By J Alexander - Photo by Bodil Perkins
". . .Mechanics didn't make as much money
back then as they do now, so I decided to try my hand at selling. Back then,
the assumption was that used car salesman were thieves, but it was just the
nature of the business. So I took the same moral fiber that my dad had instilled
in us and applied it to selling cars. . ."
". . .There's no sales manager here,
no dealership banter back and fourth. I've always said, you can buy a car
here blindfolded and be fine," Sam said. "I should be in the Guinness Book
of World Records because I've been in the business for 46 years and there
has never been a complaint against me in the Better Business Bureau or the
Attorney General's Office. . ."
Doing The Right Thing, The Right Way
The "diaper" billboard is as much as a part of the Seaport's history as any of the shops and sites that make the area unique. The billboard's simple saying, "Tops...anyway you look at 'em," reflects not only a business slogan nearly five decades old, but a loyal following of customers that a dozen car dealers combined, may never see the likes of. For those SouthCoast residents who have been living under a rock, or maybe just haven't happened to have traveled by the landmark that is Sam Giammalvo's Auto Sales Inc. these last 46-plus years, they're missing something that thousands of people before them know all to well.
In a day when auto sales come and go in the increasingly difficult economy, neither Sam Giammalvo, 77, nor his dealership at 1476 Purchase St., show any sign whatsoever of slowing down. Just call it good genes. The Giammalvo family journey began long ago, like many before them, with the elder Samuel Giammalvo and his wife, Luigia, coming to the United States in the early 1900's, along with a number of their family members from Sicily, Italy, to Ellis Island. As bad as the economy was after the turn of the century, the Giammalvo family began to get word from cousins in the States that there was work to be had in the many mills in a city near the water called New Bedford. "They brought with them no formal education, but instead a strong moral fiber, common sense and a belief in God," said Sam Jr.
The Giammalvo family would lay roots in New Bedford and have eight children, five boys and three girls; Sam Jr. is the youngest. After working in the mills all day, Sam Sr. set up a fruit stand at night. This venture became so successful that he branched out and opened a variety store called Giammalvo's Market, which has been carried on by Sam's sons Jimmy and Peter. The Giammalvo boys ended up taking different paths in life, Sam Jr. said. Besides the two running the market, one brother became a doctor and the other brother joined the Army, eventually reaching the rank of colonel. Sam's sisters made their mark as well: Both his twin sister and his oldest sister worked at the family market for decades, and his sister Sadie started the A-1 Driving School.
But what about young Sam? "I was a gearhead. I loved cars and motors, "said Sam. "My dad didn't mind because he always said as long as you work, that's fine." Young Sam attended Holy Name School and then enrolled in vocational school to study auto mechanics. His first job was as a repairman for Loughlin Chevrolet, which was located on the corner of Mill and Kempton Streets. Sam Jr. would move on to work at several garages in the city including Harvard Garage on Purchase St. But this date with automobile-sales destiny took a detour when he did a two-year tour in the Marine Corps. Upon his return, he married his longtime girlfriend, Jean, who has been his companion for the last 53 years.
"Mechanics didn't make as much money back then as they do now, so I decided to try my hand at selling," said Sam. 'Back then, the assumption was that used-car salesman were thieves, but is was just the nature of the business. So I took the same moral fiber that my dad had instilled in us and applied it to selling cars." It was an approach that caught on right away because within a year Sam purchased a 5,600-square-foot lot on Purchase Sr, and he still operates his business at the same location today. In 1971, Sam tore the old place down and built a modern facility, while quadrupling the size of the lot at the same time by purchasing an adjacent property. But the man behind the business hasn't changed a bit.
Sam and Jean had three boys, all of whom are involved in the auto business, Glenn is the service manager for Giammalvo's, Mark is the Customer Relations and Internet Manager. Oldest son Steven moved away and is a district service manager for General Motors. Although Sam admitted that Glenn would one day be taking over the business, he would not talk about any potential retirement on his part. "Don't even put the word in the article, I won't even talk about that," said Sam. "My brother worked into his 80's and I plan on doing the same, unless the good Lord has other plans for me. Our family tradition is to work. I'm here every day, though I take a vacation now and then." Monday through Friday, Sam works as the lone salesman for his dealership, and when the 14 employees have gone home for the day, Sam comes back from 7 to 9 p.m. to get his paperwork done. It's hard to do it during the day because the phone's always ringing," Sam said. But he won't refuse a car sale either, and on this particular night Sam interrupts the interview to talk to a couple looking to buy a car. On Saturday, he closes up shop a little early at 4 p.m. And he'll even come in on Sunday, if only to keep his paperwork up to date. He said one of the secrets behind the nearly golden anniversary success of his dealership is his reputation. When people come into Giammalvo's, they're not bombarded by aggressive salespeople working on commission. If they have questions about a car or want to test drive one, they'll have to talk to the owner. "There's no sales manager here, no dealership banter back and fourth. I've always said, you can buy a car here blindfolded and be fine," Sam said. "I should be in the Guinness Book of World Records because I've been in the business for 46 years and there has never been a complaint against me in the Better Business Bureau or the Attorney General's Office."
A modest man running a modest business, Sam said the price he charges for his used cars is the best price he has, and he welcomes people to shop around because they always come back. Unlike many car-sales businesses, you won't find any gimmicks or fine print at the bottom of his ads. While a profit is needed in order to keep the business viable, his profit margin, like his life, is about being moderate. "Money doesn't drive me. I've had the same house for 45 years, no yachts, no mansions,": said Sam. As for how he has lasted in such a cutthroat business for all these years, Sam said that what he does every day of the week is his passion. And for anyone looking to go into this line if work, or any line of work for that matter, passion is what's needed to keep going. "You need a passion for what you do, and then you can do it well. It's a driving goal that can drive your whole life," said Sam. "If you go to work just for the sake of working, it's not going to happen. For me, I love people, I love cars and I love the friends I've made over the years."
Sam takes a break from talking for just a minute and comes back with two dozen thank-you letters from people who have bought cars from him over the years. The letters are filled with words of praise one might not expect to be used to describe a used-car salesman, such as honesty and courtesy. Sam said he has thousands more such letters in storage, and there's a stack of similar letters in the waiting area. Sam admits to taking each day as it comes, but he has the confidence that when he can no longer do what he loves to do, his sons and his business will be just fine. And when that day comes, he knows that people in the area who have called on him for his honesty and integrity over the years will still find these traits in his business long after he's gone. "My sons were brought up with the same moral fiber that I was," said Sam. "So I know that they and this business will be fine."