Longstanding West Side car repair shop calls it a day after three decades

Varsity Automotive closed Dec. 31 after 31 years at Arbutus and 13th

The sunny environs of the Californian desert look particularly sweet for Garth Burnside this time of year. Burnside is retiring from a career in the auto repair business after establishing close to 50 years of roots and relationships, predominantly on Vancouver’s West Side.

His Arbutus street business Varsity Automotive closed on Dec. 31. It was one of the last independent car repair shops in that area of the city.

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“The West Side of town is different and you couldn’t ask for a better place to do my business,” Burnside told the Courier. “The location is ideal because of the proximity to downtown, Vancouver General Hospital, UBC. This is a really convenient place. I’ve been blessed.”  

Burnside’s decision doesn’t come by way of external market pressure or a lack of business — on the contrary, business was booming to the point of having second- and third-generation customers. Instead, he’s going out on his terms: at 67, Burnside has sold the shop and land — situated on prime real estate at Arbutus and 13th —and now it’s time to kick back, relax and help out his kids and grandkids.

Next stop, California.

“I’m excited because at my age, I’ve been at it for so long,” he said. “I’ve got grandkids now. Luckily enough I have place in the desert, which I’m going to enjoy a little more.”

Fixing cars and selling gas fuelled the Burnside bloodline for decades, and it’s a common thread that will continue on.

Born on Manitoba, Burnside’s dad worked for Texaco and Esso. His son Jason worked at the shop and is aiming to extend his career in cars next month, though he preferred to not mention where, since it hadn’t been finalized.

“I was born into it,” Burnside proclaimed.

Upon moving to B.C. in 1969, Burnside pumped gas at a station on Willingdon and Hastings. A year later he took over a now-defunct Esso station at 10th Avenue and Blanca Street before moving to his most current digs on Arbutus.

The last 30 years have served as a case study in employee retention. Some of his co-workers have been by his side since the Esso station days in the ’70s and he estimates less than 20 people have worked alongside him at Varsity.

“There haven’t been as many [employees] as you’d think,” he said. “I’ve sponsored a number of apprenticeships so these people became licensed, most of them have stayed with me.”

Of the 10 employees affected by the closure, about half have opted for retirement as well. Others found work immediately and only a handful are out pounding the pavement.

News of the business’s closure has been met with a mixture of emotions; some are happy to see the family patriarch move on, others are scrambling to find a new shop that ensures reliability.

“There have been tears, especially with elderly people asking me, ‘What am I going to do?’” Burnside said. “It’s a problem in that they won’t get the service that we provided. We’ve got some people in the shop who have been with me for a very long time.”

Ken Anderson is one of those customers. He’s lived in Dunbar for more than four decades and over that time his ’58 Pontiac, ’65 Valiant, ’66 Beaumont and ’87 Voyager have all felt the love. His daughter also came to rely on the Varsity way.

“It was a bit of shock and sadness when you’ve been dealing the same people for so many years,” Anderson told the Courier. “A car is pretty important in more ways than one way. They are one of the last of a vanishing breed of independent automotive shops around here, I suspect.”

@JohnKurucz

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