Mechanic Shop Femme: Automotive Journalism, Education and Inclusion

Mechanic Shop Femme logo
Image Courtesy of Mechanic Shop Femme

Many of us started wrenching on cars because we had no other choice. As broke students in the early days of the internet, we couldn’t afford to pay a professional to fix our cars. So we spent many an evening online, trying to find how-tos and advice for fixing the latest problems with our old hoopties.

But many of the sites we turned to were, shall we say, less than welcoming to folks who weren’t already experts in the automotive arts. Asking for the best way to attach an e-brake cable might get “buy a cable stretcher” as an answer. Or simply an angry rant about not bothering the car guys with car questions they felt were beneath them. They’d offer insults instead of assistance, juvenile japes instead of real answers.

Everyone really could have used a site like Mechanic Shop Femme. Issues like these are part of why we created the Car Talk Community all those years ago.

Owner Chaya Milchtein wasn’t always an automotive maven. Even when she got her first industry job, she says she had no interest in cars. She didn’t even have a driver’s license, until she had to get one for work. But it was at that job that she discovered her true calling.

Chaya Milchtein, founder of Mechanic Shop Femme
Chaya Milchtein, founder of Mechanic Shop Femme. Image courtesy of photographer Chana Milchtein

A Passion for Automotive Education

“I grew to live for the thrill of helping car owners understand what their car needs,” Chaya says. But that couldn’t last. “After a while, it seemed like the only way to grow from where I was required me to give up the part of my job that I love the most: helping my customers.”

At age 20, Chaya was promoted to Area Manager for Sears Auto Center. By 21, she was managing a Meineke store in Brooklyn. Good work, especially for one so young, but ultimately unfulfilling. Managing employees didn’t scratch the same itch as helping customers get more comfortable with automobile esoterica.

Having never lost that drive to help people with their cars, Chaya started a small website called Mechanic Shop Femme. Through it, Chaya worked to shed light on automotive issues, from buying and selling cars to actively maintaining them. As the site’s popularity grew, it not only became a full-time job for Chaya, but evolved into a business that’s more about making people feel comfortable in their own skin.

Unlike many interactive automotive sites, including Car Talk, Mechanic Shop Femme doesn’t focus on do-it-yourself car repair. Instead, Chaya’s mission is to demystify cars for people who don’t do their own repair work or even have a particular interest in the subject. “I think a lot of folks think they have to learn how to fix a car in order to learn about cars,” she says while quickly pointing out that’s simply not true. “Understanding how to maintain your car often starts with the why. Why does this need to be done? Once someone understands the importance, they're more likely to avoid putting it off or skipping it altogether.”

Chaya wants to reach people who have cars, but aren’t already car experts or enthusiasts. That’s a club that often finds itself on the outs in car circles, derided by car enthusiasts and industry professionals alike. But for Chaya, such car owners are her bread and butter.

“It's not a secret that the automotive industry revolves around men,” Chaya says. “Cars are ‘manly.’ Car repairs are a ‘man's job.’ Any young woman headed to the repair shop is told to call her dad lest she get scammed.”

Education That’s More than Just Automotive

Chaya says car culture isn’t just historically unwelcoming to women, but to others marginalized by old-school attitudes. “That toxic masculinity creates a space where women and queer folks don't feel safe, for good reason. Homophobia, racism, and sexism run rampant.”

Chaya’s out to change that, which is why Mechanic Shop Femme doesn’t look like any other car site online. Scrolling through her blog posts, you’ll see the expected articles on maintenance, buying and selling of cars, and choosing a mechanic. But you’ll also see musings on body positivity, religious acceptance, even sex advice, with the occasional firm opinion on current events woven in. At its core, Mechanic Shop Femme is about acceptance, of ourselves and each other.

Chaya explains, “I've created a space where gatekeeping and toxic masculinity aren't the norm. Where folks can confidently ask their questions without judgment, laughter, or humiliation. I'm visibly queer not just for me, but so that the folks learning from me know that I've got their back.”

