The front office and waiting area at S&S Tire Company is set up like a homey living room, with broken-in recliners, a television and a row of family pictures lining the shelf behind an overstuffed couch. It’s a comfortable place, where one could easily set up shop for a couple hours without much of a complaint.
But in the four decades S&S has operated under Harold Starling, long waits were not something with which many customers had to contend.
“He likes to get them in and get them out,” Millie Starling said of her husband.
Even as she speaks those words, Harold Starling has his eyes fastened out the window on a vehicle driving up to the business, located on Hobbton Highway at Clinton’s outskirts. It’s Thursday morning and it will be Starling’s last Thursday at the office. Taking a slight respite from his day to reflect on his years operating S&S, Starling uses the comfortable couch as a lookout spot for customers driving up. No sooner does the vehicle roll into the lot than Starling is out the door to greet them.
Starling and Curtis Sutton opened S&S Tire Company in Clinton nearly 38 years ago. The two got their start working for Paul Boone at Sampson Tire Company and, upon Boone’s retirement, he suggested the men open a business of their own.
“I got started in the tire business in 1967,” Starling said, noting his 10 years in the business before S&S. “Curtis was part-owner of Sampson Tire Company at that time so I went to work there and we became very good friends. Mr. Boone taught me about sales and public relations. He did a great job. Curtis and I just decided we would venture out on our own.”
They found a nice property on Hobbton Highway and on Nov. 15, 1977, S&S Tire Company’s chapter began.
“I’ve been here ever since,” Starling attested.
When Starling and Sutton began S&S, they brought service technician Dan McLean along for the ride and the three were like family. Together the brothers in business delivered an efficient, affordable service with immense pride. They were known for their expertise in tires and precision in balancing and truing — or shaving — of them.
Now, after close to four decades, Starling, the last surviving member of the trio, is retiring and the bays of S&S will shut for good this Wednesday. It will end a longstanding, locally-owned business and bring to a close the heralded career of Starling, who many over the years have deemed the best “tire man” around.
“I think without a doubt I am the oldest tire man in Sampson County,” Starling proudly states.
Just a couple weeks from his 72nd birthday, he is still hard at it.
The vehicle that rolled up belongs to Mrs. Bill Johnson, who is still driving at 97 years old. While she doesn’t get behind the wheel for long distances, a light denoting low tire pressure flashed on her car’s dashboard on this particular day and there was only one place she was going to take it to get fixed. After exchanging quick pleasantries, Starling disappears into the garage, consulting with one of his technicians. It doesn’t take long before the problem is diagnosed — a dreaded nail.
Starling comes back in and visits with Johnson while the patch is done.
“I can always depend on you,” Johnson tells Starling, Millie beaming while listening.
Unaware Starling will be closing S&S within the week, Johnson, when informed of the news, wonders aloud, “What am I going to do about tires?”
She won’t be the only one asking that question. While it isn’t a secret that S&S is closing, it is also business as usual until that time comes, Starling asserts. People need him to do a job, and that’s what he’s there to do.
He has contributed the better part of his life providing quality tires and excellent service to the community, all the while being a friend to many.
“He has been a true friend, loving provider, husband, father, grandfather and dedicated small-town business owner,” his daughter Melissa Starling Bass stated. “There are many in this town who wouldn’t even think about another tire man touching their vehicle, because they trusted him completely to sell a good quality tire at an affordable price and service their vehicle with pride.”
“He’s missed very few days in his lifetime,” said Millie, his wife of 39 years. The couple have two daughters, the other being Sandra Starling Cerra.
Precise and to the point in his job, Starling also takes time to catch up with his customers, like Johnson on this day, honestly caring about what they are up to and news about their families, while using the opportunity to brag on his own grandchildren.
The catching up often doesn’t last long though. Starling knows people have places to be. He’s just facilitating them getting there. For Johnson’s Mercedes, the patch takes all of 10 minutes. The charge is $15. Johnson looks at him in disbelief.
“That’s it?” she asks.
Starling insists it is.
