For more than 40 years, Bart’s Auto Den sold cars on instinct — not on credit.
“We don’t do credit checks, we just talk to them and look them in the eye and decide,” said owner Brad Barton.
Barton said that by selling and holding the title to the cars they sold, the Richland business was a service to the community.
“In a way, this is a ministry,” he said. “For people who couldn’t buy a car anywhere else, they’ve come here.”
Now, after 38 years, he’s ready to retire.
The final push came during the past year as car sales plummeted during the COVID-19 pandemic and the shutdowns.
“The year was tough. We didn’t make any money. It helped influence the decision,” he said.
But he maintains the decision is actually a joyful move.
Barton’s dad, Harold, started the business in the late ‘70s, eventually moving it to the current location on Columbia Center Boulevard near the river.
Harold Barton rented the land and building with an “old school” handshake deal — and it’s stayed that way ever since.
“Back when my dad started, there weren’t any more than a dozen used car dealers (in Tri-Cities),” he said. “More and more moved in and the slice is not as big as it used to be.”
Barton spent five years working as a middle school teacher in Montana before moving to the Tri-Cities to join his dad in 1983.
He intended to work at Bart’s Auto Den for “just one year” while he earned the 15 college credits needed to transfer his teaching certificate to Washington. He was planning to teach fourth graders in West Richland.
“I dreaded the idea being a used car dealer,” he said. “As a teacher, I had respect. Used car dealers? They have zero respect.”
As it turned out, working with adults suited him far better than working with the seventh- and eighth-graders he previously had in classes.
Barton spent the next 10 years slowly buying out his dad so his dad could retire in the mid-1990s. Harold died in 2011, but already had laid the groundwork as a former banker to finance all of their own sales.
Working six days a week for years, Barton tried in earnest to be honest, reputable and maintain integrity even when hard times hit.
In 2007, he was the victim of a theft ring when several cars were stolen off the lot, along with all their vehicles’ paperwork and customer information.
Even then, he told the Herald at the time that his biggest concern was for the customers and the worry over their identities possibly being compromised.
That customer care served him well.
Barton said people who bought vehicles from him in the past have called him from as far as Missouri to tell him that he will be missed when he closes shop in late March or early April.
One customer even brought in a dozen doughnuts to wish him well.
Instead of customers, he will look forward to spending more time with a new granddaughter, as well as hiking, camping, kayaking and helping his wife with community service projects.
“I’m getting out on my own terms,” Barton said. “I’ve taken care of myself. I should be able to end on my terms and have health and vigor.”