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Editor's Notebook

Just in Case

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You never know when someone famous is going to clock out, so most newspapers have a drawer full of pre-written obituaries at the ready. We have a similar system here. Below is a sample, though we hope we’ll never have to use this one.

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WELLSBOTTOM, Va. ®“ Yesterday at 7 p.m., Billy Throneberry turned the key one last time, locking the doors to his tire shop. After nearly a century as a fixture in this sleepy mountain community, Throneberry has thrown in the towel, driven out of business by “big-city competition and tire companies that couldn’t care less about this town.”

And, according to those same tire companies, Wellsbottom Tire & Towing was the last independent tire dealer in America. Acquisitions by larger retailers and expanded competition drove nearly every independent dealer under. A throwback to the days of local businesses, Throneberry held out and held on the longest.

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“Sure, I had some offers to buy me out, but this is my family’s business, and that mattered most to me,” said Throneberry. ®We were part of this community. We knew everybody here. I wasn’t going to let some other company just walk in here.®

Throneberry’s great-grandfather started Wellsbottom Tire almost a century ago, just as horseless carriages began showing up in the area. As was the case with many towns, Wellsbottom’s growth was directly attributable to the car.

Things really took off when the interstate was build just outside of town. Business got so good in the early 1960s that Throneberry’s father, Earl, was able to construct a new building closer to the interstate.

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Today, that same building sits idle, done in by everything that same interstate brought to Wellsbottom residents.

“I really haven’t sold a tire in about six months,” Throneberry said. ®Shoot, if it wasn’t for towing and repair jobs, we’d have been gone a long time ago.®

Throneberry said he just couldn’t compete with all the businesses that sell tires in nearby cities. “We were okay when they opened up that Wal-Mart Supercenter about 15 years ago. Even during the price wars after all the Pep Boys, Midas, Tire Kingdom and tire company stores moved in, we could still make it.

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Once, Wellsbottom Tire was the only place to buy tires in the entire county. “Now, there are probably two dozen stores that sell tires within a five-mile radius of us,” he said.

Throneberry gave a wry smile upon learning that he was the very last independent tire dealer in the U.S. “You know what’s really funny?” Billy asked. ®I was talking to some dealers at a meeting years ago, and they were laughing about how they were making all this money selling tires to car dealers. I asked them why they figured that was so smart. They thought they were pulling something on the tire companies. Turns out they were feeding the guys who wanted to put them out of business. And they did.®

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Two years ago, Throneberry had to let most of his employees go, keeping one night tow-truck driver. “I did everything I could,” he said. ®I guess it just wasn’t enough.®

Though Wellsbottom Tire was never a multi-million dollar business, Throneberry was able to help his two children through college. “We could only do so much, with the business dropping off and all. But we got them through.

“I really thought I could grow the business more than my dad was able to,” he said, tears welling up in his eyes. ®He really worked hard to get this building, and now it’s all gone. I feel like I let him down.®

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“I don’t blame Billy at all,” said Earl. ®I saw it coming years ago.®

So, what finally put Wellsbottom Tire ®“ and thousands of other independent retailers ®“ out of business? “Customers stopped caring about tires, and all the tire companies just stopped caring about dealers,” Earl said.

“I guess we had a chance a number of years ago to do something to educate consumers about tires,” said Earl. ®You know, raise the value by helping them understand how important tires are to their lives. Nothing ever came from it. Nobody seemed to care.

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“Tire companies just kept selling tires anywhere they could. Home Depot, Lowes, Best Buy. Pretty soon, people just didn’t see any difference or value at all. People needed tires, but they were too busy to care.”

The final straw, the elder Throneberry said, was when Food Lion stores and CVS pharmacies started selling tires. “That’s when I knew it was over,” he said dejectedly. ®Tires weren’t any more important than foot powder or hamburger meat.

“I guess it’s true,” he smirked. ®People get what they pay for.®

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