Much has changed in Wilmington over the years, and it seems the list is growing every day.
Amidst all of these changes, however, the towering red-and-white awning of the Hughes Bros. auto and tire store. of 11th and Market streets remained constant, as did the business below.
Hughes Bros., which opened in 1921, this year celebrates a century of public service, the last of a dozen Wilmington companies that can claim 100 years or more of longevity.
“When you go to a place you kind of want to see the same faces. That’s what kept us going,” said John Allen, owner of Hughes Bros. since 1980. “We have grandchildren from customers who come now” whose parents and grandparents started driving 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 in an upstairs office overlooking Market Street.
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Don Pierce and Mike Helms, who work directly with guests at the front desk, date their tenures at Hughes Bros. in the late 1980s. Helms stated that to his knowledge, Hughes Bros. is North Carolina’s oldest auto repair shop.
“This is our second home,” said Heather Allen, and the 24 employees at the company “are like our extended family”.
Inside, things seem to be what they were when some of us (ahem) started going over 30 years ago. Hughes Bros. looks like the unassuming old school auto shop that it is.
Some of the reading material in the waiting room may not be from the current year or decade. Aside from a few banners advertising tires or posters for local sports teams (Hughes Bros. has long been a big promoter of athletics at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington), little attention is being paid to it. given to the decoration. It has what you might call a comfortably gritty feel, lived and worked on.
You could say that Hughes Bros. does not aspire to be a sparkling, crisp dealership-style destination. It’s just a matter of getting tires or fixing your car.
Employees use computers to research different types of tires and their prices, but invoices are still written and filed by hand. Sticking to old-school methods as much as they can, however, doesn’t seem to have hurt businesses much.
During the reporting of this story, every Hughes Bros. employee interviewee had to take a break to answer questions in order to attend to a client.
John Allen, who is 70 but maintains a balanced physique thanks to regular trips to the basketball court in his senior hoops league, said Hughes Bros. was on the corner of Second and Market streets.
The joke is that the original owners – John Winder Hughes and his brother, James Bettner “Jimmy” Hughes – wanted to “move to the suburbs” at a time when the city limits ended around 17th Street.
The building with the distinctive canopy was constructed in 1935, and Hughes Bros. has been there ever since. John Allen said the reason the canopy is so tall is that there were no height restrictions for trucks in the 1930s, and the company wanted to be able to accommodate all comers.
The Hughes brothers sold the business to one of their nephews, Jack Dunn, in the 1960s, and he hired a few partners, including Jim Stallworth, the grandfather of longtime employee Mike Helms.
John Allen, who was born in Georgia but raised in Norlina, near the Virginia state border, was a sales representative for Firestone in the 1970s, and Hughes Bros. was one of his clients. He was starting to tire of all the traveling, and when he found out that the owners of the day were looking to retire, buy the business, and move to Wilmington struck him as “a slam dunk.”
Allen opened a second Hughes Brothers location on South College Road in the late 1980s.
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Hughes Bros. is certainly a throwback to another era, but a lot has changed over the decades.
Helms spoke of a time when customers could get gasoline at Hughes Bros., but the pumps were retired many years ago. John Allen said they have a full line of auto parts and even sell to car dealers, but Hughes Bros. got away with it in the late ’90s after chains of auto parts stores began to settle in the area.
Another big change is the number of tire sizes available. Allen said they used to store about 100 kinds “and three out of four people that come in we can hook them up.”
Now there are 4,000 different sizes, he said, which means they have to order a lot more tires than in the past.
Hughes Bros. has kept up with the changes in large part by building a reputation as a place of good service, where you can get in and out quickly for little money.
“We don’t barber anyone,” said Don Pierce – meaning trying to sell people things they don’t need – a philosophy Pierce instilled in him during his first interview for a job as a mechanic in 1987.
Allen’s philosophy extends to its employees. When business came to a screeching halt during the pandemic (it has since returned), “We didn’t cut any hours,” he said. He knows his employees are hard working and he wanted to support them during a difficult time.
“I’m from the 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, passed away in 2017. The store closed on the day of her funeral and some employees served as porters.
Ten months later, in 2018, Hurricane Florence destroyed the roof of the building, flooding the office and destroying the upper floors. The repairs took a while, but the business is now more or less back to normal.
“We really bounced back,” Heather Allen said, which is what her mother “wanted us to do.”
Not to mention the hundreds of people who call themselves customers of Wilmington’s most iconic auto store.
Contact John Staton at 910-343-2343 or [email protected].
Club of the Century
A list of a few Wilmington businesses that have been around for at least 100 years.
- Hughes Brothers, founded in 1921
- Andrews Mortuary and Crematorium, since 1850
- Funeral home of the sons of John H. Shaw, 1895
- StarNews, 1867
- Harold W. Wells & Son (insurance), 1920
- EW Godwin’s Sons (woodwind), 1909
- Longley Supply Co, 1906
- Oleander Company (formerly Hugh MacRae & Co., Inc.), 1902
- Rountree and Losee (former Rountree and Rountree, lawyers), 1896
- Kingoff Jewelers, 1919
- Tinga Nursery, 1913
- Finkelstein’s (music, pawnshop), 1906
- Dixie Grill, 1903