Most longtime customers enter LaVigna Brothers, through the large garage door on the Macy Avenue, not the Halstead Avenue side.
By Walt Mardis
Most longtime customers enter LaVigna Brothers, through the large garage door on the Macy Avenue, not the Halstead Avenue side. There is a sign on the door that tells you that entrance by the public through this door is not permitted, but unless you’re new here, you choose to ignore the admonition. Inside is the garage itself, which looks like a throwback to an earlier era. Half a dozen cars, most on lifts, fill the large space with mechanics scurrying around changing tires, checking out suspensions, or testing engines. A few steps more take you into the front office where you’re greeted by Louis LaVigna, who will gruffly tell you how unbelievably overloaded they are with work, and then let you know they will find a way to fix your car the very same day. He and I have been having this conversation for all of the 35 years I’ve been bringing my cars to be serviced there.
Eventually a phone call interrupts and Louis begins talking to a customer. You glance at the desk where Louis sits and wonder if perhaps it is even older than he is (he claims to be a very young 67. “I was a rock musician before I rejoined the business,” he tells you). You may also notice through the door to the back office that Freddie LaVigna, who has been at the garage even longer than Louis, is working on the accounts. Old friends often are aligned around the office on ancient office chairs chatting; it’s a friendly place.
You make your way back to the main part of the garage and you’re reminded that, despite the old world appearance, there is an array of very up-to-date tools and electronic devices. Chances are that the third member of the LaVigna clan, Joseph, will be helping one of the other workers with some challenging problem. Joseph will inevitably come over to talk. In my case, he will reiterate that he loves our family and the chocolate chip cookies my wife sometimes bakes for the guys. Two mechanics, Jose and Eddie, will look up from under some car hood and probably wave as well – they’ve been here, respectively, 26 and 30 years.
LaVigna Brothers Garage is as much of an institution as is possible in a town like Harrison. It’s been in business at the same location for over 93 years, managed all that time by succeeding generations of the LaVigna family. Louis and Joseph’s father, Angella preceded them and their grandfather, Lewis LaVigna, started the business in 1924 with his half-brother, Joseph. Like a love for automobiles, it seems that first names run in the family as well – except, of course, you notice that grandfather LaVigna spelled his name Lewis and his grandson spells it Louis. “Funny story,” says Joseph. “He started out as Lewis as well, but the nuns at school didn’t like that with a name like LaVigna, so they made him change it to Louis.”
The garage has not moved since Lewis LaVigna first purchased the corner lot where it now stands for $500. At one point there was a Chrysler dealership. At another time, they had gas pumps out in front. The giant wood front doors are original – built by Lewis. The original brick walls show the grime of over 90 years of work, although you can still see 1928 embossed on some of them, showing the date when an addition was put on the original building. “My grandfather worked seven days a week here,” Joseph says, putting in long days almost until he died in his eighties. I think he only took one vacation in his entire life.”
Louis adds, “We all grew up here. My grandfather built his house right across the street from the garage on what is now their parking lot. He owned a lot of property around here, including what is now the Harrison shopping center. He and my father had horses that they kept behind the house. Back in the Fifties, when Joey and I were kids and they were building I-95, we’d saddle up the horses and ride up and down the unpaved roadway. There’s also a family legend,” Louis continues, “that to make ends meet during Prohibition, my grandparents made moonshine in the basement that they sold to workers on the nearby railroad tracks — fifty cents a shot!” The house burned down in the 1950s.
I asked Joseph why so many people continue to come here year after year. Why does everyone love LaVignas? He thought for a moment before answering, “We try to make people comfortable. It’s hard for you to know if the guy working on your car is ripping you off. I want to make sure people know we’re not and I try to treat all our customers as friends.” It appears that most of them actually are!
So where does LaVigna Brothers go after that day in the future when both brothers and Uncle Freddie retire. “I don’t know,” Joey admits. “There aren’t any more LaVignas who will be following us.” For me, at least, I hope that day is a long way off.