NORTH ATTLEBORO -- When people go to Butler Tire on East Washington Street, it’s not unusual for them to see a sprinkling of bird seed on the ground in front of one of the garage bays.

Second generation owner Bob Butler is fond of birds.

“I feed the birds living on the roof,” he said Friday afternoon, pausing to be interviewed during business hours.

“He’s the biggest animal lover there is,” his wife, Sue Butler, said.

And so a cat, with the obvious name of Kitty, was taken in by the business after her owner died and has been the unofficial, but very friendly, office greeter for years.

In between customers, she sleeps soundly on a well-padded blanket on the counter and keeps an eye on the place at night.

Fortunately, Kitty stays inside and the birds stay outside so nothing bad happens at the family-owned business where a third generation is hard at work selling, changing, and fixing tires at 404 E. Washington, the spot the business has occupied since the early 1970s.

At one point last year, there were thoughts of selling, but that didn’t happen so the business is still rolling along and celebrating its 50th year in business.

A family-owned business reaching a third generation is a rare thing, according to Northeastern University’s Center for Family Business.

Only about 30 percent make it to the second generation and a mere 10 percent make it to the third.

So it’s got that to celebrate, as well as its 50th anniversary this year.

Austen Butler, Bob’s dad, who died in 1994, started it out of his garage in 1969 with a borrowed truck and $350.

Austen’s wife, Monica, who died a few years after her husband, helped out and Bob came into it after serving a hitch in the Navy, which saw him doing duty in Vietnam for a year from 1970-1971.

Bob was in on it since nearly the beginning and it’s something he’s never gotten tired of, pun intended.

It’s a family business that fed his family and now is feeding the families of his sons.

“It was running and I was coming out of the service,” Bob said. “It was the thing to do.”

About 20 years later his son John came in after graduating from North Attleboro High School and then a second son, Rob, several years later.

They grew up there.

Sue had them corralled in an office playpen in the early days, she said.

John echoed the thought.

“I was born into it,” he said of the business. “It’s what the family did.”

Kitty’s been keeping an eye on the office so long no one really remembers when she arrived, but she’s well loved and is friendly to all customers who make their way through the front door.

And the customers are loved too, Sue said.

“Our customers are like family, she said. “Sometimes they just stop in to see how Kitty is.”

But Kitty is a bonus. The main reason most come to Butler Tires is, well, for tires.

Unlike some of the big box corporate tire stores, Butler fixes tires if they can be fixed.

And if they can’t, they have all makes of new ones and sell usable preowned for those who can’t afford new.

And some, who are hurting, roll out of the tire-changing bays without a bill in hand.

John said it’s always been a part of the business to help people in need, especially veterans in need.

The World War II guys got a lot of their attention.

“They deserved it,” he said.

And if someone rolls in with bad tires, they don’t leave with them, whatever there financial circumstances.

It’s the business’s way of giving back to the community that’s supported it for 50 years.

“You know the people who need help,” Sue said.

Thank-you notes from some of those helped are displayed on the glass counters.

Butler Tire is not only rare for the fact that three generations of the same family have run it, but it’s part of a disappearing breed of mom and pop businesses.

Impersonal big box stores are taking over a huge segment of retail trade.

Hometown folks serving hometown folks living next door are fewer and fewer.

But Butler Tire is still here after 50 years changing tires and keeping cars safe.

“We pride ourselves on our service,” John said.

George W. Rhodes can be reached at 508-236-0432.

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