Primo de la Garza’s high school woodshop teacher helped him get a job with a cabinet maker when he was a teenager, an opportunity that opened the door to his lifelong vocation.
“I was 18 when I started,” he said. “The instructor got me a job with Gray’s Cabinet Shop here in Harlingen. I am 60 now so that was 42 years ago. I’ve been making my living doing this as long as I can remember.”
Primo’s Cabinet Shop is housed in an aging metal building on North Commerce Street in Harlingen, where de la Garza designs, constructs and installs custom cabinets, entertainment centers and other custom wood working jobs. The shop is cluttered with power and hand tools, stacks of wood and projects in progress.
“My father was a casket maker and that’s where I began to learn to work with wood,” he said. “Back then it was a lot of hand tools. My dad did a lot of the work by hand. I had access to all the woods and we built all sorts of stuff like bows and arrows and all kinds of boxes.”
A couple walked into de la Garza’s shop recently with a hand-drawn sketch of some cabinetry they wanted to have built. “You built some kitchen cabinets for us a couple of years ago and we really like them,” the man said. “Now we wanted to see if you could help with another project.”
De la Garza dropped what he was doing and turned his attention to these potential repeat customers. He asked questions about their ideas, made suggestions and promised to work up more detailed plans for the design.
“We listen to what the customer wants,” he said. “We talk about what type of woods they like and what they are looking for functionally. Sometimes I get a drawing or a set of plans or photos of what they want.”
The most popular woods that de la Garza works with are oak and ash, but he can get just about anything a customer desires. “The most exotic wood that’s ever come through here was zebra wood from Africa.”
Like any business, Primo’s Cabinet Shop has seen ups and downs but he has managed to adapt to the marketplace and keep the enterprise going. “This business is peaks and valleys, with a lot of valleys,” he said. “Sometimes you have got to bite the bullet and just do what you can.
Around the time he moved into his current location in 1990, business was booming. He had about 10 workers on the payroll. Back then he also made custom doors and managed to secure a good bit of commercial work. One of the biggest jobs he did was cabinetry and countertops as part of remodeling all the Luby’s kitchens in the Rio Grande Valley.
“There wasn’t that much competition back then,” he said. “Now it’s who you know and you have to know how to get the jobs.” Today he has two workers but manages to stay busy enough to work six days most weeks. On a recent Saturday morning he was rushing to install some cabinets a little ahead of schedule because the homeowner had hired a tile company to start installing floors that afternoon. “We have to get the cabinets in before the tile guy can get to work.”
De la Garza most enjoys working for individuals to make cabinets for new homes or remodeling older homes. He recalled a Border Patrol agent who he had done some work for over the years. The agent was approaching retirement and wanted Primo’s Cabinet Shop to design and build kitchen cabinets for what would become his retirement home in another state.
“I designed and built an entire set of kitchen cabinets,” de la Garza said. “When he retired he came and loaded them up and took them with him to his new home in North Carolina.”