MICHELE NORRIS, host:
So we've heard about Detroit's troubles and the automakers' pleas for a bailout from the government. Well, now we're going to go a little further downstream in the auto industry - actually, a lot further. We're going to meet the guys who work in an auto body repair shop in Dallas. NPR's Wade Goodwyn is going to be checking in with them occasionally as the economy struggles. Here's his first report.
WADE GOODWYN: Quality Colors Collision and Pro Shop occupies a triangle of intersection near the busy thoroughfares of Jupiter and Garland Roads. As the two streets angle away, the shop widens with them into a vast, two-story cinderblock and sheet-metal garage. Owner Rodney Davidson discovered in shop class at Bryan Adams High School back in 1974 that he had a knack for auto body work. After grabbing his diploma, he never looked back.
Mr. RODNEY DAVIDSON (Owner, Quality Colors Collision and Pro Shop): And we're all - we're completely independent. We pride ourselves with doing quality repair. We're not a big volume shop. We don't want to be a big volume shop. We want to be - we want to have a reputation of being the quality shop in the area, and I think we've accomplished that.
(Soundbite of machinery)
GOODWYN: Davidson employs nine people. Nobody's getting rich, but all of them - the body techs, the painters, the make-ready guys, the office manager - make enough to live in the middle class. You may not have thought of it before, but turning your crushed car into a work of art that looks better than it did before the accident takes true craftsmen. Mike Tavares manages the body shop.
Mr. MIKE TAVARES (Manager, Quality Colors Collision and Pro Shop): Highly skilled labor. We're required to carry gold class certificates. They don't just come out of vocational school. They don't just come off the street. These guys have had years and years and years of experience, and they have tens of thousands of dollars' worth of tools.
GOODWYN: Quality body shop has long been well-regarded in east Dallas, but it's suffering now. Normally the shop does about $1.3 million in business a year, but the months of October and November have been a disaster. Tavares says if business picks back up in December, the shop might make $800,000 this year.
Mr. TAVARES: We're seeing a broader market on customer pay jobs. People coming in, going, OK, well, let's fix this car. Let's not do 100 percent repair. Let's get this thing to where it's at least something I can be - not be embarrassed driving.
GOODWIN: In this respect, a body shop is like a hospital. Both businesses make their profit margins from insurance payments. If you ask Quality Colors to pull your car's crushed sheet metal off the tires, and you're paying for it because you can't afford to have your rates go up, you're like a sick patient without health insurance. Of course, Tavares and his crew will help you, but like the hospital, they can't stay in business this way.
Mr. TAVARES: Anytime there's a recession, it plays a huge factor in our business.
GOODWYN: Another big problem for Quality Colors has been the surge in gas prices. Why would gas prices affect auto body repair?
Mr. TAVARES: Well, we noticed when gas starts getting around $3, 3.25 a gallon, our business definitely slows down. People are not driving as aggressively.
GOODWYN: Happily for those who must repair, gas has dropped under two dollars again in Dallas, even premium.
Mr. TAVARES: And when it got back in the $2 range, you know, we started hearing tires squealing and engines revving and cars passing by here. You couldn't tell what color they were, they were going so fast.
GOODWYN: In a shop this size, everyone is on the same page and in the same boat. The body techs, painters, and finish-out men are paid a flat rate plus commission. If there's not a healthy volume of cars moving through the shop, it's not just owner Rodney Davidson who takes a hit in the paycheck. Steve Salazar has been a body tech for 35 years, and he says he's dismayed at the wild gyrations in the flow of cars week to week through the shop.
Mr. STEVE SALAZAR (Body Tech, Quality Colors Collision and Pro Shop): It's been kind of a rollercoaster ride. It used to be steadier. I don't know what to expect. I'm just hoping there's some change.
GOODWYN: Unlike General Motors, Chrysler, or Ford, Quality Colors is not on the brink of bankruptcy, but it's hurting. Owner Rodney Davidson says if the economy slowly bottoms out, then begins a comeback next year, they'll be OK. But if the economy goes off another cliff, he says all bets are off. That, however, would be true for more than just Quality Colors Collision and Pro Shop. Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.
BLOCK: You can see pictures of the workers at Quality Colors at npr.org. And as we mentioned, Wade is going to be following their fortunes through the recession. Also, we'll be hearing about a housewares retailer in Boston. NPR's Tovia Smith will be bringing us the story of Bowl & Board.
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