“I’m too cheap,” he says, with a grin, “that’s why I’m going out of business.”
She gives him a $20 bill, prompts him for advice on another tire man and then goes on her way, just as tens of thousands of customers S&S has catered to over the years have — but not before a hug around the neck for Starling.
“I’m sorry you’re leaving,” she says. “It’s a sad thing. I’m going to miss you.”
Not many people can say they’ve hugged their tire man, but Starling isn’t just any tire man.
“It’s about more than just tires,” Millie points out.
“I love people, I love to deal with people,” Starling says. “I’m a people person.”
Even though the specialty is tires, many would come to him about various car problems, or just to visit. He didn’t mind riding up and down Hobbton Highway or around town for a couple minutes in an attempt to diagnose an issue before referring the customer on where they might get it fixed.
“I hope I don’t miss it,” said Starling, “but I’m afraid I’m going to miss coming down here every day.”
Starling, Sutton and McLean, with assistance from carpenter Richard Hairr, built the business from nothing.
“We built it ourselves,” Starling pointed out. “We actually drove the nails and did the whole nine yards. He helped us build everything in here, and he also built the house Millie and I are living in now.”
And back then, business was booming.
“A long time ago there were a lot of farmers and we did a lot of farm work,” Starling pointed out. “I think every farmer in Sampson County had two-ton trucks and they had those old 750-16s. We probably sold 30 or 40 a week. Now, we rarely ever sell those. The radial tire came out, and I didn’t think it would catch on, but it took the market because the radial tire would do almost triple the miles that a bias ply tire would go.”
It used to be that a customer who traveled at all would come to S&S for three sets of tires a year. Starling used to have anywhere from 500-800 tires of the best-selling sizes in inventory. Now, tires can go 50,000 miles, some upwards of 70,000, before they need to be replaced. That has meant far less in inventory, around 100 if that, and less sales.
“The units sold is down,” Starling said, “but the mileage per tire is triple what it used to be.”
More durable tires and better technology have made small-town businesses like S&S a dying breed, with many turning to the internet for all purchases — tires included.
“That’s what’s happened in the last five years,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything catch on as fast as it has. People will buy tires off the internet and they’ll ship them to the door. That’s really hurt.”
Clinton is “blessed” with many tire places, said Starling, who knows he could have revamped the business and done “a lot of things you don’t want to do, but do those things to keep that customer.” In the end, he knew that would have meant losing the essence of what he, Curtis and Dan started so many years ago.
“We sell tires,” he attested. “That’s what we do. We’ve done a good job. I have no complaints whatsoever. My mission is complete.”
He pauses before a familiar grin forms.
“I’m tired of the tire business and I’m going home,” he says.
It’s not like he doesn’t have anything to do, with six turkey houses in his care. But he hopes the 3 acres of property on Hobbton Highway where S&S has sat for nearly four decades can have a future. It could remain a tire place, a garage or with a remodel “could be about anything anybody wanted to do,” he remarked.
It just won’t be S&S.
Starling carried on the name, but upon his retirement, a chapter is officially ending.
Sutton, older than Starling by 10 years, died from cancer at 56 years of age, which devastated Starling. But with McLean there, he kept on.
“He was as straight-forward and honest as anyone I ever dealt with in my life,” he said of Sutton. “And I could say the same thing for Daniel too. Daniel was the only person other than Curtis that had keys to my building. He could open up and close and I wouldn’t have to worry about nothing. I never called him that he wouldn’t come do what I needed.”
McLean decided to retire after 35 years, going home to enjoy life with his wife. Unexpectedly, she died on Christmas morning 2011 and within six months, Dan had passed away too. At 63, he was not much older than Sutton.
“I’ve had trouble finding good help since then,” Starling conceded. “They were good people. If Daniel were still living, I don’t know if I wouldn’t still be doing this.”
Starling said his family told him he should retire “long ago,” and on Wednesday he will do just that, opening the bays one last time for business.
So go by and visit. He’ll keep an eye out for you.
Reach staff writer Chris Berendt at 910-249-4616. Follow the paper on twitter @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.