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October 23, 2019
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Harmony’s Joel, Cotati storyteller

  • Joel Rosenblum, owner of Joel's Harmony Garage & Parts since 1976, in his shop at 7890 Old Redwood Highway. Photo by Robert Grant

By: Lanny Lowery
July 12, 2019

“Harmony!” blunt, to-the-point, down-to-business and gruff but clear answers the only voice I have heard from “Joel’s Harmony Garage” on the phone these past three decades.  No musical greeting, no menu of numbers to push, just a get-on-with-it attitude.  “What’s wrong with your car?  Bring it down and we’ll see what we can do.”

Joel Rosenblum, owner and operator of Cotati’s renowned car repair shop, will be quick to tell you that they work on more than Volkswagens.  But a scenic feast awaits VW lovers in front of his shop, always several old Volkswagens line the parking lot:  bugs, beetles, busses, fast backs, Carmen Ghias.

Cotati’s version of a strip mall, Rosenblum’s property extends south to a gas station and north to a bike shop.  And adjacent to the garage, “Loud and Clear,” the music store, completes the unique run of businesses.  Behind these businesses, 31 apartments and a swimming pool, owned and managed by Rosenblum, extend east.

Not the garage, not the other businesses, not the apartments overshadow the walking-talking historian of the Cotati culture of the past four decades.  Rosenblum has stories about many colorful citizens of the past and present.  He recalls such well-known figures as Dinosaur and Tex, Mr. Cotati, Vito and Freestore and many other unforgettable characters.

“Joel, I came to interview you and how you happened to settle here and develop a business that has been in Cotati for 43 years.”  And he tells me about the downtown Harmony Garage that opened on April Fool’s Day in 1976.  “At what is now ‘Hines Signs’ before sidewalks and trees were there.”  And I digress, “I think I stopped there as a teen for a quart of oil in 1964 on my way to the Rio Nido Dance Lodge.”

Back to Vito Paulekas and the Sunset Strip Riots of 1966.  “For what it’s worth it’s what brought Vito up here.  When I lived on a chicken ranch, he asked me for some wood which he used to build Cotati’s first bandstand and the Indian.”

Rosenblum goes on to tell about Freestore and the group that followed Vito around.  Then he moves on to Mr. Cotati, Hot Dog Dave, who followed Vito up here from Los Angeles.  He won the name at the Cotati Daze Summer Festival contest and never surrendered the title.  Mr. Cotati always rode his bike around town and collected money for fundraisers.  

And back to Vito:  he always asked Joel about his children, a very personable man.  And then there was the Moony story that I am not allowed to tell.

And being the conscientious Cub Reporter, I try to move the focus back to my subject, Joel Rosenblum.  Born in New York City in 1952, his family moved to Beverly Hills in 1961, so that his father, a textile expert and consultant, could play golf twelve months of the year.  He attended Beverly Hills High School and then moved on to a local junior college.

The Sonoma County adventure began in the summer of 1972 when he worked at an archaeological dig at Fort Ross.  After he graduated from Sonoma State University in 1974, he repaired cars in the backyard until he was hired by Lucchini to work for $60 a day to repair cars.  Anthropology lost a budding archaeologist, but Cotati gained a master mechanic.  Joel put it this way:  “All I seemed to be really passionate about was cars and old Volkswagens.”  And that passion burns brightly forty-three years later.

In 1979, Joel added Ron Mattson as a partner and in August of that year they moved to their current location.  Partners for 35 years, Mattson moved on five years ago and Joel owned Harmony Garage outright.  Today, people ask Joel when he plans to retire almost daily.  His response:  “When you care about what you do—run an auto shop and be a landlord—it’s not work.  This is where I am supposed to be.”

He reminisces about the old chicken ranch with the three-bedroom house that he rented for $150 a month.  He recalls that he and his housemates referred to the place as Harmony House.  During this time, they sold Harmony guitars, Harmony lip-gloss and Harmony car parts at festivals at the fairgrounds.  “Harmony” naturally became an important word for his business title.

With a little prompting, Rosenblum added a love story.  In 1978, his friends introduced him to Susan, a nurse in ICU and pediatrics as they thought Joel and Susan would be a good couple, especially because she drove a type of Volkswagen, a Carmen Ghia.  By 1980, they married and settled soon in Sebastopol.

Susan, Joel remembered, wisely promoted making Sonoma County home as she said,  “Bloom where you are planted.”  And for nearly forty years, the Rosenblum’s have done exactly that raising three sons into successful adults.  

The oldest, Adam, an attorney and a part owner of Superburger, lives in Santa Rosa.  A second son, Greg, works in the KPIX newsroom and lives in El Cerrito.  The youngest, Matthew, just graduated from medical school and now serves as a pediatric intern UCSF’s Children’s Hospital in Oakland.

Susan, a retired registered nurse, has served many years as a volunteer fundraiser for Sebastopol schools.

While you may arrive at Harmony Garage to have your car repaired, you may stay to learn some of the history and lore of Cotati buildings, characters and unrecorded stories.  Begin by asking Joel about the Cotati Speedway Poster or his picture of Yankee Stadium in 1923.  He can tell you what vestiges of the raceway remains if you view the area from an airplane.  Or he might share memories that his father had of Babe Ruth and the Murderer’s Row Yankees.

Harmony Garage and Joel Rosenblum, a couple of features that add to Cotati’s singular character, are, to paraphrase Joel, where they are supposed to be.