Bob and Mark Libow keep blue-collar Venice alive at Elco Welding and Engineering
Story by Joe Piasecki | Photos by Ted Soqui
Before the price of a new pair of jeans rivaled a Midwestern mortgage payment and seasonal organic coffee sold for five bucks a cup, brothers Bob and Mark Libow made an honest living fusing, grinding and cutting steel in a shop on Abbot Kinney Boulevard.
They still do.
The boulevard’s light-industrial grit of the 1960s and ‘70s has been replaced by high fashion and hipster moustaches, but Elco Welding and Engineering is still open for business — a living museum of hand tools, drill presses, acetylene torches, table grinders and even an ancient blacksmith’s anvil on a tree stump.
“We’re the last holdouts, I guess,” muses Mark, 67. “If we had to pay rent, we wouldn’t be here. The grime has turned to gold.”
Mark and older brother Bob, 69, were Santa Monica College students when their dad, Seymour Libow, bought the 2,200-square-foot 1928 brick building near the intersection of Abbot Kinney and Venice boulevards for a forgotten five-figure sum in late 1966.
Seymour, who went by Sy, borrowed the made-up name “Elco” from his family’s original shop in Hollywood. They just figured it was easy to remember, the brothers say.
The work in those early days typically involved motorcycle repairs and chopper conversions for the bad boy bikers who roamed Venice in packs at the time, or boat repairs for affluent sailors beginning to populate the newly constructed Marina del Rey harbor.
“We used to call them Marina Martys,” Mark says. “These guys would come in with white Guccis, patent leather belts, a brand new Mercedes coupe, usually, and a young girl by their side.”
Marina Martys tended to be “parsimonious people,” as Mark recalls, but, rather than haggle over $50, dad would embarrass them in front of their dates by offering to do the work for free in light of their apparent economic hardship.
They weren’t all Martys, though. Sy and his boys got along with free-spending Dick Smothers of The Smothers Brothers, whose yacht they’d work on. Dan Rowan of “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In” shared space in the shop off and on for a few months while he modified a 27-foot sailboat to make a highly publicized April 1971 voyage from Marina del Rey to Hawaii.
“Dad told Dan he could use the shop, but ‘if you make a mess you have to clean it up.’ One day our mom walks in and she’s shocked: there’s Dan smoking a pipe and sweeping the floor. He didn’t mind getting dirty,” Mark says.
Many of the jobs that come in off the street today are art pieces and odd requests — a custom wire-frame bra to be decorated with feathers for Halloween, a round bed frame to be suspended from a backyard tree — but several of the high-end restaurants nearby are happy to exchange a free lunch for quick repairs to tables and chairs.
“I do work for Google [headquartered a mile away] from time to time,” adds Bob. “They’ve got these chrome pipes for partitions on their tables, and they always come in too long so they’ll bring me 10 or 20 at a time and I’ll cut them down.”
A lot of walk-ins just want to look around and take pictures for Facebook and Instagram. The shop looks so convincingly, perfectly authentic that, being on such pricy real estate, some people think it’s fake.
“The common question,” Mark says, “is ‘what do you do here?’”
“People actually working,” Bob says. “It’s a curiosity.”
There is an element of the surreal, though: television commercial shoots have become somewhat routine, and about seven years ago Megan Fox and Michael Bay spent four days there shooting a metal-shop scene for “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.”
But that’s tame compared to what Mark calls the “true tall tales” that have played out in the shop over the years.
Like the time they had to use a slitting grinder to extricate a drunken Marina del Rey sailor who had gotten stuck in a 50-pound cast-iron porthole: “His buddies bet he couldn’t crawl through the porthole, and he was a pretty hefty guy. He gets halfway and they’re feeding him more booze, so he blows up and gets stuck. So they unbolt this thing and drag him into the shop,” Mark says. “It was funny as hell, man.”
“There was Dr. Skull,” adds Bob. “He had two boxes. One was full of antique medical supplies — old saws and pliers and hammers. Then he opens up the other box and takes out these human skulls. I had to weld the tools together to hold up the skulls for some art show.”
Afterward, “I got Lysol and sprayed the whole table down,” Mark says.
There’s also the illegal booze.
“During Prohibition they had a phony wall and a pit in the back [now paved over], and they’d pump in purified water from the water company that used to be across the [long-gone] railroad tracks,” Mark says. “An old-timer who worked here then told us all the big movie stars would drive up. They’d wrap the bottles up in bailing wire and hang them under the hood.”
The space became a metal shop under a second owner about four years after Prohibition’s repeal, hence the “Since 1937” etched into the rusted sign over an outdoor gate.
Both brothers are nearing 70, but neither is planning for retirement.
“When I was 10 or 12 years old my dad taught me to weld. I used to take old lawnmowers, rob the engines off them and make go-carts,” says Bob, who now also uses the shop to maintain his prize 1934 Hudson convertible coupe. “They say when you do something you love, you never really work. I think it’s true.”
Neither Bob nor Mark has kids interested in continuing the family business, yet Mark says the brothers won’t even hear out offers to buy the building.
But why not cash out after all these years?
“Maybe it’s to honor our father,” Mark says. “The mechanical thing, it’s in the blood.”
Elco Welding and Engineering is at 1711 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice. Call (310) 821-7337.