By John Burton
RED BANK – Aaron Rassas sat behind his desk in his office with its walls covered with plaques of recognition, family photos and sepia-toned pictures of the business in days long gone. He smiled slightly and said, “It’s time. It really is.”
Rassas owns and operates Rassas Buick auto dealership – and has worked there for almost all of his life. But with market and corporate forces at play, he has decided to close the family-operated dealership at 395 Broad St. after 83 years.
“Things happened beyond our control,” Rassas said this week.
With General Motors’ bankruptcy and the discontinuation of the Pontiac line that Rassas sold until 2009, the dealership looked to continue by selling Buicks. But Rassas said it has become increasingly difficult with just the one line and he has been unable to secure another to feature at his dealership.
That, combined with General Motors’ plan to concentrate on larger regionalized dealerships and reduce the overall number, left Rassas and his business with few options.
There are only 30 Buick stand-alone dealerships in the country at this point, he said. “It’s become very difficult for a Buick stand-alone to survive.
“It’s bittersweet,” Rassas said. “It’s what I’ve done with my entire life.”
The business, founded in 1930 on Mechanic Street in Red Bank, was started by Rassas’ uncle, Alex Rassas, as the Oakland Pontiac Dealership.
All of Alex’s brothers were in the car business. Joe, the oldest, ran a Hudson dealership in Long Branch. Rassas’ father, Ben, operated a used car lot in Eatontown then took over the Red Bank location when Alex died in 1941. In 1949 Ben bought the Broad Street property – Rassas has a photo on his office wall of the site when it was an empty field.
Ben Rassas continued to work in Red Bank until he died in 2004.
“I was always here,” Rassas said, remembering how he worked in the dealership while growing up. When he was in high school, he worked in the parts department and recalled being sent out to pick up and deliver items or “some dirty job they would have me do.”
After college he knew he wanted to come into the family business.
“My father never pushed me,” he said. “But back then a lot of people went into what their parents did.
“Honestly, it became a personal thing,” working in the business, living and breathing it, said Rassas, who has been working there since 1965.
It’s obvious he loved the dealership.
“It’s a very exciting business,” he said, noting the joy he had unveiling new models and lines over the years.
Even more important than that, he said he has “enjoyed dealing with people.” He’s worked with many a returning customer, selling them new vehicles and servicing the ones they own.
“We don’t look at them as customers; we look at them as friends,” he said.
A number of customers have been coming by since word began circulating about the pending closing. They have wished him well and offered their thank-yous for years of service, he said.
“It does feel good that people are sad that we’re leaving,” Rassas said. “But I guess it’s just time.”
His employees have come to be a sort of surrogate family for him and his family with many of them working at the dealership for many years.
“We always used to joke you’re either here for two weeks or 20 years,” he said. One of his employees, Harry Clark, has worked in the dealership’s body shop for 39 years.
Rassas said he has been working to get as many of his 19 employees placed in positions in other dealerships as his operation winds down.
As for his future, “Really, I don’t know,” said Rassas, a Rumson resident, who is approaching 70. “I look forward to spending time with my daughters, sons-in-law and grandkids.”
But before the doors close, he and his wife, Madge – who worked at the dealership for years herself – will be getting new cars. Because, as Rassas said, “You know what? There’s nothing like a new car.”