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In 2009, Patrice Banks would rather spend a Saturday morning getting her nails done than bother keeping her Kia Sorento in working order. “Car needs an oil change, but I’m going to get a mani pedi instead,” she wrote in a Facebook status.
Back then, she was an “auto airhead,” as she puts it. That is, a woman who doesn’t know about cars — and who lives in a society that assumes she couldn’t possibly understand or be interested in them anyway.
She tried to find a female mechanic, figuring another woman was less likely to talk to her like she was an idiot, but couldn’t. She grew unhappy in her job as an engineer at DuPont (“There’s only a certain number of ways that things can break”). She saw a business opportunity.
For two years, she took night classes to earn a diploma in automotive technology. Then she gave up her six-figure job and her red heels to work at a mom-and-pop auto shop for $600 a week.
In her free time, she held clinics for women in Philadelphia to teach them how to work on their cars. She posted videos with titles like “Think of your engine like a vagina…” She searched for an auto shop of her own.
It had to be a space big enough space that it could hold a salon, too. She wanted to cater to women, and “women hate getting their cars serviced,” she says. More importantly, perhaps, Banks hated getting her car serviced, and, as a customer, had often gone to a specific shop because of its proximity to a nail salon so she’d have something fun to do while she waited. After two years of searching, she finally found a place for sale on a busy street corner on the outskirts of the city.
On January 6, she officially opened Girls Auto Clinic Repair Center and Clutch Beauty Bar. The sign outside has a logo of a red heel with a wrench for the stiletto, and promises mani-pedis in addition to car work.
I visited one weekend in February. The idea that women need to be lured into getting their oil changed with nail polish is kind of silly, but I was still intrigued. I studied physics in college, and I remember feeling a wave of relief whenever I saw someone wearing something more feminine than the typical uniform of jeans and a hoodie or button-down. Banks is challenging the usual idea of what an auto shop is for; as she told a Marketplace reporter, she wants it to be “a clubhouse for women.” Plus, a Facebook friend of mine gushed about the service.
Inside, it feels less like either an auto shop or a spa and more like the home of a stylish friend. Under the previous ownership, what is now the waiting area was an office with brown carpet, a filing cabinet that blocked the front door, and no natural light. Now, it features two windows and a bench with throw pillows that say “every day is an adventure” in gold cursive. There’s a stack of books on a windowsill (titles include Michael Moore’s Stupid White Men); a TV equipped with Netflix; and a cart with coffee, biscotti, and trail mix.
The auto side of the shop is staffed with women Banks calls “SheCanics.” (She says this while wearing a sweatshirt that says “#SheCanics” across the chest.) She interviews men for jobs, too, she tells me — it just happens that female applicants have so far had the best qualifications for the job.
The job is not just fixing cars, but also explaining their insides to the customers — without making them feel ignorant or overcharged in the process.
Customers like this aspect of the business. Case in point: An occupational therapist dropped in that Saturday with a question about her brake rotors. Last year, a mechanic (a man) told her that they needed to be replaced, then made a big deal of it when she refused service. When she came into Girls Auto Clinic, a SheCanic confirmed what she’d suspected: They were just fine. Good for another year, in fact.
I learn this story on the salon side, Clutch Beauty Bar, where the occupational therapist is getting a mani-pedi. She drove 45 minutes to get here, a record beaten by a mother-daughter pair who traveled over an hour to turn getting their cars inspected into a girls’ day. The occupational therapist had seen Girls Auto Clinic on TV on the day of the inauguration. The timing felt right to go to a car place where a woman was in charge. It’s fitting: “Clutch,” Banks explains, “is being exactly what someone needs exactly when they need it.”
In the shop’s old life, Clutch Beauty Bar was a storage area filled with condensers, radiators, and auto parts. Now, it’s a garage-themed salon large enough to comfortably prep a dozen bridesmaids, should the need arise.
The coat hooks are shaped like tiny wrenches bent in half. On one wall, there’s an illustration of a garage door. Red tool boxes lined with tissue paper hold hair brushes and products. (Their counterparts on the auto side, which belong to individual mechanics, belie remnants of a chauvinistic culture: There’s a sticker on one of them that says “Tell Your Boobs to Stop Staring at My Eyes.”)
