Boise, Idaho, business owner retiring after 40 years
Terry Botkin’s retirement after 40 years of owning Boise Car Upholstery marks the end of an era.
He represents something you don’t find much anymore: an independent business doing right by its customers, adhering to quality craftsmanship and charging a fair price, where a handshake is enough to seal a deal.
“My wife likes to joke that I should have been born 100 years earlier,” Botkin said in an interview Tuesday in his shop on the corner of Fairview Avenue and 23rd Street.
The building, which used to house a Goodman Oil service station, is as distinctive and old-school as Botkin. It was built in 1949 in the art deco and streamline moderne style, with a curved retail/office section, stacked round roof tiers and two massive garage bays.
Botkin modestly said he’s not a good businessman. As evidence, he points to the fact that he doesn’t overcharge customers, he doesn’t take big risks, he buys material that goes to waste because he took the word of a potential customer who then reneged, and he takes care of the smaller customer over the hotshot car snob who comes into the shop promising lucrative future business.
But that’s exactly what makes Botkin a good businessman. The best businessman.
It also explains why he’s been around for 40 years.
“I could have done other businesses that maybe would have been a better business, made more money,” Botkin said. “But this was very gratifying for me.”
Two owners, 70 years
Botkin, a Boise native, bought the business on July 1, 1982, when he was 29 years old. He and his father-in-law had just sold their brake-repair business, and Botkin was looking for his next job right around the time Jack Rhoads was looking to sell Boise Car Upholstery.
Rhoads had started the business 30 years before, after getting out of the Navy, where he learned how to sew parachutes.
So not only is Botkin’s retirement momentous, it’s also the passing of a business that’s been a Boise institution for 70 years under just two owners.
“It’s not something I ever pictured myself doing,” Botkin said. “But it was intriguing to me, because I could do something with my hands, which I enjoyed.”
Botkin studied business at BYU, but “going to a desk job wearing a suit and tie was not for me.”
After Rhoads sold the business to Botkin, Rhoads stayed on for a few years and taught Botkin the trade.
“He was a great mentor,” Botkin said. “It was all just hands-on learning. No schooling, no training, just learning on the job.”
‘Dragging my feet’
During our interview, Botkin looked around the shop, which is now half-empty, just an echo of the bustling work that used to go on there. Botkin isn’t retiring because business is down. To the contrary, demand is as high as it’s ever been. He’s just ready to retire.
The shop still has a little bit of that new-car smell, because of the lingering leather hides and rolls of fabric and vinyl that he’s in the process of moving out.
“I’ve been coming down here for 40 years,” Botkin said, his eyes moving about the shop. “And I think, ‘Man, this is really coming to an end.’ I guess that’s why I’m subconsciously dragging my feet. I guess I just don’t want to part with it.”
Car upholstery is a bit of a dying art.
When he started in 1982, Botkin said, five shops in town did the work. Today, there are three or four, even though the Treasure Valley’s population has more than doubled.
Dealerships used to send all their warranty work to independent upholstery shops like Botkin’s. Torn headliners. Ripped car seats. Worn-out carpets.
Botkin used to have books of swatches, called “Detroit books,” which he would use to match material with whatever a customer needed. He’d order the material, cut it and sew it up in the shop.
Today, rather than repair a seat, dealerships will just replace the entire seat cover, or sell kits of entire replacement seat covers at a cost of $2,200 to $2,300 for something that would cost $250 to repair.
“I feel bad for the consumer,” Botkin said, shaking his head. “I just can’t recommend to the consumer to go out and do that.”
He laments learning about companies charging double what he would charge for a simple repair job.
“I never operated that way,” he said. “If it’s a $50 repair, it’s a $50 repair.”
When I asked him what’s been the most rewarding part of the business, he answered quickly.
“Just having a happy customer,” Botkin said. “Just to know they’re happy.”
Sometimes he’ll repair restaurant chairs, sew a lawnmower bag or do the carpeting in helicopters that are sold around the world.
Once a customer asked for a boat cover to look like a flowing American flag. Botkin and his team custom-sewed the cover with stars and stripes. The customer took drone footage of it and showed it to Botkin.
“It really looked pretty good,” Botkin said.
He said when older customers come in, “I would be as considerate with them as if they were my own grandmother.”
“I’ve had customers come in and cry because I’m closing the doors,” he said. “I don’t even know what to refer them to anymore. I feel bad for them.”
Skilled upholsterers hard to find
At any given time, Botkin’s usually had two or three employees working at the shop, and over the years he’s hired some highly skilled craftsmen, but perhaps they weren’t as good at or didn’t enjoy dealing with customers as much.
“This is a trade that is very hard to find someone qualified,” he said. “A lot of kids will go to trade school, take upholstery classes and then think they can run their own business. It’s a pathetic situation.”
He said school districts would do well to introduce more trades, including upholstery, whether automotive or furniture. Botkin said men are usually the ones who go into automotive upholstery, but he’s surprised more women don’t.
Botkin, 69, has actually been “retiring” for the past year-and-a-half.
He had intended to continue working until he was 73. “But then something just hit me at the end of 2020, that said ‘one more year is going to be enough.’ I just knew it was time.”
He thought he would transition out of the business over the course of 2021 and make a quick exit on New Year’s Eve. That didn’t happen, as there was still so much work, and here it is halfway through 2022, and he’s still “moving out.”
Botkin has 19 grandchildren, and 15 of them live in Boise. He plans to spend more time fishing with them and just spending more time with family without feeling that he has to get to work.
Satisfied where you are
Business has always been good, he said, with more work than he could handle.
He expanded into Meridian very briefly at one point. He even bought a sign for the new location, but he closed it before putting the sign up.
“It’s still sitting in that box right there,” he said, pointing to a large cardboard box on his shop floor.
“You have to make a decision in a small business,” he said. “Either you expand and grow and get bigger, or you are satisfied with doing well and staying where you are.”
Botkin chose the latter.
“This is one of the few places you can go and not feel like you have to take a number, like you are a number,” he said. “I didn’t ever want to be that way. And this industry is becoming that way, as well, and I guess if you want to grow, you have to be that way.”
He said he did not want to transfer the business or sell it to someone else, because he knew it wouldn’t be run the same way he’s run it for the past 40 years.
“I’m just very old-school,” he said. “And I know if I sold Boise Car Upholstery, it wouldn’t be old-school anymore, so I said, ‘Nah, I’ll just close it down.’ I’m several thousand dollars poorer for doing that, but I’m OK. That just was not important to me.”
More evidence, he said, of not being a good businessman.
To the contrary, that makes him the best.
This story was originally published July 15, 2022 4:00 AM.