ST. LOUIS — An old auto body shop on Delmar Boulevard has witnessed the rise and fall of its St. Louis neighborhood, all from the inside of a garage. The family who runs the shop, the Colliers, sent men to war, honed their craft, and earned the trust of thousands of customers, Black and white.
Next month, the shop that began in a one-car garage in an alley will celebrate its 75th year, making it among the oldest continuously Black-owned businesses still open in the city.
But now Collier Brothers Auto Body is on its last legs.
“It was God’s grace that kept us going,” Craig Collier, 55, said of the last 10 years, or maybe longer, as he sat last week in the auto shop’s lobby surrounded by photos of his family from decades ago.
Co-owner and cousin Wayne Jackson, 53, nodded — then went to help a customer who walked in for an estimate.
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It’s just the two of them, plus one employee, who work on cars now. They repair around 25 vehicles a month, and still get a good deal of business from local funeral homes.
The industry has changed a lot since Jackson’s mother used sandpaper as a child to help her father, Ray Collier, sand paint off cars.
Brothers Raymond Collier Sr. and Elie “Bud” Collier Jr. founded the business in 1946, when both came home to St. Louis after serving in World War II.
Bud had been in the Army, Ray in the Navy. They wrote each other letters during the war, making plans to open the business after the war.
But as was the case for Black men at the time, no bank would give them a loan to start their business. Each had $350 in military mustering-out pay, about $5,000 in today’s dollars, and that was it.
They managed to scrape together the cash, and Collier Brothers was born. After about a decade, they moved to the wide, one-story storefront at 4561 Delmar Boulevard, just north of the Central West End, where the business still is today.
“The nation may celebrate Black history in February, but we celebrate every day at Collier Brothers,” the business says on its Facebook page, which is where it plans to celebrate its long tenure next month. A Facebook live event is set for noon on March 13 as a way to bring people together during the coronavirus pandemic.
The family lost Emmett Collier, brother of Ray and Bud, on March 28 to COVID-19. He was 89.
Collier and Jackson are the second and third generation to repair and paint cars there. And they’ll be the last. The next generation doesn’t want to take it over. Neither man blames them.
The big chains have gobbled up business. Finding employees is hard. Eking out a living on the block that once flourished is difficult.
“Not only is it hard to find reliable help, but it’s also hard for them to get the insurance companies to get them jobs,” said Jackson’s mother, Lois Jackson, 79. “They’re looking for the bigger auto body shops with the bigger equipment that can get the job done in less time.”
She said Collier Auto Body takes longer to do a job because their work is more precise. The auto shop always has helped others, she said. That includes hiring men released from prison and teaching them the craft.
As the business has changed, so has the block. The owners remember when the area around the shop was filled with nightclubs, apartments and restaurants. Most have been razed.
“This was a busy block. It’s like a ghost town now,” Collier said.
But he sees a rebound coming. A new Fields Foods grocery opened in 2019 a few blocks to the west at Euclid Avenue and Delmar, and Bowood Farms nursery is just south.
Getting white customers to patronize a Black business was difficult, said Sam Levy, who worked in the shop for 35 years and is the nephew of Ray and Bud. He, like the brothers, would get to work at 4 a.m. or sleep at the shop to make sure customers got their cars back when promised.
“Being a minority, it was hard,” said Levy, 89, who was a painter. “But once people found out we were trustworthy, we started getting business.”
They did work for Anheuser-Busch and repaired St. Louis police cars and ambulances — work that came with the move to the bigger shop on Delmar, he said.
Levy credits the staying power of the business to Collier’s skills.
“You know how some people are gifted? Craig is gifted,” Levy said. “You can’t tell a car has been hit after Craig works on it. He’s got it, like we had it.”
And although it’s not the kind of business that draws in regulars, they do get repeat customers.
One is Adolphus Pruitt, president of the St. Louis NAACP.
Collier Brothers Auto Body fixed a “messed-up” bumper and repaired his Chrysler 300 when a side mirror got knocked off.
“Somebody says they need some work, I send them to Collier Brothers,” Pruitt said.
Collier hopes to keep the business going another five years. It’s the only place he has worked. He’d like to hit the 80-year milestone — but doesn’t think he’ll physically be able to do the job past then.
He’s thinking about what to do with the shop, and hopes it can be something good for the community.
Lois Jackson says she’s ambivalent about the shop’s end.
“You have the emotional part of it,” she said. “But you have to have your godly wisdom and common sense.”
Leah Thorsen • 314-340-8320 @leahthorsen on Twitter firstname.lastname@example.org