One Square Mile: Salvage Hunter Auto Parts, Austell

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Salvage Hunter Auto Parts
Photograph by Dustin Chambers

Salvage Hunter Auto Parts | Austell | 21 miles northwest of Atlanta

In this open-air market by the Silver Comet Trail, every item has a tale of calamity or violence or catastrophic malfunction. Maybe the transmission failed, or the front end crumpled, or blood spilled on the passenger seat. Maybe the airbag inflated, the windshield going translucent from shock, or maybe a young woman drew white hearts on the windows—along with the date, 3/31/15, and such proclamations as It’s My Birthday! and I’m Feelin’ 22!!—just before the engine died, and her teal-green Ford Escort LX joined a thousand other metal cadavers here in automotive purgatory. The reluctant proprietor is 55-year-old Pat Williamson (above), who’s spent half his life watching humans run the narrow spectrum between thrift and desperation. His customers wander the yard, looking for replacement doors, fuel lines, anything to keep that old Honda Accord running. He understands how thin their margins are, how a fragile economy depends on cheap used parts, and yet he can’t help wishing he could walk away. Some customers bring in crying children; others, occasionally, offer to pay with drugs. One flung an alternator over the wall and went to retrieve it and found a police officer who’d seen the whole thing. Amid rotting banana peels and old cans of Dr Pepper, the customers find small treasures that previous owners left behind. Finders keepers, if they catch the boss in a good mood. Running a junkyard is hard work—cold in winter, hot in summer, the forklifts always breaking down, the ground sparkling with broken glass. Williamson has sold the parts of nearly 27,000 vehicles in the past 20 years, but there’s one deal he can never seem to close. “Success to me,” he says, “is the day somebody buys my business.”

This article originally appeared in our July 2015 issue.

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