Small engines, big business

Area store hits milestone — Small Engine Shop celebrates 50 years in parts business, remembers founder

Jim Carles got his start running a small engine repair shop in a back room at Mallow’s on 25th Avenue.

“He quit school in ninth grade to work for Mallow’s,” his daughter Janet Mowery said.

He ran the repair shop at Mallow’s for several years. “One day, he said he had too much to do, so he built his own building,” said longtime friend John Mallow, manager of Mallow’s Sunoco.

The business he started in 1968 — the Small Engine Shop along Juniata Gap Road, behind Mallow’s — is marking 50 years in business.

Mallow remembers his good friend who died in 2004.

“He loved to talk, and he was a mechanical genius. He could fix anything and everything, if you could listen to his stories. It

wasn’t just small engines — he built his own house and his building,” Mallow said.

“Jim was my best friend. I used to help Jim part time for many years. He was a very conscientious person, and he was good at what he did,” said Mickey Rhodes of Altoona.

Chuck Miller, now outdoor power equipment technology instructor at Greater Altoona Career and Technology Center, said he had known Carles since he was a student in the small engine repair program at then-Altoona Area Vocational-Technical School.

“When in college, I worked for Janet’s dad in the summer. We developed a friendship over the years. The relationship grew from a student to an employee,” Miller said. “He taught me a lot of things and took me to trade shows. He was more of a mentor than an employer. He was a pretty good guy, once you got past the rough exterior.”

Miller also has been a longtime customer of the Small Engine Shop, where he buys a lot of parts.

“They’ve always treated customers well, and they looked out for you. People know it’s there. The majority of the people are happy with it,” Miller said.

Carles offered very competitive prices for all of his products and services.

He once said, “I need to make a profit, but I don’t need to make it all off of one person,” Miller said.

“I am there almost every day. I buy a lot of parts from them. Many of my students have worked there. They’re very supportive of education and the school, as well.”

Carles used to do battle with the large manufacturers.

“He would do just about anything for you. He had quite a battle with the large manufacturers, the big box stores. They would sell you the products but wouldn’t do warranty service. That’s where he stepped in,” Mallow said.

Carles had worked as a machinist for Penn Jacobson and SKF, said Mowery, 49, who has worked at the business for 37 years and took over ownership after her father passed away. He always liked to tinker with engines, she said.

The Small Engine Shop sold both new and used Lawn Boy mowers and Bolens tractors. Today, they sell Toro products.

The business is well known for its large supply of parts, which make up the biggest part of the business, followed by repairs and sales.

“My dad would always have as many parts as he could,” Mowery said.

“They always seem to have the parts I need in stock. They’re very knowledgeable about repairs. They do quality work at a fair price,” said Steve Steinbugl of Altoona, a customer for 10 years.

Mowery said the parts business has changed over the years.

“The parts have changed: The parts are plastic. Change isn’t always good. The quality of the parts isn’t as good as it used to be when they were metal,” Mowery said.

Business has changed over the years, as well.

“My dad would get busy in February and stay busy through Christmas. Now, business comes more in waves, on and off. We’re almost becoming a seasonal business. People don’t spend as much on repairs anymore. They go out and buy new items rather than repair them,” Mowery said. “The majority of the repairs we do are on lawnmowers. Years ago, in October, we would start to get hit with snowblowers. Now people wait until it’s about to snow. We get hit after the storm. People bring them in, and then we get swamped.”

Customers come from within a 30-mile radius of Altoona.

“Most of our customers are homeowners. We do a small amount of commercial sales. We get customers from Fallentimber, Patton, Tyrone and Huntingdon. We used to sell lots of Lawn Boy two-stroke mowers in the Tyrone area back in the 1980s,” Mowery said.

Mowery credits her father for the success of the business.

“We’ve been successful because of the reputation dad had. He always put our customers first,” Mowery said. “Look at all the repair work we have to do — we’re backed up about three weeks. People know we won’t rip them off and take them for a ride. They will wait for us.”

Mowery, who had a stroke two years ago, said she will continue to run the business for as long as she can. She also spends a lot of time caring for her son, Ty, 12, who has cerebral palsy.

“We spend a lot of time going to Pittsburgh,” Mowery said.