People driving up to Bill and Karen Graebner’s shop on East Francis near Market Street better be ready for a hubcap makeover.
Within 10 seconds, the Graebners will have checked out the car and decided what kind of hubcaps would liven up a boring set of wheels.
“Hubcaps are just like people’s jewelry,” says Bill Graebner.
‘You might drive around with spinners one week. The next week, you might want to put wire hubcaps on.”
With or without a purchase, just about everyone leaves B & K’s Hubcaps having learned something about auto history, car design and how to tell a good spinner from a tin imposter.
After 10 years of collecting, buying and selling them, the Graebners have reached hubcap-expert status.
About 20,000 hubcaps are stashed on racks inside a two-story garage and stacked against the walls of their Hillyard home at 2920 E. Francis.
Their minds are awash with details, like the tiny differences between a hubcap made in Canada for a Ford and one made in America for the same car in the same year.
A few other area hubcap dealers offer nearly the same variety, but not the volume found at B & K’s.
For instance, the Hubcap Store on East Sprague has both hubcaps and wheels, concentrating more on “quality and not just quantity,” a spokesman there says.
Given a choice, Bill and Karen Graebner would deal only in the real thing - hubcap masterpieces like the chrome domes of the 1940s to 1960s.
Metal, however, doesn’t sell as much as it used to, now that more than 90 percent of new cars and trucks come with plastic hubcaps.
“So we carry the plastic caps now,” Bill Graebner says.
The Graebners owe their obsession to a longtime love affair with oldfashioned cars.
About 10 years ago, Graebner was set to retire from his job as a road construction laborer.
“Somebody in Coeur d’Alene suggested I sell hubcaps, figuring I already had dozens of ‘em already piled up in my garage,” he says.
They converted their garage into a storage shed and began serious hubcap hunting.
Friends - and strangers - would drive by at night, leaving boxes of hubcaps on the Graebners’ lawn.
They learned how to find choice hubcaps in the rough - visiting garage sales and swap meets, scouring salvage yards, tracking down collectors whose wives grew annoyed with hubcaps in the basement.
They made mistakes: thinking a cap was stainless steel when it turned out thin chrome and rust-prone, or believing someone was selling “original” hubcaps that turned out to be bogus.
“I picked up a lot of stuff no one else would ever buy. And I threw it all away,” says Bill Graebner.
They also found hubcaps so attractive - a ‘59 Dodge shiny chrome beauty - that Karen hid them so they couldn’t be sold.
“We have hubcaps hanging on our walls,” she says. “Like art.”
Buyers come to them mostly through word of mouth. Every new-tire retailer in town knows B & K’s telephone number by heart, if they need to replace a customer’s damaged or lost hubcap.
Their prices range from $5 to more than $100 per hubcap for hard-to-find specials.
Some customers rush in, needing a cheap replacement for a plastic hubcap that fell victim to a rough ride over a curb.
Others are searching for a full set of hubcaps for an old Dodge or Pontiac they’re restoring.
“When we go to an old car meet, it makes us feel pretty good,” Karen Graebner says. “Many of those cars on display have hubcaps we sold them.”
Though not obvious to most customers, the Graebners do have a system for organizing all those hubcaps.
Bill Graebner arranged the garage into two large categories, American and foreign. Within each group, he organizes hubcaps according to car make, and then year.
“It’s his system,” Karen laughs. “I don’t try to understand it.”
When asked, the Graebners advise customers how to dress up a boring set of Honda wheels or the verveless rims on a Ford Fiesta.
“That’s something women customers do more,” says Bill Graebner. “They appreciate changing for variety’s sake.”
Lately the Graebners have been looking at the motor home in their driveway, hoping to spend less time with their business, more on traveling.
“I’d like it if one of our two sons wanted to take this place over. But that may not happen,” says Bill Graebner.
He’s not counting on retiring soon, however. “You know, I’d probably still sell these from a wheelchair.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo