A dream dies in an empty parking lot

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Family friend Larry Berkowitz (left) helps 15-year-old Adam Dobkin, Jeff's son, hang a sign along City Avenue. The sign was right: It was one day only.

There's a certain romance to Jeff Dobkin's concept: Older guy, entrepreneur - with guts - toughs it out on a parking lot with a new idea. In a very public way.

Because, at age 63, with four marketing books and a handful of inventions on his resumé, there still had to be time for one more great idea, for one more chance to launch something big, and maybe most important for Dobkin, one more time to avoid life's could-have, should-have regrets.

That time was Sunday, and it was all or nothing.

Where? In a strip-mall parking lot not far from his Bala Cynwyd home.

"If this is successful," said Dobkin, father of three, dreamer of dreams, "it will change my life."

First the idea - an idea so simple that Dobkin's wife, Patte, said: "You wonder why it hasn't been done before."

When people buy and sell used cars, some prefer to go to a dealer, but others choose private sales, hoping they'll benefit by eliminating the dealer's markup.

But dealing with strangers can be dangerous, especially when someone is carrying enough cash to buy a car.

Dobkin decided to create a safe public place for people to buy and sell their own used cars. In his plan, buyers and sellers would meet in the parking lot he leased from the shopping center, negotiating their own deals.

For $25 a car, sellers would rent space from him. In return, Dobkin would promote the event and arrange for title and insurance agents to facilitate the transactions.

"If it is successful," Dobkin said, "I'll do it once a month here. If it is really successful, I'll do it several times a month" in multiple locations. Maybe he'd even franchise.

The shopping center's leasing agent liked the idea. She, too, imagined the concept at the company's other centers. "She gave me a great rate. She told me, 'If you do well, we'll negotiate again.' "

Dobkin arranged for signs and banners. He bought hundreds of yards of plastic roping decorated with red, white and blue triangular flags to cordon off his section of the parking lot. Nine dozen balloons cost him $118.

He spent $100 on a tent to serve as a portable headquarters. "Everything I looked at, I tried to see how much I was out of pocket," he said, then laughed. "With the tent, if it didn't work out, I could put it up in my backyard and tell my kids, 'Hey, look at what Daddy bought you.' "

He alerted newspapers and he e-mailed car sellers who advertised on Craigslist. He recruited his son and daughter to call every car seller who listed in Auto Trader. He bought a half-dozen bright blue polo shirts and had them inscribed with the new company's name: Autoxxchange.com.

All in all, he spent $2,000, with hopes of making about $2,500.

Meanwhile Dobkin, personable, funny, and bright, tried to sort out his feelings in advance. "I'm kind of dreading being outside and meeting the public," he said. "I'm more of an inside guy. I'm a writer. But you have to do what you have to do."

When Dobkin woke up on dream day, May 23 - the rest of us called it Sunday - it was raining.

"When my wife told me first thing in the morning that it was raining, I said, 'Well, at least it's not snowing.' "

Good line. He used it a lot, as the day alternated from merely miserable to outright rainy to tentative sunshine.

By 9:30 a.m., the first of nine bunches of balloons, encased in netting, made their escape from an open door in his minivan.

"They were a good bunch," Dobkin said.

Then two more bags managed to soar away, bright splashes of orange and blue, before they disappeared into the rainy gray skies. "We're not heavily balloon-experienced," Dobkin said.

By 10 a.m., everything was set up: Banners strung. Tent erected. Ready to go.

No one came . . .

Nearly two hours later, a lone seller showed up with a snappy 1988 Buick Reatta two-seater. Because there were no other sellers, Dobkin gave her the space for free.

"At least someone showed up. Now I have reached partial failure status," he said.

"I thought it was going to be a big event," said Gwendolyn Bell of Southwest Philadelphia. She pasted her phone number inside her car, and left, 10 minutes before the rain came down harder. Tied to the banners, the remaining balloons sunk forlornly under the water's weight.

Dobkin sent his son Adam, 15, for burgers.

"At least it's not snowing."

Why wasn't his plan working?

Dobkin had plenty of time to think it over, and the few people who dropped by offered their assessments: Sunday is a bad day, people are in church. Try it in a Pep Boys parking lot where people are thinking about cars. Advertise more, maybe late-night cable.

"We were hoping for a couple hundred cars," said potential buyer Ann Perrone of Drexel Hill, who wanted to buy a car for her son.

"That was my idea," said Dobkin, "but it didn't happen."

"When's your next gig?" she asked.

"I have to reassess my dream," he said. "This was my first time."

"I think you ought to try it again. That's just my opinion," she said, before leaving.

By 3:30 p.m., Dobkin began to pack up.

"I've got real mixed emotions. A lot of people said, 'Wow, that's a great idea,' but the bottom line is when you look at the numbers." And they weren't good. He lost his investment. Even the tent broke as he dismantled it.

For Dobkin, it's a war. Will his faith in his concept outweigh the failures of the day?

"I don't want to blame everything on the weather. That's not me," he said.

"The only problem is that I have so many ideas," he said. "I wish I had a million dollars so I could try them all."

But by Monday afternoon, Dobkin had made up his mind: If it was a good idea, it wasn't a good idea for him.

Even so, Dobkin said, he was glad he tried - even if only to keep later regrets at bay and affirm his self-image "entrepreneur - with guts."

"I'm glad I had the opportunity to do it," he said, "and the courage to move it forward."

 


Contact staff writer Jane M. Von Bergen at 215-854-2769 or jvonbergen@phillynews.com.