One might think she assumes a certain amount of risk by overtly making such so-called-political topics likely to spark debate into her business model, but for Chaya, any business risk she incurs is worth it if she has the opportunity to reach others on issues of basic equality. “I'm a queer, Jewish, fat woman, a first-generation American, married to a Black woman. My very existence is 'political.' What people call politics, I call survival. I'll stand up for what's right and for the rights of marginalized people every single day.”

Intentional Exposure

She does that by intentionally not avoiding mention of these issues, even in areas that seemingly have little to do with the matter. You don’t usually think of gay rights as having any relation to getting an oil change, but what about when a gay person walks into a shop to get an oil change? Oftentimes, the reaction that person gets is markedly different from the one a straight person enjoys.

That’s why Chaya isn’t a car educator writing a blog post about why proper car maintenance is essential; she’s a queer car educator writing that post. By asserting herself - her identity - in a space commonly hostile to such identities, Chaya is helping to make the automotive world a safer and more pleasant one for everyone involved.

Mechanic Shop Femme isn’t limited to blog posts. Chaya leads workshops on topics ranging from how to buy used cars to proper car maintenance, and even one which prepares teenagers for first-time car ownership. She teaches workshops and seminars everywhere from non-profits to universities around the country and Canada, mostly virtually, but occasionally in person when the opportunity arises.

Whether in person or virtual, the material and messaging remain the same; Cars are not only the domain of repair-savvy men, and there’s no shame in not knowing about them.

If workshops aren’t in the cards, customers can book individual phone calls with Chaya to get answers to all manners of car repair questions. The half-hour sessions are designed to provide similar encouragement and education to the workshops, but on a more personal level.

Chaya Milchtein, founder of Mechanic Shop Femme
Chaya Milchtein. Image courtesy of photographer Chana Milchtein

Reaching Everyone

In short, Chaya’s worked to create an automotive educational community with the greatest possible reach to the widest possible audience. The inclusivity shines through even with class costs - Chaya offers scalable fees to make sure her classes aren’t out of reach for anyone. ”Since day one, all of my public classes are offered on a sliding scale and I reserve funding to provide low-income people of color and folks with disabilities free and discounted seats.”

The more cynical among us might suspect people would take advantage - claiming low-income status to score a discount. But Chaya’s found it to be the opposite. “I often get messages from folks that fit in the middle of the categories, asking me if they can do a payment plan so they can pay a higher rate.”

You might think regular blog posting, teaching classes, and answering questions would constitute a full-time endeavor. But for Chaya, there are always more ventures on the horizon. One project, soon to debut, blends her messages on vehicles and body positivity, with a large survey project highlighting the best cars for larger bodies set to come out in early 2022. “Fat people deserve to shop for cars with dignity and have options that fit our bodies easily accessible for research, test driving, and purchase.”

Of course, few startups succeed without lots of support, and that’s where Chaya’s wife comes in. ”My wife is the best life partner I could ever ask for,” Chaya enthuses. “(She) has always had my work, filmed me in the cold, and constantly challenges me to grow, learn and relax.” Chaya feels supremely fortunate to have her wife Morgan's support in her work, and is looking forward to returning the favor as she starts a hand-poured art candle company called C'Toan Co.

An Automotive Journey

Mechanic Shop Femme has reflected Chaya’s journey from knowing nearly nothing about cars to being a widely-booked and well-respected automotive educator with particular focus on groups marginalized by traditional car culture. It’s already a successful, nearly all-consuming venture for Chaya, who says she routinely reaches over half a million people with her messaging. But she’s not sitting back and resting easy. She’s always looking for ways to enhance the project and has a number of exciting plans already in the works.

From acting as an ambassador for brands on Instagram and her blog, to more public speaking and workshops, to working with repair shops and car dealerships to guide them toward better inclusivity for their customers, Chaya’s got a busy 2022 and beyond planned. “I'm excited to see what the future holds, and certainly open to anything that comes my way.”

Chaya Milchtein, founder of Mechanic Shop Femme
Chaya Milchtein. Image courtesy of photographer Chana Milchtein.

Learn more about Mechanic Shop Femme here. All photos courtesy of photographer, Chana Milchtein.

Todays Car-o-Scope

What the stars say about your car for 5/22/2022
It's always important to look in your rearview mirror, but do not let your mind linger there.
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