For over two years, Camellia’s Auto Repair in Tacoma’s Lincoln District operated on a mission uncommon for typical auto shops.
Owned and operated by partners Morgan Mentzer and MJ Montgomery, the goal was to provide honest and reliable car service while also being a space and resource for LGBTQ folks, Mentzer said Thursday. Mentzer and Montgomery said they experienced sexism and homophobia in trade school and the auto industry. Diversity in the field is critical to bring in a new perspective, they said.
The couple opened the repair shop in April 2021 and operated out of their home garage in Ruston before moving into 3601 S. G St. in in May of last year.
Although Mentzer said many customers resonated with and “really, really responded” to their mission, the struggles of operating and expanding a small business were too difficult, and they closed their doors at the beginning of June.
G Street Motors now operates in that space.
“Small business ownership is really tough and it’s very stressful. You put just everything into it … the amount of stress and worry it put on us was pretty difficult,” Mentzer said. “The small business community in Tacoma is so strong. It’s so amazing. The support is really incredible, and what I love about Tacoma is [that] small businesses are absolutely the heart of business down here … and I’m really gonna miss that.”
Mentzer said the decision to close was “super heart-breaking.” Small business burnout “is very real,” she said, and “we have to do what’s best for us.”
In the next year, the couple will evaluate how to continue serving the community in a new way.
“We really want to do something with nonprofit work in terms of potentially having a low-income car repair fund,” Mentzer said. “Really kind of thinking about how we could support folks that need car repair and provide that. Many folks are dependent on their car to get to work, to get their kids to child care or even live in their car.”
The new shop would try to curb some of the negative environmental impacts that come without regular car maintenance, she said.
“By keeping your car maintained, you’re doing better for the environment as well,” Mentzer said. “Kind of linking those two things: trying to keep oil off the streets and keep folks’ cars running in a way that’s affordable and accessible.”
In addition to her work as a mechanic, Mentzer founded and runs the Reckoning Trade Project, an organization designed to bolster recruitment and retention for women, communities of color and LGBTQ trades workers. She works as a lead attorney for the Lavender Rights Project, bolstering Black and transgender rights, as well.
Both Mentzer and Montgomery got into the automotive industry after working on their own cars because they couldn’t afford to get them fixed at the time, Mentzer said. They met working at Repair Revolution, a queer-owned auto shop in Seattle, and when they moved to Tacoma they wanted to build a similar shop here, she said.
“Serving our community is incredibly important to us. And being able to talk to somebody when you don’t necessarily have a familiarity with cars, just all of that shouldn’t be something that may be used against people,” Mentzer said.
The auto repair field is rife with toxicity, sexism and homophobia, she said. As a woman, Mentzer said, she is often not taken seriously, ignored and not understood to be as good of a mechanic as she is. As a transgender man, Montogomery experienced sexism, homophobia and transphobia in the trade as well.
“Having diversity in the trades stops that misogyny, stops those things that are taken for granted,” Mentzer said. “Diversity brings new ways to solve problems, [which] I think is what is so critical about having diversity anywhere. New perspective.”
Something that has been really important to them is the representation they can offer to others, Mentzer said.
“Why it’s important for MJ and I to be out, is that representation is so critical for people to see,” she said. “You can be a very femme woman and fix cars. You can be a trans man. You can have gotten through the industry being a woman and transitioning to a man and be the best tech there.”
Mentzer said she has faced many instances where mechanics don’t want to take the time to teach others, “or if they do, they’re obnoxious or condescending or frustrating.”
“If you’re in the culture of being harassed and degraded, you start to forget that that’s not how you should be treated,” she said. “But when you have people who are committed to creating safe and open workplaces and having that diversity, you start to shift how people’s expectations are. It shows that we shouldn’t have to put up with homophobia. We shouldn’t have to put up with sexism, transphobia and racism.”
This story was originally published June 23, 2023, 2:52 PM.