Used transmissions, starters, steering columns, headlights and car radios line shelves inside the 6,000-square-foot Twin Ports Auto Parts building in Superior.
All inventoried and neatly organized in sections.
A box of license plates awaits recycling. Rows of tires fill a multilevel rack. Motors form a colony on the floor, while car seats perch on the highest shelf.
Outside, wildflowers and weeds grow tall around the more than 400 junked cars that fill the five-acre site, awaiting customers who need their remaining parts. Stacks of gas tanks share space with errant raspberry plants. A mound of car front ends provides a colorful focal point.
“I just don’t want to see this all go away,” owner Dave Penney said as he stood in the midst of it all on a sunny day last week.
At 66, Penney wants to retire.
The symptoms of his Type 1 diabetes, which was diagnosed when he was 23, have been more bothersome of late. But more than that, after
40 years in his family’s junkyard business, he’s just ready to move on.
“It’s been a fun trip, but I can’t do it forever,” he said.
He’d like to pass the longtime family business on to one of his six children who range in age from 32 to 42. But none are interested in the auto salvage business. They have taken different paths in life.
So for more than a year, Penney has tried to sell the business on Elm Avenue off Winter Street. He came close once, but the buyer backed out. Penney recently slashed the asking price nearly in half to $500,000 in a last-ditch effort to find a buyer.
Sell or no sell, he says he’s done on Dec. 31.
“He’s put his time in, raised his family, really wants to travel,” said his daughter, Jamey Ritter. “It’s time. He should enjoy all the work he’s put into this.”
But closing the business that’s been in his family for three generations saddens him.
“He built it up for 40 years and wanted to hand it off to someone, even if it’s not his children, and it looks like that’s not going to happen,” Ritter said.
Penney also frets that closing the business will leave Superior without a junkyard where people can get cheap car parts.
“We need one here in Superior,” he said. “I’m the only one left in town.”
There aren’t any in Duluth and Hermantown. Hi-Way 210 Auto Parts is near Carlton. The area’s largest, Chesney Auto Salvage, is 10 miles north of Duluth.
“We definitely need something local,” said Dan Johnson, owner of Johnson’s Auto Repair of Duluth. “All the rest of the junkyards are over 12 miles away or more. Their closing would put a damper on my business. I wouldn’t be able to get my customers’ jobs done as quickly. They will have to wait until parts come in.”
Johnson goes to Twin Ports Auto Parts first because they’re centrally located, just minutes off the Blatnik Bridge.
“I usually find what I’m looking for,” he said. “The prices are fair and the service is really good. If he doesn’t have it, usually he’ll suggest a place that would have it.”
Eighty years in business
The roots of Twin Ports Auto Parts go back to the 1930s when Penney’s grandfather, William Penney Sr., started a salvage, demolition and house-moving business in Superior.
After World War II, his sons - Joe, Frank and Bill Jr. - carried on with a salvage yard near Catlin Avenue and North 12th Street. In 1958, the business moved to Winter Street where Frank and Joe had a gas station, restaurant and salvage yard.
In 1973, Joe sold his half of the business to Frank’s son, Dave. A few years later, father and son moved the business, then focused on salvage, to 1015 Elm Ave. There they built the current building and tripled the size of their salvage yard.
Dave Penney became the sole owner in 1985 when his father retired. Penney and his wife, Darla, raised six children in a house across the street where the couple still live.
“We played there as children,” Ritter said of the junkyard. “We went there when we were bored. You’d go to the junkyard and hunt through cars looking for treasures. Money was the object, but people left stuff under seats all the time.”
Need still there
While Penney - who calls himself “Honest Dave” - has seen good years and bad years in the salvage business, he says the business continues to generally do well.
He sees fewer do-it-yourselfers than he used to; the bulk of his business is with auto repair and body shops. When it snows and gets cold, business goes up as cars break down. And it goes up when the economy is bad because people fix and hang on to their old vehicles longer, he said.
“People just can’t afford to buy new parts,” Penney said. “That’s why we’re here, taking care of people on a budget.”
He’s given plenty away over the years, too, to people who have been longtime customers.
“It makes them feel better,” he said. “They can say, ‘I got something for for free.’ I enjoy doing that for people, and I meet people from all walks of life. That’s the coolest thing.”
According to Penney, he has the oldest salvage yard license in the state, going back to the early 1940s. Over the years, he’s seen the number of junkyards in the area decline.
“There was a time when there were a lot,” he said. “Then one by one, the person died, or sold out. A lot went out of business. Most were getting too old to operate anymore. They went out of business, because they were not taking care of it.”
While Penney still hopes to find a buyer, he has started to reduce his inventory by scrapping out old parts and crushing cars of little value.
As the weeks and months pass, he’ll do more of that.
But if he does shutter the family business at the end of the year, he’ll try to sell his newer inventory to other salvage yards. He may have to junk the rest, something he said he will hate to do.