Auto-Repair

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G ary Williams enjoys seeing the sign above his auto body shop thrashed by the elements. Part rusted iron and part irony, it reads: “The Shop With No Name.” 

Its non-galvanized words, “The Shop … Name,” have rusted into a burnt brown more likely found in retired iron mills and the undersides of bridges. But behind these, a sheet of diamond plate metal shines pristine, and in the foreground, a cursive “With No” floats red and resilient.

Williams had the sign made this way on purpose, making the juxtaposition of clean and dirty metal more pronounced. “Every time I look up it’s rusted a bit more,” he says, smiling.

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Williams is the founder and owner of TSWNN, a larger-than-it-looks auto body shop which specializes in collision repair for both cars and motorcycles. He has the beard, bulk and earrings of Mr. T—but not the Mohawk—along with some 25 years of experience in auto repair. But until six years ago, hardly anyone that knew Williams would think he’d be running his own auto shop—legally that is.

After graduating high school, he failed the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery for entrance into the army, then landed a year in jail for possessing what he maintains was a friend’s unregistered gun. Williams was barely past the starting line, and already his prospects were dinged.

But not totaled. Looking to turn things around, he enrolled in the Technical Career Institute of West Haven for auto body work. He graduated with an Automotive Service Excellence certification, some good know-how and “a little toolbox I paid way too much money for.”

Straight away Williams found work, picking up more skills from one garage to the next. One of his most memorable teachers was a man by the name of Tom Chang. “He pulled a Mr. Miyagi on me,” Williams says, referring to the sensei in The Karate Kid who whips the protagonist into fighting shape with an apparently nonsensical training regime. Chang assigned Williams menial tasks and generally put him through the wringer. But Williams stayed with it, and eventually Chang taught him how to use frame machines, paint cars and most importantly, to take patience with his work.

“It’s your job to put cars on the road safely,” Williams says. When it comes to safety, “working on a Toyota Camry shouldn’t be any different than working on a Ferrari. You’ve got to treat them the same. … You’ve got to take pride in every car you work on.”

After his time with Chang, Williams’s next major learning experience was at Powsner Auto Metal Works on Sperry Street, where he learned the administrative side of auto body repair. Williams was on his way to becoming an established career mechanic. But in the early 2000s, a DUI threatened everything he’d been working towards.

After the offense, Williams spent 35 days in a rehab facility, which yielded six years of total abstinence. But once the DUI was on his record, Williams, who’d never had any trouble getting work, couldn’t find a garage that would take him. He recalls one shop owner who nearly gave him a job before making an about-face, saying his insurance rate would leap too high if Williams worked there. So, like many in his position—with the tools and the experience to do skilled work, but legal albatrosses hanging around their necks—Williams began working off the books.

Williams pursued his vocation out of a series of small garages, under an appropriately clandestine title: “The Shop With No Name.” But the trouble with working outside the law is that the law isn’t there to help you when you need it. And on Thanksgiving , 2009, after Williams couldn’t find recourse against a predatory client, the police shut his operation down and slapped him with charges for working without a license.

A harsh reality had intruded, spurring Williams to get his paperwork in order. He then opened the first fully accredited iteration of The Shop With No Name in Hamden. But he found trouble there, too. In 2013, a fire burned down the shop, prompting a move to Fair Haven—and another fresh start.

Now two years in, it looks like The Shop With No Name is running smoothly again. His daughter, Sasha Williams, works the office while pit bull Bella and French bulldog Sergio watch the door, mostly looking for new hands to slobber on.

Like the mixed-metal emblem above his shop, Williams’s career is made from a mix of parts—some tarnished, some clean. But today, both his sign and his business are moving in the directions Williams intends.

“It’s getting there,” Williams says while looking up at the sign. “It’s getting there.”

The Shop With No Name
281 Chapel St, New Haven (map)
Mon-Fri 9am-5pm
(203) 901-4430
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Written and photographed by Daniel Shkolnik.

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Daniel is an aspiring novelist. He owns a Yale sweater he will never wear and takes his Faulkner with vermouth and his vermouth with an orange wedge. An avid traveler and retired hooligan, he was kicked out of the largest club in Africa for breakdancing, joined an Andalusian metal band and, while in Istanbul, learned to read the future in his coffee grinds. Despite the omens he finds at the bottom of his morning joe, Daniel continues to write.

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