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Car salesmen lament life in the deepfreeze

They stood together on the display floor, two guys who might have the toughest job in America.

The stock market has tanked, the economy is comatose, jobs are disappearing, banks are reluctant to lend, and people are afraid to spend. There might never have been a tougher time to do what Tom Creenan and Lou Berti do: sell cars.

Each has been in the business for about 40 years. Neither can remember a time when fewer folks walked through the showroom door.

It is the winter of discontent in the automobile business, from the executives who run the brink-of-bankruptcy Big Three to the workers who make the cars. At the front end of the food chain are car salespeople, who depend on enough people having enough money to regularly consummate America's love affair with the automobile.

Right now, that relationship is on the rocks. Overall sales for General Motors and Ford are down by 49 and 40 percent, respectively, from last January. The bleeding is not as bad locally, but nobody is smiling.

"None of us [in car sales] has ever experienced what we are going through now," said Berti, who works with Creenan at Jim Ball Pontiac/GMC/Buick/Cadillac in Orchard Park.

Thursday, the two men stood on the main floor of the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center. It was Day Two of the annual auto show. Around them were a gleaming sea of Vibes and Escalades and Cobalts, priced to sell and as eager to please as stray cats in a shelter.

Berti is 57, as big as a defensive lineman, with a silky tone and an ease with strangers that has put food on his plate for four decades. Creenan is 69, with milk-white hair and the unforced charm of a favorite uncle. Neither is prone to panic. But they are not ready to retire; they are too settled to pick up stakes and too accustomed to the showroom culture to easily transform themselves.

"It's a very nervous time," Berti acknowledged. "You are going to see more dealers close up before summer. Where do you go if that happens? There are a ton of people already in the job market."

Nobody these days is immune to a pink slip, from lawyers to bankers to newspaper reporters. But in an age of tight credit and clenched wallets, the ice is especially thin for folks who sell cars.

Berti and Creenan say they are lucky to work for an owner, Jim Ball, who fights back with ad dollars and a full inventory. We are lucky to live in a region where the housing market never bubbled, much less burst. Deflating gas prices have revived SUV/truck sales.

All of which are mere silver linings in a dark cloud. You can blame the Big Three for delayed remedies to chronic ailments, ranging from sketchy products to bad management to labor and legacy costs. But hardly anybody foresaw an economic collapse.

The thing that kills Berti, Creenan and every other sleep-deprived salesperson is that the deals have never been better. Zero percent financing and four-figure cash bonuses and lease-to-buy offers prime the pump of a shallow well. Yet Creenan spends hours calling current owners, past customers and anybody who he hears might be looking for a new car.

"You can't just depend," Creenan said, "on people walking through the door."

Thursday, Creenan and Berti stood amid acres of product on the convention center floor. Each handed a business card to any tire-kicker within reach. Both practiced the nonpushy persuasiveness forged from a combined 80 years of experience. But mostly, they looked beyond today for glimmers on the economic horizon; for signs that the longest winter either can remember might mercifully be coming to an end.

e-mail: desmonde@buffnews.com

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