Louis Gellman, owner of Hilna Motors on Stillwell Avenue, is one of those resolutely, genuinely uncorporatized, wisecracking, soulful New York merchants they try to duplicate on crummy TV shows but always get wrong. The third generation in the treadwear business (a line that goes to 1910, when his grandfather first came to these shores), Louie has borne witness to all the vicissitudes of what might happen to a tire along these mean streets. He’s seen the pothole-mashed, the sidewall slashed, the Dunlops shot with arrows, the $10,000 rims on the $2,000 cars.
“Everything is different now,” says the now-63-year-old Louie in his alternatingly sinuous and staccato tenor. At first, tires were simple things, rings of rubber with tubes inside. But now, Louie says, “there’s a million sizes, from thirteen inches across to 22. They can cost like $500 apiece. A $500 tire! It’s nuts! Once we had maybe 300 tires in stock. Now I’ve got 5,000. I’m surrounded by tires, stacks and stacks of tires. I go to sleep and dream about tires!”
For Louie, to be standing behind a desk cluttered with bills of lading, in grease-stained coveralls and a Michelin cap, shouting patently waggish things like “225-45-17, that’s not a tire, that’s some wife’s measurements” has always seemed like fate. “I sold my first tire when I was 9 years old, in like 1957; what am I supposed to think?” he says with faint resignation. Once it might have been different. Louie took over Hilna Motors from his father, who dreamed of owning a Dodge dealership except “they weren’t giving those out to Jews back in the fifties, so I’m here. This is what I do; this is all I do.”
Yet, it is, as they say, a living, being the last of the great Brooklyn tire discounters. Strange things happen. “One day this guy comes in with a cracked windshield,” Louie recounts. “He says he was over by the BQE, near Flatbush, and this tire comes flying out of the sky, hits his car, and breaks the windshield. Then another guy comes in who needs a new tire. Turns out he’s the guy who threw the one that hit the other guy.” Still, he soldiers on. Asked what it’s like to work for Louie, one employee (the staff spans the ethnic gamut, from Africa to Russia to the Caribbean) says, “Oh, he’s all right. Had worse.” Louie, a man without illusions, has no quibble with this assessment.
Today, however, Louie, in the manner of all true New Yorkers, has a complaint: When the city supposedly fixed the tracks of the el train that curves toward Coney Island right above Hilna Motors, they “changed the pitch” of the track, resulting in a marked noise increase. “The acceptable decibel level is like 65; we’re at 100. I’m going deaf! I can’t even talk to the customers,” says Louie, displaying an array of four-inch-long bolts he says routinely fall off the train structure because of the excessive vibration. “This could kill somebody. But does the city care? No. The city doesn’t care. They raise the fares, and you can’t get them to do anything,” says Louie, who used to be a Rockefeller Republican but now counts himself firmly within the 99 percent because “the way things are right now, the system is set up to squeeze out guys like me, which is a shame.” Right then, in mid-statement, Louie is interrupted by an employee. Apparently “that lady, ” the one who couldn’t come into the office, is in her car across the street. Could Louie go out to talk to her?
Louie nods wearily. “I’m the only tire discounter in Brooklyn with customers allergic to rubber,” he says.