From Hippie Cabs to Marty's Motors – a Chat with Marty Kaliski

President of the Rotary Club of El Cerrito and owner of a successful auto shop in El Cerrito since 1999, Marty Kaliski believes in service.


Owner: Marty Kaliski

Age: “My age is 66. Everybody says I look like I’m about 55.”

Kaliski took time out to talk with Patch in a busy day that started at 7 a.m. and included a luncheon, where he presides as club president. When we arrived, he was sitting at his desk with Sam, the shop dog, who decided to say hello before lying back down on his big doggie bed (which has been granted a significant portion of the office space.)

How long have you been working with cars? I’ve been doing this for about 45 years now.

How long have you owned your spot in El Cerrito? I’ve been here since ’99 in El Cerrito.

And before that? I was in Berkeley.

What brought you out to El Cerrito? A combination of things: one, I thought this was a better business environment. Two, this was a much better location than the one I had in Berkeley. One of the challenges of our business is that it is very difficult to open a shop in a business that wasn’t already an auto shop. In other words, unless you were grandfathered in, nobody wants to give permits to auto shops.

In Berkeley, the market was one where the few available auto shops were pricing themselves so high that I couldn’t open a business and make a living at it. I’d have gone bankrupt trying to move into a larger location in Berkeley. I found this location in El Cerrito. I did a lot of modification—it was two small shops. I knocked out the wall between them and made a bigger shop out of it.

You were fixing cars before you started your business, according to a San Francisco Chronicle article you have on your wall outside. Do you want to tell me a little bit about your history working with cars? What made you decide to open a business? First of all, I don’t like having bosses. I never did. I spent a lot of time working in collective or cooperative businesses before I started my own business. The last one I worked for was a hippie cab company.

The problem with the hippie cab company is that they believed every job should get paid the same amount of money. It was very difficult to find people who were willing to fix cars—especially on the street, because they didn’t have a garage with lifts or anything—for the same amount of money they could get paid to sit behind the desk and dispatch, or drive a taxi cab.

The cabs were always breaking down. I had always fixed my own vehicles, so I ended up fixing the cabs—if I wanted to have a cab to drive half the time, I’d have to fix it. This was going on for a while. I had a girlfriend at the time who said, “You’re spending all of this time fixing cars, my car needs a clutch. I tell you what. I’ll pay you what my mechanic would charge me to put a clutch in my car. Why don’t you do it instead?” 

I did it and she paid me, and I went, “Whoa, this is a whole lot more than I was making driving taxi cabs.” At the same time, it was a service industry. My community of friends at the time were working in various sorts of service trades—plumbers, electricians, carpenters. None of them were mechanics. Here was something that was a complementary trade to the trades my fellow people were in. It’s a service trade and I like service. I like being of service. That’s why I do Rotary, and was a member of the .  I was also on the city’s Economic Development Board for about six years.

Do you have any comments about the city of El Cerrito? I have some criticisms of the city. I think there are a lot of smart people working in the city government, but I think a lot of the structures are non-productive. I think the permitting part of the buildings department especially is very difficult to work with and takes way too long. I know a lot of contractors who say they’d rather build in almost any other city than El Cerrito, because it’s just so hard to work with the building department and the permitting people. Design review gives you a really hard time about painting. Changing paint colors becomes a major issue.

I think a lot of that stuff can be run in a way that’s much more complementary or supportive of the business community. There are a lot of empty buildings in El Cerrito. I notice folks over in the city department who are working hard to bring businesses in. If at the same time design review and buildings are fighting them and are making it difficult ... (they're at loggerheads). I had a really hard time getting the permitting necessary to make the modifications I needed to make to open my doors. And it was being held up by the building department. It just sat on the paperwork. If I had waited to do everything completely legitimately, I never would have opened. I would have gone bankrupt waiting for them to finish just processing the paperwork.

How long have you been involved with the Rotary Club? I’ve been a member of the Rotary Club for six years now. It felt like it was my turn. For about three years, they’d been asking me to be president. Half the club has done their turn as president at one time or another. We had a year where nobody was stepping up for president. It was a funny meeting. We had a visions meeting with a regional planning person. Most of the leadership of the Rotary Club was there. The woman who was running it said, “Well, who’s your next president?” and there was this silence across the room. The silence went on and on, and I went, “Well, I guess it’s time to step up.”

I’ve gotten a lot of support from a lot of the members of the club. It’s a good club. It’s a really good organization, a lot of competent people. In a lot of ways it hasn’t been as difficult as I thought it would be, because there are good people I can delegate to and they are willing to step up and take the responsibility. 

To see other installments of our "Who's Who in Local Business" series, click .

Craig B. Wilson May 18, 2012 at 04:04 PM
Just a thought--I know nothing directly about the building permit process in El Cerrito, except what one neighbor has told me. Unfortunately, what my neighbor said coincides with what Marty is saying. I got an earfull! He was frustrated and angry with delay after delay. I'd like to hear from others regarding their experience with building permits in El Cerrito. Is it the problem that Marty suggests?
Robert N. Sayre May 18, 2012 at 06:18 PM
I totally agree with Marty's comments about the Building Dept. It is almost impossible to deal with their red tape. They seem to have no concept of practicality and reality. Robert N. Sayre
John Stashik May 18, 2012 at 07:14 PM
As an El Cerrito Chamber of Commerce president for over two years I got an earful when visiting member business owners. None of what I heard was very complimentary about the city bureaucracy regarding permits and dealing with City Hall. That has not been my personal experience, but just what I've heard. One business owner recently stated to me "thank God I'm on the Richmond side of the street." That person invested a mere ten minutes at their City Hall taking care of business. I have to wonder how all the massage parlors along the avenue get into business so quickly. Fast track permitting? "Never again" was the comment of another business owner who invested a lot of money and several years into opening a store in El Cerrito. When you hear the same comments again and again from many people trying to do business in El Cerrito it makes one wonder if the city is really hostile to new business. That is a real perception at this time.
Kathy A. May 18, 2012 at 09:59 PM
Nobody has said anything about Marty's Motors, which provides quality work at a fair price. He is very good about explaining what's gone wrong, and the options. I have never gotten the hard sell on something I don't need, and never gotten the brush-off on questions. Also, what's not to like about a business with a shop dog?


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