By Justin Swanson | LB Indy
“Jerry was in a bad wreck when he was 18,” Jennifer Piper reveals about her late husband, the former owner of Laguna Auto Parts and one of Laguna Beach’s most eccentric merchants.
“His best friend, who was with him, was killed. Jerry often wondered why he was spared. One day, he told me he realized it was his job to help everyone as best as he can.”
Though Jerry Piper died in December, the reverberations of his passing are still being felt, and those that knew him and patronized his store are apt to qualify him as achieving the purpose in life he set for himself.
“Jerry was the best kind of person,” says longtime friend Steve Battaglia, a local resident. “He helped everybody in the world. He took care of people.”
The vehicle for Piper’s service was his store, which despite its name carried a range of inventory, from fishing gear to auto parts to boogie board rentals. But now, after nearly 30 years of operation, the wheels are coming off. Laguna Auto Parts, the last auto parts store in town, will close next week.
His widow is liquidating the shop’s inventory, with every item marked down 75 percent. The official last day of operation is Saturday, April 13, though that date may be superseded by the last of the stock. Any leftover supplies will be donated to Habitat for Humanity.
Mrs. Piper says that the store could not be sold and that the property is owned by Kelly Ware, the son of the late John Ware, who also owned neighboring Spigot Liquor. Mrs. Piper did not wish to keep up the store, opting instead for her job at John Wayne Airport, away from the wonderful yet painfully sad memories Laguna Auto Parts now represents.
“A lot of people will tell you: this was the social place to be,” Mrs. Piper recalls. “If someone was having a bad day, they’d come see my husband and feel better. People could tell him anything.”
She retold a story by a woman who attended her husband’s memorial service in December. The woman brought her trouble-plagued car to Piper. Instead of simply repairing the car and handing over the bill, he explained the mechanical problems and taught the woman’s son how to fix the car himself. The woman said that Piper became a surrogate father for the boy.
“People came here because of him, not because of what he sold,” says Mrs. Piper, who was married to Jerry for 31 years. The two met in the Caribbean while he was a volunteer with the Peace Corps.
Piper was born in Victorville, but grew up in San Clemente. He and his wife lived in Mission Viejo. Originally, the auto parts store was located on Broadway Street, but relocated to its current location on Pearl and Coast Highway in May 2001.
A testament to his all-inclusive altruism was the annual free fish fry Piper and friends Battaglia and Alfred Devito would put on. Stuck with an amazing surplus of fish after one fishing trip, the three decided to give it all away with a party. Initially the event was held behind the store, but its popularity drove the September party to Bluebird Canyon.
This year, Battaglia says, will have to be special. “We got to do something – that’s for Jerry.”
Also to be missed are the tricks Piper taught his dog Holly. The dog would retrieve beers by opening the refrigerator, fetching cans with cozies, and then shutting the door. Later, he taught her how to climb a ladder. As a store gimmick, he challenged customers in the store to hide a tennis ball anywhere in the store and at any height; if Holly couldn’t find the ball, the customer would get $5 off their purchase.
“Holly was the biggest moneymaker for a while,” laughs his wife.
She returns to the store closing. “It’s been really hard. Bit by bit, it’s like I’m dismantling my husband. It’s heart wrenching. There was a lot of him in this store.”
“He had a huge impact,” Battaglia offers.
“It’s almost like we’re losing a town center,” Mrs. Piper figures.
What was once representative of a man who dabbled in everything from beekeeping to fishing, jeeping to scuba, the eclecticism of the store is now fading as customers new and old come to find a memory to take home.
“People used to come by to see what new thing Jerry had in stock,” Mrs. Piper remembers. “Anything you wanted: ‘Yep. I got it.’”
What is clear is that Mrs. Piper and daughter Dana, who works at the store, are not alone in moving on still grieving a notable absence.
“We’ve been really blessed by the tremendous outpouring of love from everyone,” Mrs. Piper says.
“He did everything with 100 percent of his being. He lived to be 60, but in reality, with everything he did and accomplished, he lived to be 160.”
Photos by Mitch Ridder