From Russia With Love

(Illustration by Ronald Kurniawan)

Greg Berson has never met Johnny Depp, though the actor’s manager did once call to say, “Thank you very much.” That was after Berson spent two years restoring Depp’s cobalt-blue 1954 Chevy pickup truck, a snapshot of which can be found hanging in Berson’s office alongside mementos from a few other celebrity clients (Kiefer Sutherland, Martin Landau, the director of a movie called My Brother the Pig) and many photographic testaments to his work. The office — two cramped rooms lined with 30-year-old wood paneling — occupies a small corner of the lot at Third Street and Edinburgh Avenue, where Greg’s Exclusive Body Shop has operated for nearly 25 years.

Really getting to know your auto-body mechanic, of course, is about as high on most people’s priority lists as dropping in on your tax account- ant just to say hi. But fate has conspired to bring Berson and I together more than our fair share of times. It was in the spring of 1998 that I first came to Greg’s, seeking an estimate for repairs on my dented 1995 Honda Civic. Of the various estimates I collected, Berson’s was the best, his avuncular demeanor the most inviting, and when I came back a week later to pick up the car, the work was impeccable. I hopped in, drove less than a quarter of a mile down the road and — wham! — got rammed in the side by a woman who had run a red light. Berson’s shop was still plainly visible in my rearview mirror.

Berson’s is one of the great American immigrant success stories. Born in Kiev in 1932, he was still a boy when he and his parents fled Russia for Uzbekistan at the height of the Second World War. They returned in 1945, when the young Greg’s habit of skipping school to play soccer prompted his father to send Berson off to work as an electrician’s apprentice. At 19, he was drafted into the Russian army; discharged in 1954, he landed a job at an aerospace factory. By the ’60s, he was working as an engineer on missile navigation systems. Then, his wife began to talk about moving to America.

“I told my wife, ‘We can’t move — I have security clearance and nobody will let me go,” he recalls in a Russian accent as thick as week-old borscht. So Berson arranged for a ceremonial divorce and sent her and their young son Alex to San Francisco. “I quit my job and filled out an application for immigration. They said, ‘No way. Maybe after 30 years.’?”

In fact, he would only have to wait two before he and his family were reunited in Los Angeles. “It was 1974, [I spoke] no English,” says Berson. Eventually, he found a general machinist’s job at Angelus Sanitary Can Machine Company, where he worked his way up to engineer and where he remained until the day in 1983 that he found a body shop for sale and decided to get into that business.

He now has more than 2,000 customers and so many new referrals that repairs are scheduled by appointment only. Still, Berson is quick to note, “I’m not boss; my customer is boss,” and it’s a similar humility that informs his entire business philosophy. “We try to help the customer,” he says. “We don’t make a Mickey Mouse job.” He gestures out the window. “You see this guy who’s picking up his car right now? The insurance company told me to use a used radiator condenser and I said, ‘I don’t agree.’ Who knows what kind of radiator condenser was in the junkyard? If you get stuck, what are you going to do? I want to sleep well, and I want my customers to be happy.”

Greg’s Exclusive AUTO Body Shop 8000 W. Third St., L.A.,

(323) 653-8212

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