming in now” whose parents and grandparents started taking their cars there decades ago.
Indeed, at least one Hughes Bros. employee “came with the building” when her father bought it 41 years ago, jokes John Allen’s daughter, Heather Allen, who does the books out of an upstairs office overlooking Market Street.
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Don Pierce and Mike Helms, who work directly with customers at the front desk, date their tenure at Hughes Bros. to the late 1980s. Helms said that, as far as he knows, Hughes Bros. is the oldest auto repair shop in North Carolina.
“This is our second home,” Heather Allen said, and the businesses’ 24 employees “are like our extended family.”
Inside, things appear to be much like they were when some of us (ahem) started going there more than 30 years ago. Hughes Bros. looks and feels like the unpretentious, old-school auto shop that it is.
Some of the reading material in the waiting room might not be from the current year, or decade. Aside from some banners advertising tires or posters for local sports teams (Hughes Bros. has long been a big booster of University of North Carolina Wilmington athletics), scant attention is paid to decor. It has what one might call a comfortably gritty, lived-and-worked-in feel.
Safe to say Hughes Bros. doesn’t aspire to be a gleaming, spotless dealership-style destination. It’s just interested in getting you some tires or fixing your car.
Employees use computers to look up different types of tires and their prices, but invoices are still written out and filed by hand. Adhering to the old-school ways as much as they’re able, however, doesn’t appear to have hurt businesses much.
During the course of reporting this story, every single Hughes Bros. employee being interviewed had to pause answering questions in order to attend to a customer.
John Allen, who’s in his 70s but maintains a trim physique thanks to regular trips up and down the basketball court in his senior hoops league, said the first location for Hughes Bros. was at the corner of Second and Market streets. The joke is the original owners wanted to “move to the suburbs” at a time when the city limits ended around 17th Street.
The building with the distinctive canopy was built in 1935, and Hughes Bros. has been there ever since. John Allen said the reason the canopy is so high is that there weren’t height restrictions for trucks in the ’30s, and the business wanted to be able to accommodate all comers.
The original owners sold the business to one of their nephews, Jack Dunn, in the 1960s, and he took on a couple of partners, one of whom was Jim Stallworth, the grandfather of current, longtime employee Mike Helms.
John Allen, who was born in Georgia but grew up in Norlina, near the Virginia border, was a sales representative for Firestone in the 1970s, and Hughes Bros. was one of his customers. He was beginning to tire of all the travel, and when he found out that the owners at the time were looking to retire, buying the business and settling in Wilmington felt like “a slam dunk.”
Allen opened a second Hughes Brothers location on South College Road in the late 1980s.
Hughes Bros. is a throwback to another time for sure, but plenty has changed over the decades.
Helms talked about a time when customers could get gas at Hughes Bros., but the pumps were taken out many years ago. John Allen said they used to have a full line of auto parts and even sold to auto dealers, but Hughes Bros. got out of that in the late ’90s after chain auto parts stores started coming into the area.
Another big change is the number of tire sizes available. Allen said they used to stock around 100 kinds “and three out of four people who came in, we could shoe them.”
Now there’s 4,000 different sizes, he said, which means they have to special-order many more tires than they did in the past.
Hughes Bros. has rolled with the changes largely by building a reputation as a place with good service, where you can get in and out quickly for not a ton of money.
“We don’t barbershop anybody,” said Don Pierce — meaning trying to sell people things they don’t need — a philosophy Pierce said Allen instilled in him when he first interviewed for a mechanic’s job in 1987.
Allen’s philosophy extends to his employees. When business came to a screeching halt during the pandemic (it has since come back), “We didn’t cut any hours,” he said. He knows his employees work hard, and he wanted to have their backs during a tough time.
“I’m old-school,” he said.
Aside from the pandemic, Hughes Bros. has faced its share of challenges in recent years.
Pam Allen, John’s wife and Heather’s mother, who worked part time at Hughes Bros. for years, died in 2017. The shop closed for the day of her funeral, and some employees served as pallbearers.
Ten months later, in 2018, Hurricane Florence destroyed the building’s roof, flooding the office and destroying the upstairs floors. Repairs took a while, but the business is now more or less back to normal.
“We really did bounce back,” Heather Allen said, which is something her mother “would want us to do.”
Not to mention the hundreds of people who call themselves customers of Wilmington’s most iconic auto shop.
Contact John Staton at 910-343-2343 or [email protected]
A list of some Wilmington businesses that have been around for at least 100 years.
- Hughes Brothers, founded 1921
- Andrews Mortuary and Crematorium, since 1850
- John H. Shaw’s Sons Funeral Home, 1895
- StarNews, 1867
- Harold W. Wells & Son (insurance), 1920
- E. W. Godwin’s Sons (lumber), 1909
- Longley Supply Co, 1906
- Oleander Company (former Hugh MacRae & Co., Inc.), 1902
- Rountree and Losee (former Rountree and Rountree, lawyers), 1896
- Kingoff’s Jewelers, 1919
- Tinga Nursery, 1913
- Finkelstein’s (music, pawn shop), 1906
- Dixie Grill, 1903