I sit in a pedicure chair and talk to a nail technician and the occupational therapist about prom dresses, politics, and Beyoncé. Occasionally we hear a soft whirring from the auto side, reminding us that we are, in fact, in proximity to a real garage.
It’s a spacious place. The dimensions of the former storage room are just bigger than the open space in any nail salon or DryBar I’ve been to recently. For now, there are both too few customers to fill it and too few stylists (two, the day I was there) to handle the customers who are there. I wait over an hour for a manicure even though nearly all of the nail chairs are empty.
“I don’t know how to run a salon,” says Banks when I chat with her in her office — a little room on the auto side — about how her startup is going. She’s working with consultants and a manager to get the right products for shiny hair situated on the shelves, and to help out with the initial hires.
Part of it, she figures, is that building a following takes time. She’s had two years of auto clinics and a blurb in O: The Oprah Magazine to attract customers to the auto-shop side, which is seeing more business.
Marketing tactics to bring Clutch into the fold included going to the Women’s March to hand out fliers (she closed the shop on a Saturday, one of the busiest days of the week for them, so that everyone could attend) and running a special for Black History Month called “Hidden Figures No More” — $45 for an oil change and a manicure.
Then there’s the matter of hiring stylists and nail techs. Banks has three right now; she’d like to have something like 10, but she’s having trouble finding people who can do nails and are passionate about her mission and brand. When I visited, she was dealing with the fact that one of her stylists wasn’t wearing her uniform to work — a blue-collared mechanic shirt with a patch that says “Clutch.” “People are complex as shit,” says Banks. “I’d rather work with a machine.”
Still, it’s a human problem that Banks is tackling. Ninety-eight percent of auto mechanics are men. Nearly 80 percent of car owners and leasers in one survey think that auto shops are more likely to recommend unnecessary money-making repairs to women. “I’m not an automotive company,” she says. “I’m a female empowerment company.” The pitch: “By being our customer, you are helping in making history.”
I think about what I’m buying for $15 plus tip as I select Madame President from a Kerry Washington-branded OPI collection for my manicure; as I wash my cuticle cream off my hands in a sink with a tire around it; as I hang my coat on a tiny, bent, Etsy-bought wrench. Banks tells me about the commercials she shot recently with Ford, in which she introduces herself as the owner of Girls Auto Clinic, tests out an Edge Titanium SUV on camera, and talks about “why I think it’s good for women.” She wants to partner with more big brands: After sitting next to a Mattel executive at the Makers Conference earlier in February (Banks was a speaker), she’s been dreaming of a SheCanic Barbie.
I’ve been pitched the decorative trappings of empowerment so many ways lately that they can make me kind of tired. What I really want is a world that will not try to push me or anyone else out of spaces that have been historically claimed by men.
Both the trappings and the not-pushing are knitted into Banks’s business. Teaching someone how her car works is power. Creating physical space for women to feel comfortable where they have previously not is power. Hiring women at all levels of your business, as Banks has, is power. “We need to see women in positions of influence,” she says. She has ambitions to open more shops — Girls Auto Clinics and Clutch Beauty Bars dotting the nation. It’s a corporate-partnership-friendly version of empowerment that could help her get there.
For now, watching the women at the shop checking in with customers on the salon side about the status of their cars, I think of a Jalopnik post from a few years ago titled “The Seven Kinds of Female Mechanics According to Stock Photos.” One is a sweaty woman who looks as though she’s about to shove a wrench up her short shorts. Another is a woman in a pristine blue dress with nary a dot of grease in sight. Only toward the end of the list is there a woman actually working in normal clothes and with adequate gear. “These photos do exist!” reads the post. “They're just overwhelmed by all the other ridiculous ones.”
In her shop, Banks has created a prototype of another image; with her Girls Auto Clinic brand, she’s founded a replication machine that could spread that image all over the country. It’s of a woman who not just fixes cars, but owns the shop. Who not just owns the shop, but adorns it with the things she loves, the way she might her home.