Reflecting on 60 years in business in Riverhead: auto dealer Irwin Garsten
Irwin Garsten, seated in his office earlier this month, reflects on his 60 years in business in Riverhead. Photos: Denise Civiletti
Irwin Garsten, seated in his office earlier this month, reflects on his 60 years in business in Riverhead. Photos: Denise Civiletti

LOCAL profile 
Reflecting on 60 years in business in Riverhead: auto dealer Irwin Garsten

Filled with the trappings and memorabilia acquired in nearly 60 years of doing business, Irwin Garsten's office at Apple Honda feels too comfortable to leave.

He leans back in his leather chair and looks out the window, taking in the view of the two-story steel skeleton rising just outside.

"They're putting me upstairs," he says, gesturing to the new building, pointing out the second-floor window that will be his office.

Though he chuckles a little as he says it, there's no delight in his voice.  Garsten is the kind of businessman who likes to be where the action is, where the people are. And that's the sales floor.

"They have an elevator," he notes. "But the elevator is so slow, to go one floor is going to take 40 seconds!" The expression on his face belies his intention to take the stairs.

At 86, Garsten is still a hands-on owner. He's at Apple Honda every afternoon, four days a week. And when he's not there physically, he's connected digitally, via an iPad. He's bounced back from health issues encountered about a decade ago and has no intention of retiring, despite having groomed a capable successor in his son, Bill Fields, who is now Apple's general manager and dealer of record.

"Bill," he marvels, "runs the business as an accountant would run it. There's an unbelievable amount of data to manage and it enables you to make better decisions." That's what it takes today, he notes.

Garsten, who went to NYU in pursuit of a degree in accounting but changed his major to business and marketing, admits he's a people person at heart.

His face brightens with a satisfied smile as he happily shows off framed photos, documents signed by Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt and his collection of Limoges porcelain cars, all of which adorn the paneled walls of Garsten's office.

The new 5,500-square-foot building outside his window should be ready for occupancy shortly after Garsten returns from wintering in Florida with his wife Flora.

"They don't know this," he confides in a hushed tone, "but I'm going to stay here for a while."

Irwin Garsten holds a special supplement published by Suffolk Life when he opened his current facility on Route 58 in 1972.

Irwin Garsten holds a special supplement published by Suffolk Life when he opened his current facility on Route 58 in 1972.

His current building, built in 1971, will be renovated for use as a new pre-owned showroom. The attached service department will also be renovated, he said.

Garsten has been selling cars in Riverhead since 1957. He moved the dealership from West Main Street - located where Buoy One restaurant is today - to its current three-acre site on Route 58 site in 1972.

"I bought the property in '65 or '66 from I.M. Young. I paid $35,000 for the property. The next week people called me up and said, 'Irwin, what are you doing? Are you crazy?' Nobody ever paid that much for land," he says, a twinkle in his eye. "We have 365 footage on Route 58," he boasts with a smile.

"We knew even in the '50s or '60s the Long Island Expressway was working its way to Riverhead - and you knew once it got here, Riverhead was going to become a destination," he said. "As is often the case, a lot of things don't bear fruit as quickly as you think. So for a while, it was stagnant."

Now, the Route 58 corridor is about as hot a commercial center as anywhere on the island, Garsten said. But even destinations like Route 58 can become saturated, so that's why he's looking to shift gears with a 12-acre property he owns adjacent to Riverhead Centre. He has been pursuing approvals for a retail center there, but is now considering building an assisted living facility "and a small hotel" there instead.

Irwin Garsten outside the new showroom facility currently under construction, slated for occupancy in spring 2017.

Irwin Garsten outside the new showroom facility currently under construction, slated for occupancy in spring 2017.

If Route 58 has changed in the 45 years he's been doing business there - and it has undergone a transformation - the auto industry has also seen a sea-change.

He's lived through "an unbelievable time" in the industry, with the bankruptcy of Chrysler and then General Motors - something that would have been inconceivable in the '50s and '60s.

Entire lines were discontinued. The number of models was cut. "And they weeded out a lot of dealers. That was very hard," Garsten said. Most of Long Island just had too many auto dealerships," he said. When the island was developed, there was a dealership in every town. "Over time, the roads got better and people would travel 20 or 30 miles."

"The bankruptcies changed the landscape," Garsten says.

"One thing about Honda and Toyota - when they came into this country, they were able to open up dealerships in the right location," he says, his voice rising with emphasis on the words "right location."

"In 1976, I was fortunate to acquire the Honda franchise." In the time since, Garsten has owned the only Honda franchise east of Patchogue and Smithtown. At the time, his main franchise had been Chrysler-Plymouth.

"I don't want to sound like I think I'm a genius," Garsten says. "I've had 17 franchises over the years. I had Peugeot, Renault, Isuzu, Triumph." He said he needed something to supplement Chrysler, which was third behind GM and Ford.

"Then I bought Honda. I knew Honda was going to be the best of the lot."

He bought Kinney Chevrolet - which was located where the All-Star Bowl is today - and at first changed the name to Garsten-Kinney Chevrolet.

"Then one day, I went through the Queens-Midtown Tunnel and there was a big deli there, the Apple Deli, and I turned to Flora and said, 'That's my name! Apple!' Then I changed the Chevy dealership to Apple Chevrolet and later, in the late 1990s, changed the name here from Garsten to Apple."

It was a more generic name- in case he decided to sell. "I was in my 70s, which is a point when people sell their businesses," he notes. "People were actually hanging around waiting for me to either sell out or kick the bucket," he says.

"I decided to keep it as a family business," he says.

Fields, the general manager, is one of six children in Garsten's blended family. Both he and his wife had three children when they met. "We're one family. We don't distinguish. We've been married 40-some-odd years, so I would say that's a permanent union."

Garsten sold the Chevrolet and Chrysler franchises to another Route 58 dealer so he could concentrate on his most lucrative franchise, Honda.

He's the first to say that Riverhead has been good to him and his family. He loves the town and believes in it. The location factor comes into play, he says.

"I see a very bright future for the Town of Riverhead."

It's important for anyone in business to give back to the community, Garsten says - just as it's important to reinvest back into your business.

"That's how you make your living and that's where you make your living," he says.

Garsten has been a longtime member of Riverhead Rotary, for which he served as president. He was also president of the Riverhead Chamber of Commerce and chairman of the board of the hospital. He served on the board of United Way and the Eastern Suffolk School of Music (which was merged into the East End Arts and Humanities Council).

"You don't just take," he says emphatically.