I could always tell when Merlin was there. He would park his faded Astro Van directly in front of the entrance, half on the curb, half in the parking lot. I would say my hellos and get started. Merlin would totter over, grinning. He was always dressed the same, baggy shorts and a threadbare t-shirt. His glasses up on the top of his head. We talked about different products we sold, his visits to the doctor, his failing health. The last time I saw him he was lucid and in good spirits.
Pam would run me a stock order but I still took a physical inventory. That was how my predecessor did it and that was what they liked. Generally I was there for a of couple hours, every other Tuesday for the last year they were in business.
Used to be that when you wanted to hot rod your car, you paid a visit to the local speed shop. In the late seventies a national chain called Super Shops sprung from southern California. With 165 locations, they were able to buy Edelbrock by the boxcar, making it difficult for the independents to compete. Next came the mail order catalogs, another old concept but tailored specifically for the performance shopper. Soon guys were carrying their Summit, Jegs or Speedway catalogs with them, right into the speed shop! Everyone knew (about) what things should sell for and anyone could buy for less than retail. Finally, the internet drove the nails into the coffin. Now anyone with rudimentary computer skills had all the information at their fingertips. Everyone became “an expert” and the brick and mortar speed shops were doomed.
Radkes had a humble beginning, starting out as a Gilmore gas station in 1933. Merlin’s father Julius was mechanically inclined and attended tech school to fine tune his skills. Soon a three bay garage was built in which to perform repairs and eventually a parts store was added to further facilitate the expansion. Merlin returned from the Korean War a twenty one year old high on hot rodding. He began to buy performance parts from the manufacturers in multiples, one for sale and two for stock. Initially this was kept a secret from his parents who regarded hot rodding with skepticism, fearing it was a passing fad. Merlin became entrenched in the local racing scene and advertised extensively all over the Pacific Northwest. Soon word got around that Radkes had “the goods” and customers came from as far away as Canada to buy them. The speed shop segment of the business grew to the point where they had to build a larger store right behind their existing one. By the mid-sixties, Radkes employed four men full time just to accommodate their performance customers. Another growing, family owned auto parts chain by the name of Baxter initially bought all of their performance accessories from Radkes. An estimated 6,000 patrons attended their first parking lot sale.
While the performance market was still ascending, Radkes opened additional stores but ultimately these satellite locations failed to get a foothold. The decision was made to pull back and refocus on the original St. John’s location and for many years, business thrived.
Radkes never stopped caring about performance parts or being able to sell them at a competitive price. What changed was the way in which their customers shopped for them.
If there is a Roddin’ and Racin’ Northwest Hall of Fame, Merlin Radke certainly deserves inclusion. Vaya con dios, old friend.