Auto shop

Mr. Cool auto shop in Knoxville is a black family owned business

A young James Brown shone a light inside the dark interior workings of a car, highlighting his father’s hands as he writhed and tinkered.

The beam allowed him to see the work done by his father, who learned to repair cars out of necessity when he was too poor to pay for services.

While other New Jersey boys worked the athletic fields after school, Brown helped his old man diagnose grinding gears in his repair shop. And one day, rather than just sit idly by as his father went to get a part, Brown made it his mission to develop a car before he returned.

“Why did I do this? Brown, now 63, laughed. “I worked on cars the rest of my life.

His business Mr. Cool’s AC Transmission & Brake Service has been located near West Hills for approximately 25 years. As far as Brown knows, he opened one of the first black-owned businesses in Kingston Pike, if not the first.

Mr. Cool keeps auto repair in the family

When James Brown opened his auto repair shop in Kingston Pike, he was one of the first black-owned businesses in West Knoxville.

Calvin Mattheis, Knoxville News Sentry

But the word “first” bothers Brown. In his mind, there should have been more black-owned businesses in the area long before him.

Race was not on his mind when he moved to West Knoxville, just as he refuses to let it define his identity as a business owner today. All he needed was a nice location. All he wants is to provide quality service no matter who walks through the door.

“I just want to be treated like a man,” Brown told Knox News. “It’s not about the lack of color. This stuff should be gone a long time ago. Just be a man.

Mr. Cool’s story spans generations and the Brown family continues to connect around a passion for customer service and fixing what is broken.

But if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it – at least that’s how they say. And for this reason, Brown is building his business to remain family-oriented for years to come.

By the month after Brown graduated from high school, he was already in business. There’s a lot of money in auto repairs, but, more importantly, “there’s never a dull day,” Brown said.

“I’ve always liked cars,” he says. “I wanted to be like my father. Most children want to be like their father. My daddy did good, I want to do good… it goes into your blood.

James Brown, aka Mr. Cool, works in his office at Mr. Cool Collision on Gleason Dr. in Knoxville, Tennessee on Friday, April 16, 2021.
Calvin Mattheis / News Sentinel

Brown is very concerned about the reputation behind Mr. Cool’s name, which has been around in Knoxville since the 90s, when Brown and his wife, Pam, started mobile air conditioning service from a 1987 Toyota van.

The name continued when they opened the West Knoxville Repair Shop, which eventually moved to its current location at 8062 Kingston Pike. Brown opened the Mr. Cool Collision Body Shop on Gleason Drive last year.

“I get very few people calling me James,” Brown said. “After all these years, I’m a little used to it now… I like to be called Cool. It feels good to know that people recognize you for what you do.

Brown ended up in Knoxville after a divorce, although his ex-wife now works alongside his wife, Pam, in the repair shop. He jokingly compares it to a Mafia mentality: “It’s for kids, honey.”

Although Lucy Brown is no longer married to James Brown, she still works as an accountant in her AC M. Cool transmission and brake service shop in Kingston Pike.
Although Lucy Brown is no longer married to James Brown, she still works as an accountant in her AC M. Cool transmission and brake service shop in Kingston Pike.
Calvin Mattheis / News Sentinel

“Whatever you have to do to keep the family straight, that’s what we do,” Brown said.

The dynamic seems to have worked; Brown said some of his original clients keep coming back after all these years.

“It’s a family business,” he says. “Everyone cares. … If you are wrong, you are always right. The bottom line is that I’m just trying to get it right. I’d rather spend a few bucks out of my pocket and keep you happy, keep my reviews good and worry about what people think of me than not.

The company’s 4.7-star Google average rating is near perfect, with customers citing a variety of satisfactory services the Brown family has offered over the years.

“We do engine work, transmissions, you name it,” Brown said. “Air conditioning, tire repair, anything. Anything to do with a car, we don’t want you to leave our place and go somewhere else.

Brown shares his name with the godfather of soul. And just like him, “I’m black and I’m proud,” Brown said.

“It feels good to be black,” he said. “I like being black. I love myself. I never said to myself that I would have liked to be white.

James Brown, Owner of Mr. Cool’s AC Transmission & Brake Service
It feels good to be black. I like to be black. I love myself. I never (told myself) that I would have liked to be white.

Yet skin color is not something Brown focuses on in his day to day life – “not at all,” he said.

Brown was prejudiced when trying to get loans from a bank or when potential customers hang up after hearing his voice on the other line.

“I’m just thinking about doing my best,” Brown said.

It’s a mindset he passed on to his children, including his son Aaron, which echoed his father’s feelings almost word for word.

“It’s something we keep in mind, but it’s not the only thing that concerns us,” Aaron said. “We just want to do good for everyone. “

Pam answers calls and registers customers at the front desk, but she’s naturally learned to talk about a mechanic over the years.

Pam Brown works in the Mr. Cool AC Transmission and Braking Service Lobby in Knoxville, Tennessee on Friday, April 16, 2021.
Pam Brown works in the Mr. Cool AC Transmission and Braking Service Lobby in Knoxville, Tennessee on Friday, April 16, 2021.
Calvin Mattheis / News Sentinel

“Don’t sell me short,” she tells customers when they ask to speak to a mechanic. She takes pride in being able to help everyone, especially women who have been ripped off in other businesses.

Brown spends most of his days in the body shop, diagnosing more than working in the field these days. Still, he had grain on his hands speaking with Knox News. It’s hard not to get involved when you can tell a part is too tight or too loose just by the sound of the tool.

“My ears are listening to my shop,” he said. “I listen to everyone and what they are doing.”

Despite opening the body shop just before the pandemic, Pam said, the company has been successful. She is proud of her husband’s resilience.

“He’s a go-getter,” she said. “He makes things happen. ”

Brown started working for his father. Ultimately his father worked for him and was proud of it.

As a child, Aaron would run in the woods looking for bugs or cleaning up his father’s shop. He started working alongside Brown in his sophomore year and now, in his forties, oversees the back of the repair shop.

James Brown, aka Mr. Cool, poses for a portrait at Mr. Cool Collision on Gleason Dr. in Knoxville, Tennessee on Friday, April 16, 2021. Brown has been repairing cars for over 45 years, including 25 years here in Knoxville.  Its location in Kingston Pike was one of the first black-owned businesses in West Knoxville.
Body shop vehicles are serviced at Mr. Cool Collision in Knoxville, TN on Friday, April 16, 2021. Owner James Brown has been repairing cars for over 45 years, including 25 years here in Knoxville.  Its location in Kingston Pike was one of the first black-owned businesses in West Knoxville.
Calvin Mattheis / News Sentinel

“It’s an honor because it’s a family thing that we’ve learned,” said Aaron. “I have always loved cars and I admire my dad the same way he admired his dad. It’s very personal.

The industry has changed dramatically over the years. It’s a lot more computerized these days, Aaron said.

Likewise, people have changed the way they think.

“I’ve had some whites come over and tell me that they really want to give me a break and give me business because I’m a black-owned business,” Brown said. “So I guess they may have never dealt with black companies before.”

He knows that some clients probably think of him as the “good black man,” a term based on preconceptions and stereotypes about blacks.

“If I make a difference and change your thoughts on me or on black people, I’m happy to do it,” he said.

But people also have to learn to hold the light – just like a young mechanic in training – to see what others see.

He hopes the world will become more equal during the lifetime of his children. In the meantime, he is doing what he can to ensure the success of his family.

“It will be good to know that you can turn the torch,” he said.

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