BETHLEHEM — Les Washburn couldn’t believe it.
Days after his auto body shop was destroyed by a fire, the community rallied to his aid.
Friends, acquaintances, and strangers donated what they could to help him restart the second-generation business that he calls “my life’s work.”
Some donated time, helping him sort through the rubble. Others gave money, with two online fundraisers collecting over $6,000 through Thursday. One neighbor lent him a garage and another purchased him equipment so that he could resume his work.
Speaking through tears on Wednesday, he said those efforts have helped him to pick up the pieces.
“I didn’t think that I even wanted to survive this myself. It took me my whole life to gather up what was there, and build a business. And I was just done. But with the whole community and everybody here that’s helping me and encouraging me to keep going, it’s just unbelievable,” he said.
Washburn, 59, had watched helplessly on Monday as the two-bay garage that housed Hollow Auto Body was consumed by fire.
It had been a special place. Washburn helped his father, Newton, build the garage in 1974. It was where Washburn learned the trade. Years later, he took over the business with his father’s blessing.
“My dad built it, and I remember being out there helping him do the inside of it, putting the ceiling up, and painting it when I was a kid. My dad taught me to do bodywork in that shop. And one day he told me ‘I’m all done doing bodywork, the shop is yours, go to work.’ So it meant everything to me,” he said.
Hollow Auto Body had extensive equipment that Washburn had purchased over the years when he was able. That included two lifts, three air compressors and “thousands of dollars” in tools and gear.
It was all lost in less than an hour.
“You don’t realize what you’ve got until it’s gone,” he said. “Every day I’d go over there to work, never thinking about how much stuff I really had. The night of the fire, for the first time in my life, I thought ‘I can’t even go out and inflate my truck tire.’ It’s just a sick feeling.”
In the aftermath of the fire, Washburn’s across-the-street neighbor and longtime friend Don Leavitt offered up his family’s garage.
Washburn intends to be up and running in the new space by next week.
“[Leavitt] and I have been friends since childhood. We pretty much shared the same diaper,” Washburn said. “He owns the building that I’m moving into, it used to be his dad’s. He said ‘you need to stay working buddy, you have to clean out that shop and use it.’ He is just an unbelievable person. He’s very, very unselfish.”
Helping Washburn prepare and move into the new space is a small army of people. “Too many to count,” he said.
It revealed the heart of this small-town, North Country community.
“It just overwhelms me. The help from people you wouldn’t even think cared about you. You see them at the store, maybe you’ve worked on their cars. They’re big, big-hearted people,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”
Looking ahead, Washburn wants to rebuild Hollow Auto Body.
He is waiting to hear if his homeowner’s insurance policy will cover the damage, and home much.
“If the insurance comes through, and stuff like that, I want to rebuild it back, as close to what it was as I can. That’s what I’m hoping and praying,” he said.
Immediately after the fire, he remembered thinking “How am I ever, ever going to do something like this again? I’m almost 60 years old. It’s pretty hard to start all over again at my age.”
Now, with a community behind him, he said, “I don’t feel so alone.”