The drive to succeed
Sonoman's car mart alternative to purchasing vehicles over Internet
By Rachel Raskin-Zrihen, Times-Herald staff writer
Article Launched: 02/14/2007 07:05:49 AM PST
Mary Amos puts the finishing touches on a car being offered for sale at the Public Car Mart located at the Fairgrounds in Vallejo. (David Mendelson/Times-Herald)
Each car at the Public Car Mart has the car and owner information on the windshield. (David Mendelson/Times-Herald)
Circumstances have forced Mary Morrongiello-Amos to reinvent herself at least three times in her 45 years.
Her latest incarnation has the divorced mother of two creating a public car mart - a sort of vehicle flea market, with no sales people or pressure - held weekends at Vallejo's Solano County Fairgrounds.
A Sonoma resident, Morrongiello-Amos started the car mart about a month ago, but has been working on it since July, she said.
"Vallejo is a 'car town,' and also an economically challenged area, and there are people here who need a place to find affordable used cars," Morrongiello-Amos said.
Car sellers pay a flat $30 fee per car, into which are placed informational signs. The cars are parked and guarded for the weekend, while shoppers can browse the vehicular offerings, Morrongiello-Amos said. If a potential buyer finds something they're interested in, they can call the posted phone number and arrange to meet the seller for a test drive, on the fairgrounds, she said. The arrangement addresses a multitude of issues, she said.
Those shopping for affordable used cars who want to avoid the pressure of a dealership salesperson will like the concept, while used car dealers gain access to those same shoppers, Morrongiello-Amos said. It's safer and more convenient for individual sellers than newspaper ads can be and city officials and business owners like that it can take many of "curb stoners" off the street, she said.
"Curb stoners are the ones who stick a sign in the car window and park it on the street or in a parking lot, with no smog or safety inspection and out of DMV regulations," she said. "They're an eyesore for the city."
Also, buyers avoid purchasing a vehicle without an in-person inspection as they often do with Internet sales, Morrongiello-Amos said.
"My dad always used to say, 'you can't sell horses with pictures,' " she said.
Car dealers are feeling the pinch from increased use of Internet sites like Craig's List and Cars.com, and the Public Car Mart gives them another option to reach used car buyers, she added.
It's a concept that grew from assessing her husband's former car dealership's operation, she said. But it's not something that could have been predicted from her past, she said.
One of six children originally from the Midwest, Morrongiello-Amos said she planned to become a forensic pathologist but got sidetracked in her senior year in college.
"I grew up on a Wisconsin farm, and then went off to college. I fell in love with a professional Detroit Red Wings hockey player, a very smart man with an economics degree. He's a multimillionaire now, and he told me I should be in some sort of sales and I believed him."
Morrongiello-Amos got into the securities industry in New York, she said.
"I was making six figures in my 20s, and then Reagan changed the securities rules and the whole job vanished overnight. I had to start over at 24."
Morrongiello-Amos said she moved to Florida and became a mortgage loan broker, specializing in helping the poor. In the course of that business, some of the homes wound up foreclosed on, and she turned that into another opportunity, she said.
"Some of them were in terrible condition because some of the people left with bad feelings and devastated the place intentionally," she said. "So I learned how to do renovations."
Morrongiello-Amos sold that business and moved to California in 1998, where she became what is known in the real estate world as a "flipper" - buying distressed properties, fixing them up and reselling them at a profit. She said she was turning about two dilapidated structures into desirable homes per year.
"It was a lucky move for me, right when the local real estate market was taking off," she said.
But the recent real estate market downturn has meant yet another new career, Morrongiello-Amos said.
"With this down market, I can't operate. I got stuck on my 13th house. I had to find another way to make a living until the market turns."
So, she turned to cars.
Public Car Mart
Type: Used cars
Owner: Mary Morrongiello-Amos
Address: Solano County Fairgrounds
Hours: Friday afternoon to sunset Sunday
Contact: 718-3555 or visit www.PublicCarMart.com
"I've always preferred male-dominated businesses. Working with women can be difficult. Sometimes women bosses can have a chip on their shoulder and I find them not as flexible with change and less receptive to suggestions from other women," Morrongiello-Amos said.
Having noticed the writing on the local real estate wall, Morrongiello-Amos said she decided to get a California auto dealer license.
"My husband owned a used car lot for 25 years and I remembered the conversations and I looked at the potential profit margins, and it made sense to me."
She opened a small car lot in Sonoma but found the Internet too much competition, so she tried another tack.
"I took some cars to a for-sale-by-owner operation in Santa Rosa and that worked immediately. It kept us afloat.
"I realized the idea of a public car mart could be brought to a whole new level," she said. "so I started looking for locations and found the Solano County Fairgrounds.
"I can fit 500 cars in the area I'm leasing. It's by I-80 and Hwy. 37, with more than 400,000 cars going by daily."
She said she found a kindred spirit in Solano County Fair General Manager Joe Barkett.
"He's a like-minded person to someone like me - an entrepreneur at heart. He didn't put up barriers. He really has a great business mind."
For his part, Barkett said he thinks the car mart, which is near the new auto mall on Columbus Parkway, has a shot.
"She approached us a few months back and we asked for certain assurances - a plan with realistic expectations," Barkett said. "We wanted to make sure she had the wherewithal to stick with something like this and she was very good at meeting our requests. I think they have a good chance to succeed and we're hopeful they will."
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