In 1970, most of the dozen barstools around The Office's horseshoe-shaped, mahogany bar were reserved for the seven or eight men who ran Bakersfield. And then there was one for Don Galey.
This semicircle of municipal influence, which convened weekly in the cocktail lounge located in the alley behind the Haberfelde Building, was essentially Bakersfield's parallel city council, its "unofficial channel" in current political parlance: a senior police detective, a prominent defense attorney, two well-connected bankers, a couple of actual city councilmen and some others — including, of course, the city's best-known saloon proprietor and bookie, Clyde "Cookie" Barbeau. His father, Clyde Sr., would invariably be tending bar.
"Generally on Friday night, about six o'clock, quarter to six, I'd walk in and there was always one seat that they'd held for me," says Galey, his eyes twinkling at the memory. "I never said a word, but they would discuss everything that was happening in the city of Bakersfield. We're going to do this, or we're not going to do that, or we're going to vote for this, and so forth. But I never interfered and that's what they liked about me."
And two weeks later, without the newspapers or half of City Hall having known it was coming, boom. Open-meeting laws? Brown Act? What were they?
In that world, Galey was merely a supportive observer, but in his natural habitat — recreational boats — he was the undisputed king, and not just on the local stage. Eighty-two years after his parents opened an appliance store on Bernard Street that would evolve into Galey's Marine Supply, 86-year-old Don Galey is still the undisputed boss.
Merle Haggard would've vouched for him. The legendary singer-songwriter bought six or seven boats from Galey over a period of 30 years or so, Galey reckons. Haggard, in keeping with his idiosyncratic persona, was known to take delivery under unusual circumstances. More on that in a minute.
Galey's, one of about 5,000 boat suppliers in the United States, is the oldest dealership under one continuous ownership in California, a distinction the company has held for two decades or more. Those are the kind of credentials that give Galey, and later his son, third-generation owner Mark Galey, the kind of gravitas to get things done in the industry.
Galey was one of the "instigators," he said, of the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas, personally championing industry breakthroughs such as floorplan financing. Until that change came about, dealers had to purchase their own inventories — meaning, in this era of $140,000 boats, they would need millions of dollars of upfront cash. No longer.
Galey has been everywhere in the industry, though: He served as a board member and chairman of both the MRAA and the Southern California Marine Dealer Association and sat on several manufacturers’ advisory boards. It's telling that when the MRAA created a Lifetime Achievement Award a couple of years ago, its board knew exactly who to present with the inaugural prize: Don Galey.
Otto and Mae Galey started their appliance story on Bernard, just east of Alta Vista, in 1937. But they were forced to make inventory adjustments after World War II came along and made refrigerators and freezers much more difficult to acquire; America needed warplanes, not washing machines. The Galeys adjusted and added used boats as a side business. It went so well that, after Don graduated from Bakersfield College and then, at 21, San Jose State, he bought the business and went exclusively with boats. His parents loaned him $3,000 so he'd have something to put in the cash register.
Boats were a natural direction for Galey because he was always a water guy. And not just a fisherman. Yes, he worked the streams of Alaska, Montana and the Sierra Madre, but he was also a champion water skier. Between the ages of 16 and 18, towed by Jim Dewar of local soda fountain fame, Galey regularly participated in water skiing races of between 15 and 40 miles. They hit speeds of up to 62 mph, a test of stamina perhaps difficult for shorebound mortals to imagine. But the wisdom of age, relatively speaking, eventually took over and Galey moved on to other challenges.
"My last ski race was from the mainland to Catalina Island and back," Galey said. "We left at 7 in the morning and we were averaging a pretty good speed. I lucked out, though, because by the time I got back to mainland, five or six of the skiers were getting loaded into ambulances. It was just that time of year or something, but the damn flying fish were coming out of the water and slapping them in the chest. They'd kind of glide in front of you, and when you're going 45, 55 mph, that's like getting hit with a baseball bat. That was enough for me."
