For Marietta shop, ‘Restoration’ is TV gig and reminder of own rebirth

Step a moment back in time at Bob’s Garage & Retro Station, and it’s obvious why it’s already becoming one of metro Atlanta’s signature TV sets.

A handsome old tabletop radio sits on a cabinet just inside the office, where a shiny black rotary pay phone bearing its original instructions (“Have nickel ready”) hangs on a wall. The showroom of the building located in an unassuming Marietta industrial park overflows with lovingly restored soda machines dating to the glass-bottle, pre-diet-cola era; a vintage diner counter and menu boards; and enough candy-colored gas pumps from as far back as the 1930s to make even ardent public transportation fans yearn to own one.

“What we work on is disappearing Americana,” said Bob Halliday, 64, whose renowned restoration and reproduction business recently joined the “cast” of the popular reality series “American Restoration” on History Channel. “We see a valued thing from the past that’s in danger of going away, and we want to try to save it.”

That even included “Bob’s Garage” itself. Indeed, if there’s a good story behind nearly every vintage candy machine and oversized fast-food figurine restored there, it almost can’t compete with the remarkable saga of destruction and recovery of Halliday’s namesake business.

It was just over a decade ago that he and his wife, Laurel, fled for Atlanta as Hurricane Katrina bore down on their New Orleans neighborhood blocks from the soon-to-burst levees. They holed up in a motel here — “We watched CNN and cried and Google Earthed our neighborhood,” he said — long enough to realize their home and thriving restoration business were gone. So they set down new roots in Marietta, Halliday’s hometown until he was 15, and set out creating what is, in its own way, the ultimate restoration project.

“We started from scratch,” Halliday recalled without self-pity. “We had to go to Wal-Mart to buy clothes. I came out here and rented a unit. My good customers kept in touch, and here we are 10 years later on TV.”

“American Restoration” launched in 2010 as a spinoff of another, mega-successful History series, “Pawn Stars.” (By the following year, “Pawn” had become the No. 2 reality series on TV, behind only Snooki et al. on “Jersey Shore.”) Initially, “AR” focused solely on Rick’s Restorations, a vintage restoration business in the Las Vegas area. By the end of season 6, though, “We felt like the show had become a little one-note,” said Russ McCarroll, senior vice president of Development and Programming for History. Faced with a similar issue on another show, “Mountain Men,” they’d expanded the premise to include additional “mountain men” in other rugged locations.

“By adding more characters, we got more variety,” McCarroll explained, “so we did that here.”

When “American Restoration” kicked off its seventh season on Jan. 1, the premise hadn’t really changed — experts labor to restore vintage items and collectibles, often while racing against a tight deadline or trying to complete customers’ emotional storylines — but now the focus rotated among what History described as five of “the best restoration shops in the United States.”

No surprise for a cable channel whose audience leans toward men ages 25-54, three of the shops largely specialize in restoring automobiles and motorcycles. Halliday, on the other hand, is “more of a generalist” — but not just any old kind of generalist, McCarroll stressed.

“Some stuff, like a 1930s gas pump, felt different,” McCarroll chuckled. “I’ve done something like 400 episodes of ‘Pawn Stars,’ so when I say, ‘I don’t remember ever seeing that,’ I’ve really achieved something!”

So far, Bob’s Garage & Retro Station has appeared in three episodes, restoring a circa-1938 gas pump that a customer found in the woods; someone’s favorite aunt’s cherished 1959 hi-fi stereo in time for a family reunion, and a 1972 “Hop Rod” gas-powered pogo stick. From original parts to paint colors, their goal is authenticity in everything they do, said Halliday — who suspects his own “authenticity” is at least part of why he wound up on the show.

“I wear yellow shoes and Hawaiian shirts and my glasses’ frames are plaid … I look like an old field hippie,” said Halliday, who’s as surprised as anybody that his off-the-cuff comment in one episode — “Gary, we’re in a pickle” — is already becoming a signature line. “I’m different and that’s what they wanted.”

Bottom line, McCarroll said: “He’s an amazing craftsman.”

The audience must agree. With a staff of six, Bob’s Garage already had plenty of regular business — well, as “regular” as it can be when you’re restoring an oversized Bob’s Big Boy statue or a fullsized railroad crossing for someone’s house; but then their first episode aired on Jan. 15, and calls and email contacts from potential customers tripled.

If that’s a pickle, it’s an awfully good one to be in.

“Everyone here has a passion for what we do,” Halliday said, “and (the show) gives us more reasons to be creative.”

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