“What chu need easy money?”
Bobby Langham shouts as he leads me down a narrow corridor between shelves of parts, junk, and quit possibly the largest collection of small engines in Alabama. I’m afraid to bump something, as if it all rests in perfect balance, and one small nudge will make it all come crashing down.
He talks out loud to himself about customers who owe him money and the hot weather as we scuttle through a museum of lawn equipment that many come from around the state to source parts.
Bobby Langham has been in this shop since 1954. When I ask why engines, his reply bears the candied and upfront demeanor of someone who isn’t waiting for the right time so they can follow their passion. It’s the reply of someone who’s worked hard all their life and knows the value of a dollar. “Cause I gotta eat, that’s why. Besides, have you ever cut and hauled pulp wood?”
Perhaps Mr. Langham wasn’t perfumed in two-stroke exhaust and oil at a young age that set him on course to own the best small engine repair shop in Alabama, but his history is a witness to his skill set, and kind heart that makes his services in such high demand.
Mr. Langham wasn’t but 14 years old before he realized a mule even had a head. He was put to work immediately, and this work ethic has guided his life. In school, academics wasn’t his strong suite, so he buddied up with local maintenance man. Mr. Langham’s skills were usually required on testing days, changing light bulbs, mopping floors, and this gave him a great excuses to skip out of testing This eventually led to driving the school bus once he graduated. It wasn’t long before he got drafted into the Korean War.
As Mr. Langham fought for our country, God told him to pull the trigger, and He’d guide the bullet. After the war, he married his wife, a school teacher, and settled in Green County Alabama.
The business opened doors in an old car dealership in Eutaw, Alabama. The timber industry quickly gave the small repair shop momentum. Old chain saws hanging from the walls show the history and vibrant customer base Mr. Langham served in the early days.
It’s obvious he has a heart for the people he serves, although they don’t often return his commitment to generosity. He’s been robbed and taken advantage of, simply a matter of doing business in the area he claims. He works on credit, often with the knowledge he may never see that money, but simply continues cause that’s all he knows.
We chat as he sharpens a chainsaw. His hands moving quickly through the motions, motions he’s performed hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of times. Metal shavings fall to the shop floor—most likely next to the very same shavings from when he first opened his shop.
A single bulb dangles from the ceiling, illuminating various shop tools, and machines of unknown origins. In the rear of the shop, sunlight filters through a dirty skylight, shedding light on the dark, gritty innards of a shop that has so many stories to tell, the hardest part is knowing where to start.
Kay, his secretary, first started working with him when she was twelve years old. Thirty six years later, she still answers the phone, cleans the bathrooms, and keeps the books straight. The door to her small office, where the only A/C unit hums in the building, is ticked with the heights and ages of her children, and Mr. Langham’s grandkids, a testament to the enduring legacy that is among all this worn out lawn equipment.
It’s hard to get him to speak much, until I ask about his grandkids. He makes sure I’m writing this down as he rightfully boasts about his successful grandkids, one working in NASA and the other as a physical therapist. When they visit, they sometimes help around the shop, or do yard work at his home, outside of Greensboro, Alabama.
His business has been on the market for the past few years. His honesty about the shops future isn’t a surprise. “Well I won’t be around much longer, and I won’t be surprised if this whole bit here gets torn to the ground.”
It’s the same non-sugar coated truth that helped him build his business and client base, that might eventually be it’s demise.