On Wednesday afternoon, anyone hoping to get their car cleaned at Los Olivos Hand Car Wash was looking at an hour to an hour-and-a-half wait. Cars circled the building; the pickup area looked like a parking lot. Longtime customers sat under the teal awnings with crossword puzzles and James Patterson novels, figuring it was worth the wait to get in one last car wash before Los Olivos closes for good this week.
“Are you coming to our party on Saturday?” owner Coletta Spurling asked customers while simultaneously stapling receipts and listening to the back-and-forth on her walkie-talkie. “We’re going to have food trucks, a DJ, the Suns’ dancers, and the Mercury’s hip-hop squad there.”
“What are you going to do when this place closes?” a white-haired man in a denim shirt and jeans wanted to know.
Spurling gave the same answer she’d been giving all day: Do some traveling, volunteer with Hospice of the Valley, and, finally, relax.
For years, developers have eyed the parcel of land on the corner of Third Street and McDowell Road. Then, in late November, word got out that Los Olivos had finally agreed to sell. In an interview with Channel 3 (KPHO), Spurling explained that she’d taken a big hit after the state’s minimum wage was raised to $10 an hour.
The announcement was exactly what opponents of Proposition 206 had warned about, but most Phoenicians were too distraught to seize on the opportunity for political score-settling. (One typical Facebook comment: "Nooooo! This is the worst news ever.")
What makes Los Olivos so beloved? Norma Rivera, who’s worked at the shoeshine stand in the waiting room for the past three years, has a theory: “I think it’s 'cause it’s a mom-and-pop shop. It’s run by a family, and it’s got that family feeling.”
It also may be because Phoenix is a city where people spend a lot of time alone, in their cars, and the car wash is one of the few places where they’re forced to step outside of their air-conditioned bubbles and actually come face-to-face with one another.
On Wednesday afternoon, the waiting area held a cross-section of Phoenix: an older man in suspenders with an overweight Chihuahua, a Superior Court judge, a construction worker who’d removed his hard hat and started drinking a tallboy of Bud Light, a white woman with dreadlocks who chose to squat on the asphalt instead of sitting in a chair, two city employees with their ID tags clipped to their belts, and an attorney in a black suit who clutched a heavy leather briefcase and tapped aggressively at his phone.
They browsed the rack of air fresheners and sunshades (“50% Off — Everything Must Go”) as Spurling called out cars that were ready for pickup. “White Chevy! Black GMC Yukon! Kia Rio — you’re good. Bye sweetie, come see us on Saturday.” None seemed particularly perturbed by the wait.
“It’s fine,” said Al Gaskins, a recent transplant from San Antonio who’d never been to Los Olivos before. “I saw in the news that they were closing, and I said I’d come out and support them before they shut down.”
The exterior of Los Olivos’ dusky pink cinderblock building is covered with signs, one of which informs customers that removing egg from their car is not included in a standard wash and will cost extra.
Los Olivos was one of the businesses that opposed the law. It also previously sponsored events like Phoenix Pride, Rainbows Festival, Splash Bash, and AIDS Walk Phoenix, earning the company many loyal fans in the LGBTQ community.
But the main reason why Los Olivos is so popular is simple: The car wash does a good job getting rid of all the miscellaneous detritus that winds up in your car. And you can’t beat the customer service.
That’s why Lorien Wilson drove all the way from 83rd Avenue in southwest Phoenix on Wednesday.
“Do you think it’s crazy, making a 30-mile round trip for a car wash?” he asked. “This is the only place that’s ever washed my car. It’s been a fixture for so long.”
Wilson is a Vietnam veteran. He uses an oxygen tank as a result of his exposure to asbestos and Agent Orange. He usually stops by Los Olivos after his doctor’s appointments at the VA. The staff knows that getting around can be tough for him, and they make sure he never has to walk far to get in and out of his car.
“I understand why she’s selling it, but it doesn’t make me feel better about it,” Wilson said. “It won’t be the same — I know everyone here.”
From an urban planning perspective, this is a good thing. More people living in and around downtown Phoenix means there’s more of an incentive for bars and restaurants to open up in the city’s core. And replacing a car wash with a high-rise apartment building suggests that Phoenix is moving away from unsustainable sprawl.
Nonetheless, there’s been little enthusiasm for the change.
It’s easy to understand why: Just look next door at the Broadstone Arts District, which is actually not an arts district of any kind, but a monotonous beige apartment complex with a “Now Leasing!” sign affixed to the side of the building. Los Olivos’ low-slung cinderblock building and eccentric pink-purple-teal color scheme wasn’t going to win any architectural awards, but it’s still a hell of a lot more appealing than the Broadstone.
Plus, by Phoenix standards, Los Olivos is a historic landmark. It's been there since at least the 1950s — no one's too clear on the specifics. (The current owner, Coletta Spurling, took over in 2002.) Like the pink Melrose Drive-In Liquors building on Seventh Avenue, it's an eyesore, but an interesting one.
Unlike the Melrose building, however, there's been no outcry to save Los Olivos. On Saturday, the car wash will hold a customer appreciation party from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. Then, it will close for good.
Los Olivos’ customers will find new places to go — on Wednesday, employees were handing out photocopied flyers for ANB Detailing and Hand Car Wash on North 16th Street. But downtown Phoenix will be a little bit blander, and a whole lot less friendly.