Good As Old

GUY LILLEMOE HAS been selling used cars out of his Cedar Lake Auto Exchange lot on East Lake Street for 50 years. He is 77 years old and says that "it's only the last three or four years, really, that this neighborhood has gone to shit. Despite the pimps and whores and the rest of these animals, I still come here to produce. That much hasn't changed--you still have to spend less than you make. It's only the end of the year that counts, and I'm still here. I haven't gone broke yet. I can tell a legitimate customer when I see one, and when some of these other characters come around I just get real busy and tell 'em the salesman has gone to lunch and won't be back."

The used-car lots up and down Lake Street from Minneapolis to St. Paul represent perhaps better than anything else the current balancing act between the old-city perseverance and new-city reality. Many of the dozen or so dealers are holdouts from the 1950s and '60s, when Lake Street was one of the premier cruising strips in the Twin Cities and the dealers drew their customers from the generation of working-class neighborhoods that were sprawled all around them.

Bob Anderson has been holding down the fort at his Mini Motors--"Non Smokers," the fading sign says--for 28 years. Mini Motors is indeed a miniature operation; Anderson's little wedge of asphalt on the corner of 37th and Lake has room for exactly nine automobiles, and the lot is all he has. He still lives in the neighborhood and is at his lot most days, washing cars or huddled in his little warming house-sized office, waiting for the customers who come less and less often. "This is strictly a one-man show," Anderson says, "When I go to lunch the place is closed." He shrugs, and says, "It's definitely not as easy as it once was. I can't compete with these big dealerships out on the highways, but what can I say? I like the business. It's in your blood. When I was a little kid instead of listening to the sermon in church I'd be doodling cars. In the old days you'd park a car in here and before it cooled off there'd be three kids looking at it. I specialized in high-performance cars--the GTOs, Roadrunners, and Mustangs--and all day every day there'd be cars lined up at this stop light out here for two or three blocks. Sometimes they'd have to sit through a couple red lights, and that gave them plenty of time to ogle my cars. Kids just cruising Lake, and they were tickled pink to find a Roadrunner they could afford. Three different times I sold every car off the lot in a single day. Now I'll pick up a car that I figure is a shoe-in to go quick and it'll just sit here for months."

Bob Kennedy Motors has been in business on Lake since 1951, and the tidy lot is a classic throwback to those good old days, complete with the requisite stringers of multi-colored shimmering flags and smiley-face stickers on the windshields of every car. The only obvious concession to the changing times is a baseball bat prominently displayed behind the desk in the office, where these days Bob Jr. carries on the family business. Bob Sr. got his start working up the street for Lillemoe and officially retired in 1990, although he still keeps regular hours at his lot. "He says if he sat around at home my mother would divorce him," Bob Jr. says. On a recent afternoon, the Kennedys were hanging out in the office shooting the shit with a neighborhood customer, Ronald Winslow, who had dropped in to buy a car. "Another Marquis," Winslow says. "Those cars look like a dream. I've lived in this neighborhood for 40 years and I've bought three cars here. All five of my kids have bought their cars from Bob."

"You should have had more kids," Bob Sr. says.

Despite Winslow's observation that "it's gotten mighty dark around here, even in the daytime," neither of the Kennedys is in any mood to complain about the neighborhood.

"Sure, things have changed," Bob Jr. says, "but Lake Street is still a good location, lots of traffic surrounded by working-class neighborhoods. Between wholesaling and retail we still probably move 500 cars a year. We deal mostly with repeat customers, people who have been buying cars from us for years. We're real fussy about what we buy, nice clean cars without any rust. Good runners, and we always take care of people."

Most of the old-timers agree that there are now a lot of questionable characters peddling cars on Lake Street, weedy lots often selling salvaged or rebuilt cars under shaky financial arrangements. There are a number of lots in the "Buy Here/Pay Here" business, in which weekly or monthly payments are made directly to the dealer, the dealer keeps a set of keys, and missed payments often mean instant repossession.

"There are maybe three or four dealers on Lake Street today that I consider honorable," says Mel Cofman, the owner of another '50s holdover, 2900 Motor Sales. "There's no doubt that there are a lot of guys in this neighborhood that rip people off. But I don't care who you're dealing with, in the used-car business it's buyer beware. Even the new car dealers are far from lily white."

Todd Langland is the manager of the Auto Mart --"Quality Used Cars," the signs promise, "Daily Rental," "We Finance," "Low Down Payment"--and admits that he is wary of being "ripped by the press." The Auto Mart, Langland says, can finance a car for anyone, even bankrupts, through its arrangement with Credit Acceptance Corporation. "When people get in financial trouble their options are obviously limited," Langland says. "I try to get the best thing I can for people, and I think we give people more than a fair chance. I don't pressure anyone, but once they sign the papers it's essentially out of our hands."

Back up the street, Lillemoe is still out in his lot with a hose, washing tires. A visitor wonders if the thought of retirement ever crosses his mind. Lillemoe scowls and shakes his head emphatically. "I see all these people who retire and then they get so damned bored that they end up bagging groceries at Byerly's," he says. "And then there are the others who just become a goddamn nuisance. Friends of mine. They've all got nose problems, coming around here and eavesdropping on the sales. No, I tell them the same thing I told you, goddamn it, I still come here to produce. Get lost. I'm still selling cars."

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