By KATIE WATTS / Petaluma Towns Correspondent

How many people begin their career at 8? Out West Garage owner Maria DoCeu did.

Her family came to this country from the Azores in 1966. Learning English was easy for her but not for her father, who supplemented his income buying cars, fixing them up and reselling them. So she became “Daddy’s little helper,” buying parts and handling inventory.

She didn’t intend to be a mechanic, though. She already knew that she wanted to be a musician.

“I started playing drums in sixth grade, sang in church choirs, Episcopal, Catholic, I didn’t care.”

She taught music as well and got a full music scholarship to college. But she decided that if she became a musician, she would probably struggle financially. So, in 1978, DoCeu went to work for Sears, mounting tires.

Was it difficult to be a woman in a very traditional man’s job?

“That was the time when everyone had to hire a woman or a person of color,” she says. “So they hired a black man, a black woman and me. We had each other, so we didn’t have too hard a time. Also, my attitude has always been pretty light-hearted, so it was fine.”

She did her apprenticeship in a San Francisco auto repair shop working on diesel and American-made cars.

“I’m small, and I had to climb in and wrestle with these big pieces and vehicles,” she says, shuddering. “After two years, I switched to a shop that worked on foreign cars, and my hands fit. I never went back.”

Flash forward to 1999, when the stars finally aligned and she found the perfect place for her garage, behind Barber Signs at 321 Second St.

The “cowgirl-owned and family-friendly” garage was a success from the beginning, even with cash flow problems and being a relative newcomer in town. Guided by a business coach, she pushed on, and Petaluma was ready for an alternative to the male-dominated field.

DoCeu believes in customer empowerment. If you just want to drive your car, that’s fine. But she’s eager to pass on basic knowledge and offers car care workshops on request.

She is backed up by a solid team of six men, although for some years she employed another woman mechanic and friend, Martha Collins.

From the beginning, Out West has serviced only five types of cars — Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Mazda and Subaru, the Japanese cars that not only fit her hands but also gave the consumer the most for their money. She says a number of customers, “family” as she calls them, won’t buy a car she won’t work on.

Out West is a place where DoCeu gets to play the game her way.

“It’s my workshop, my club house,” she says. The front counter is littered with a changing assortment of toys for all ages: small cars, rubber duckies, magnetic poetry. There’s a tub of red licorice to snack on, cartoons and jokes to read.

The bathroom is always clean and tidy. And, instead of an oil-stained waiting area with stale peanuts in the vending machine and grungy chairs sprouting greasy stuffing, Out West has a waiting room that may be nicer than your living room, with comfortable couches, a variety of current magazines, framed vintage cowgirl art, a children’s corner and an assortment of musical instruments.

You didn’t think DoCeu just gave up on her dream, did you? The music was always there, but she kept postponing it, thinking “I’ll take it up again when I retire.”

Then a medical emergency made her realize how important music was. She changed her diet, increased her exercise and picked up her guitar and mandolin. Now the waiting room is home to a weekly jam session, and HomeBrew, the five-piece group that has formed around her, plays a variety of places.

“The music brings good energy,” she says, and it’s not uncommon for customers to play while they’re waiting for a tune-up.

The majority of folks have embraced this garage concept, but she does sometimes get a new customer who’s suspicious. In that case, she works “super hard, until I feel I’ve done my best showing it like it is. We know what we’re doing; we just happen to be nice and clean.”

Even after 13 years, DoCeu enjoys her job, she says. “I love every minute of it. Every Monday night, I pull out my clothes, set everything up and smile, because I’m going to play in the morning.”

To learn more about the warm and quirky community that is Out West Garage, visit outwestgarage.com. DoCeu says she will be updating the personnel section soon.