Galey found fame, of sorts, another way. For 2½ years, in the late 1950s and early ’60s, he was the primary sponsor of Cousin Herb Henson's "Trading Post," a 45-minute, weekday music program that aired live from the KERO television studios at the El Tejon Hotel. (The hotel stood at the spot now occupied by the Bank of America building at Truxtun and Chester.) Stars included Henson, the piano-playing host, Fuzzy Owen and his girlfriend Bonnie Owens, Fuzzy's cousin Lewis Talley, Jelly Sanders, Al Brumley, Billy Mize, Cliff Crofford, Dallas Frazier, and, on occasion, Buck Owens or a fresh-out-of-prison Merle Haggard. Each day, at the appointed time, stage hands would swing open the double doors leading into the studio and Galey would tow a new boat right onto the set. Before each show, he'd buy a 10-cent cup of coffee for some of the performers in the El Tejon cafe. After the show, he would often give one or two of them a ride to their cars three or four blocks from the studio. "They were always two or three payments behind and they didn't want their cars repossessed," Galey said. "So they parked a ways away."
Galey's association with the show was the start of a long relationship with several prominent musicians who became customers. Many of them bought a boat or two along the way; Buck Owens, Galey believes, bought two or three. But Haggard, an inveterate angler who frequented both the Kern River and Shasta Lake, upgraded every two years or so.
One day Haggard, in the midst of a long tour, called Galey from the road and arranged to make a purchase right over the phone. He needed a favor, though: Could he pick up the boat at 1:30 in the morning? He was coming in from Minnesota on his tour bus (or North Dakota; Galey's story varies with each telling) and wanted to hitch his new boat onto an accompanying pickup truck and pull it straight into Shasta Lake. Galey met him at the store as promised. Haggard's wife — he was by this time married to Bonnie Owens — was nowhere in sight, though. "Don't you want to wait for Bonnie?," Galey asked. "Naw, hell no, she can come later," Haggard said. "I need to go fishin' noooooow."
In 1999, Galey's Marine Supply finalized its move from its obscure east Bakersfield headquarters of 45 years to what would become the Bakersfield Auto Mall, then an expanse of sagebrush-blown acreage on the city's south side fronting Highway 99, visible to drivers and passengers in 27,000 cars and trucks per day. They built a 29,000-square-foot showroom and stocked it with everything from rowboats to cabin cruisers — "from a little putt-putt to a great big yacht," as the jingle went. Galey's planned move piqued the interest of Wally Tucker, a fellow TV showman who billed himself as the "Sheriff of Datsun Country" and starred in some of the corniest commercials in local television history. Tucker's Datsun dealership was located at 19th and Baker streets — in what is now a paint store next door to Wool Growers restaurant — but Datsun (now Nissan) was demanding that he either improve sales or find himself in competition with a corporate-owned dealership. "Move out here," Galey suggested, and the Auto Mall, he said, got its first car dealership. Dozens of them now line the streets south of White Lane.
Galey persuaded others to make the move as well. One was a young good ol' boy Galey spotted loitering one day on his Auto Mall property, sitting in a convertible and sipping from a bottle of whiskey. It was a friend of Galey's who had outgrown the headquarters of his own business. They chatted; Galey explained the benefits as he saw them, and his friend was convinced. "It was Mike Stier," Galey said, referring to the RV dealer who, after starting on Union Avenue, ran a mega-dealership, since sold, just down the street from Galey's for decades.
Don Galey and wife Jean, sweethearts at East Bakersfield High School, long ago handed over the reins of the family business to their son Mike, the general manager, and (eventually) grandson Steve, the sales manager, and grandson Jeff, the service manager. But Don is in the store several days a week, serving as what the Galeys call an "ambassador." That gives him permission to do as little as an 86-year-old ought to be required to do. Instead, though, he participates in charitable causes and events, including the Bakersfield College Alumni Association — he stepped down just last year after a long run that included chairmanship — and Union Cemetery, where he remains a director. You'd think he might visit some other old haunts as well.
Beth Browder, who along with husband Jason owns Horse in the Alley, formerly known as T.L. Maxwell's and, a couple of incarnations prior to that, The Office, would love to see him.
"Don Galey! Tell him to come and see us," she said. "We've got his place ready at the bar."
This time, we can safely assume, he'll be permitted to speak.