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End of an era: The final days of Cernak Buick

  • Ken Cernak, who has never had a job outside of Cernak Buick, is seen with his 1997 Buick Riviera. STAFF PHOTO/BERA DUNAU

  • Jeffrey Cernak, left, is seen next to his sister, Jennifer Cernak, father Ken Cernak and mother Mary Ann Cernak in front of a 1922 Buick. All four work at Cernak Buick, which is closing. STAFF PHOTO/BERA DUNAU

  • Sam Cernak (the founder of Cernak Buick) stands behind his parents who are seated and a number of Sam’s siblings who are standing between the other vehicles, circa early 1950s.

  • Jennifer, Mary Ann, Jeffrey, and Ken Cernak stand beside Ken’s 1990 Buick Reatta in the showroom of Cernak Buick in Easthampton. The car was the only two-seat convertible made by Buick and was made for only four years. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Cernak Buick in Easthampton. The dealership is in the process of closing after 80 years of business. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • From left, Ken, Jennifer, Jeffrey, and Mary Ann Cernak stand beside a 1922 Buick in the showroom of Cernak Buick in Easthampton. The dealership is in the process of closing after 80 years of business. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 2/17/2020 3:07:28 PM

EASTHAMPTON — As the number of cars for sale continues to dwindle at its soon-to-close dealership off busy Northampton Street, Cernak Buick’s longtime owner wistfully remembers a time years ago when there were six new car dealers in the city.

Now, more than a half-century later, “We’re the last of the six,” Ken Cernak said about his family’s decision to close the 80-year-old dealership after the last car is sold this month.

The Cernaks — Ken owns the business with his daughter, Jennifer — say the dealership has been a casualty of tighter margins and a reduction in the varieties of new cars available to them. The coming departure of the Easthampton staple hasn’t gone unnoticed in the community.

“It’s been chaos the last few days,” said Jeffrey Cernak, Ken’s son who works full time at the business. Ken’s wife, Mary Ann Cernak, also works at the dealership.

“But good chaos,” Jennifer added.

The siblings said during a recent interview at the dealership that many people have dropped in to give their best wishes and to buy cars.

“We’ve had so many people come in saying, ‘We want to buy our last Cernak car,’” Jeffrey said.

The service department at Cernak Buick closed at the end of January. The Cernaks are now selling off their used car inventory. The new cars were sold to another dealer.

Jeffrey and Jennifer say that the need to do larger volumes of sales is a reason why the dealership is closing. Additionally, the Cernaks said business was also affected when Buick’s product line was cut last year, with the new offerings that the dealership could sell reduced to just the Enclave, Envision, and Encore SUVs. Previously, Cernak had been able to offer new LaCrosse and Regal models, both of which were cars, and the Cascada convertible.

“They should have left us with a car or two,” said Ken.

Ken also said that, if there were more models, they would have stuck around.

“It would make it more viable,” said Jeffrey.

The family owns the Northampton Street property where the dealership is located, and there are no plans for it post-business yet.

Eighty years of cars

The Cernaks have been selling cars on Northampton Street since 1940, when Ken’s father, Samuel Cernak, started the business as a Studebaker dealership. Cernak switched to Buick in 1948, and the business has been a Buick dealership ever since.

“He saw the handwriting on the wall,” said Jeffrey, of his grandfather’s switch. “He was always a step ahead.”

Jeffrey said that it was his understanding that his grandfather didn’t think Studebaker would last, and that Buick was the gold standard of cars at the time.

Though it sold new Buicks for the last seven decades, the Cernaks also offered different brands of used vehicles. The price range on new cars that Cernak sold until recently was from around $26,000 to more than $60,000. For used cars it ranged from $5,000 to $35,000.

Cernak is currently the last single-line Buick dealer in New England and one of the few left in the country. The Cernaks could have added additional new car brands, but only if they abided by a General Motors requirement to relocate to Northampton and close the Easthampton dealership.

“We didn’t want to abandon the town,” Jeffrey said. “This is where we’ve been forever.”

Jeffrey cited his grandfather’s desire to see the business remain in Easthampton, where Samuel Cernak grew up as one of 15 children.

“People like coming here. You’re not going down into the hodgepodge of King Street (in Northampton),” Ken said. “It’s nice and peaceful.”

Remembering Samuel

Samuel Cernak lived to the age of 97 and was still driving to the business and giving his input at 96.

“No moss on him,” Jeffrey said.

“He was dynamic,” Ken said.

He noted that his father could tackle almost anything and make it succeed and that he was a skilled landscaper who also knew how to farm.

“He had a lot of talents,” he said. “All of these things came to him naturally.

Ken said that at one time his father had more than 500 blueberry bushes on his property, as well as an orchard with apple and plum trees.

“The blueberries were the size of your thumbnail,” he said.

Jennifer said that getting to see her grandfather regularly was a reason why she returned to the business 16 years ago after working in a different field.

“He always had a lot to teach, and I had a lot to learn from him,” she said.

Jennifer said that her grandfather had a keen business sense, and was able to quickly find things that were out of place in the dealership.

“He had an eye for even the minor details,” she said.

Ken and his children all drive Buicks and are fans of the cars.

“They probably are one of the most reliable vehicles General Motors ever built,” Ken said.

He noted that his favorite model is the 1997 Buick Riviera, which he still drives.

“It’s sharp,” he said.

Working at Cernak Buick is the only job Ken has ever known. A graduate of Clark University in Worcester, he worked at the dealership during his summers in Easthampton. He then went to grad school at Clark for half a year to become a teacher, before making the decision to go back to the dealership full time in 1965.

“I love selling cars,” said Ken, who will be 78 in October. “I live for car sales.”

Jennifer and Jeffrey Cernak also worked for the dealership during their high school and college summers. But before returning to the dealership — Jennifer 16 years ago, and Jeffrey 10 years ago — both had other careers. Jennifer was an occupational therapist in the Boston area, while Jeffrey worked in tech and in startups, for such companies as Procter & Gamble and the startups Market Max and Experion Systems.

“I figured it was my time to give back,” said Jeffrey, noting that the business had allowed him to graduate college without any student loans.

Mary Ann Cernak, who also worked as a substitute teaching in Northampton Public Schools and had a myotherapy business, has worked at Cernak Buick for 35 years. She said that she’ll miss the people the most.

“I love the employees,” Mary Ann said. “I love the customers.”

Jennifer noted that a number of people recently retired at Cernak after 40-year careers, and there’s still an employee there who has worked at the dealership for more than four decades.

Mary Ann said that her husband has been actively working to find other places for the 20-plus employees to work, and Jennifer said that her father “feels responsible” for them.

Jennifer also described her mother as “everyone’s mom.”

“She wants to make sure everyone’s fed,” Jennifer said. “She’ll give you her lunch.”

Jeffrey said that selling to an employee, or employees, hadn’t been an option available to the family. He also said that if a buyer for the dealership were to come forward, it is his understanding that General Motors would have to approve the takeover.

“I think it would be challenging for somebody else to make a single-line Buick dealership work,” he said.

Bera Dunau can be reached at bdunau@gazettenet.com.




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