March 2008

Jeffrey Robinowich

Author: Paul deVere

Highly Wreck-A-Mended

When you walk into Morris Garage and Towing, just off SC 46 on the edge of “Old Bluffton,” you immediately know this is a no-nonsense place that fixes cars. NAPA signs hang on the walls. Work orders and car parts litter the counter. Tinkering sounds come from the bay next door.

But this is Bluffton, so there has to be a little nonsense. Upon entering, if you happen to glance to your right, you’ll see it, all twelve feet. Tiny is the real item, a twelve-year-old, twelve-foot-long Burmese Python. “Grandmothers walk in and jump about that [two feet] high. And then, after they realize he’s in a cage and not getting out, they come back the next day and bring their grandkids,” said proprietor Jeffery Robinowich, who moved to Bluffton in 1962, at the ripe old age of three.

Tiny came to Robinowich via his son, who got the snake from a friend. Tiny lived at the Robinowich’s home for the first two months. “But every time something went bump in the night, my wife would wake me up to make sure the snake hadn’t gotten out. The snake ended up living here so I could get a good night’s sleep, “he explained.

Back in 1962, Robinowich’s father, Morris, sold his department store in Graceville, Florida—where he was also mayor—and moved his family to Bluffton where he bought the Planters Mercantile on Calhoun Street from his wife’s relatives. Originally opened by Abram and Moses Patz in 1890 as a general store and grocery, it was affectionately known as “The Jew Store,” one of the hundreds of such independent establishments that were unique to the South. (Check out the new book, The Jew Store, by Stella Suberman, for good read.)

“When daddy first got here, vendors didn’t deliver to Bluffton. We had to go over to Savannah in our van to pick up chickens, vegetables, all the produce,” Robinowich remembered. “Growing up in Bluffton was wonderful. Back then you could pull out on highway 46 without even looking. Chances were you could go for a lifetime without a wreck,” Robinowich smiled.

He also remember a time when he was little and a man named Charles Fraser came over from Hilton Head Island, trying to convince his father and a few friends to invest in a place called South Beach. “Unfortunately for my retirement, I remember Daddy saying, ‘Nobody wants to live on that rock.’ His exact words.”

When he was several years older and the access to Hilton Head Island was a high maintenance swing bridge, the bridge made the perfect excuse. “From the time I was 15 to 17, my sister and I (we’re 11 months to the day apart) when we were supposed to be home at 11:30 p.m. and we got home at 1 to 2 a.m., it was because ‘the bridge got stuck,’” said Robinowich. “That was our standing story. Our mother was the type that, until she caught you in a lie, she never called you a liar. Any time we were late, it was ‘the bridge got stuck.’”

Right out of high school (he is a 1977 McCracken graduate), Robinowich moved to Charlotte, North Carolina and traveled all over the Southeast as a children’s photographer. By 1984, tired of all the traveling, he asked his father, “What does Bluffton need?” In the end, it wasn’t so much what Bluffton needed as what his father, Morris Robinowich, needed. The elder Robinowich had closed down the Planters Mercantile in 1972 and opened Morris Garage in 1974 on Highway 46. In 1984 Morris Robinowich wanted to retire. Again. He asked his son to buy him out.

“I had no [automotive repair] experience. My dad had hardware, fishing tackle, and offered light mechanic work. After being here about three months, I decided to have a full-fledged garage,” Robinowich said. The hardware and fishing tackle went out the back door. It was also about this time Robinowich married his wife, Charlene, a USC graduate who serves on the Beaufort Memorial Hospital’s Board of Trustees. They have two sons and a daughter, Hahna, a junior at Converse College and member of their volleyball team.

The business prospered, and in 1990 Robinowich bought out his next door neighbor, Daley’s Garage. “We now do everything but body work, from oil changes to engines,” he explained. Engines are definitely important. The shop’s “assistant manager,” Jasper, a half Doberman, half hound dog, is named after the most popular brand of rebuilt engines in the country. “He’s truly the shop dog,” Robinowich said with a smile.

In the spirit of “full disclosure,” it was the towing part of Robinowich’s business that lead to one of those “small world” stories he remembered that indirectly involved the editor of CH2. Actually it was her parents, coming down to Hilton Head Island from New York to see if, in fact, the Lowcountry would be their new home. “They broke down, literally, a block west of my shop [on SC 46]. They needed a new transmission. I was the first person they met in Beaufort county and we’ve been very good friends ever since,” Robinowich said.

The same holds true for the Hancock family. Elizabeth Hancock is one of CH2’s graphic designers. “Elizabeth’s grandfather, Boonie, is one of my oldest and best customers. Oldest in age and time,” Robinowich laughed. There are now three generations of Hancocks who frequent the Morris garage. Some parts of Bluffton are still small town, Robinowich said.

If all goes as planned, Tiny is going to have a bigger, taller glass home in the shop to accommodate a piece of driftwood, standing vertically. That way Tiny can get a little exercise, looping his massive body around wood. A mirrored back panel, reflecting back into the shop, will have “Tiny” etched in it. The only drawback to the plan is that the new glass case may obscure the giant $10,000 facsimile of a credit check Robinowich won last year for his first place finish in a “Texas hold ’em” poker tournament held for 100 South Carolina NAPA garage owners.

But Morris Garage and Towing, and Jeffrey Robinowich, are “old Bluffton,” so everything will work out just fine, in “old Bluffton” time.

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