The cement floor of Auto Arts’ warehouse-like back room is littered with street bikes, a Hummer and other fancy and vintage cars awaiting a tinted headlight here, a paint job there and custom bits and pieces to make them look newer, more expensive and more imposing.
The body shop’s jobs range from a brighter, whiter headlight or a pinstripe to flamboyant accoutrements that cost thousands and are typically seen on high-end cars.
Mike Miles, who owns the shop with his wife, Valerie, has also painted a pair of Nike shoes matte black, dining room tables and chairs, airplane pieces and about 50 giant penguins used for a company’s award ceremony.
“Our motto around here is if it fits in the booth, paint it,” Valerie Miles said.
Behind the pomp and circumstance is a couple who for eight years has been building a nest egg trying to stay to keep the business alive after three moves and a recession.
At 16, Mike Miles started working at Paragon Collision Repair in Raleigh.
“I didn’t care what my job was,” he said. “Sweeping floors, cutting cardboard, washing cars, whatever I could do to get my foot in the door.”
He ended up working there for 11 years. In 2003, he married Valerie, and the next year they bought a house with a big garage where he could take in work.
In 2006, Miles cashed in his 401(k), which amounted to less than $20,000 after fines and penalties, and opened a shop on Gresham Lake Road in Raleigh. He split the bills and the space with a former colleague who had a separate business. Mike Miles moved his Auto Arts shop after 10 months when their relationship started to unravel.
“We had four days to find a new building and zero money,” Mike Miles said.
The Mileses found a place in Umstead Industrial Park on Triangle Drive.
In the out-of-the-way location, the couple had to hustle to connect with potential customers to ensure they could pay their bills, which included $3,500 in rent. Valerie Miles put pictures of the shop’s previous works on compact discs, and Mike passed them out at car accessory stores, dealers and car shows.
By December 2010, Auto Arts’ owners were starting to build a business again after surviving the economic downturn. Then, the owner of the building Auto Arts was in said he wouldn’t be able to renew the lease. The landlord had promised a company that occupied three of the four spaces in the building that he would allow it to expand when it was ready, and it was ready.
The Miles struggled to find an affordable and workable space.
“Almost to the point where our options were zero,” Mike Miles said. Then, he found a shop that was large enough on North West Street, just off of Capital Boulevard. Mike Miles called the real estate agent, who said the owner had already vetoed any auto-body shops.
Two weeks later, the agent called him back and invited him to look at the building.
The owner of the building called his son-in-law, George Moretz, owner of Paragon, Mike Miles’ former employee. Moretz’s endorsement led to Auto Arts being able to secure a new lease.
Since the Mileses opened the shop in the third location in October 2011, business has started to stabilize as they work to pay down the debt that followed an expensive upfit. They are frugal but comfortable, they said.
“We come here and play on cool stuff all day long,” Mike Miles said.