Auto shop

Illicit auto shop in Oakland parking lot has fans and critics

It’s a sweltering day in East Oakland, and Rene Roche pulls his 1999 Chrysler Concorde sedan into the parking lot of an auto parts store in downtown Eastmont.

Her air conditioner broke down and she doesn’t have the hundreds of dollars she fears it would cost to pay an auto mechanic to replace a tube and top up the freon. So she turns to a stranger in the parking lot fixing cars in front of the AutoZone store.

“Can you help me?” Roche said to the man, gesturing to the $60 bottle of Freon she just bought.

The man – who calls himself Solo Bolo, street slang for a lone wolf – grabs his wheeled bag containing keys, spark plugs and screwdrivers, walks to his car, opens the bonnet and gets to work . The cost of labor? $20.

Almost every day except Sunday, Bolo or a team of three or four other men work under the hoods of cars, vans and trucks in the parking lot at 73rd and Bancroft Avenues. Drivers buy the parts at AutoZone, and for a few dollars, their oil tank is filled, the fuses changed or the taillight replaced.

For a few dollars more, a motorist can get a new water pump, timing belt, or oil change. If things get really serious, motorists drive to an isolated location where their cars can be lifted to replace brakes or carry out transmission work.

“I can do anything,” says George, a man in his 40s who said he’s been fixing cars on the black market for 14 years. “Change the heads, your alternator, the fuel tanks.”

The men see themselves as entrepreneurs, struggling to make ends meet in a part of Oakland where the youth unemployment rate is around 35%.

But the city and neighbors consider them a nuisance.

Desley Brooks, the councilwoman who represents the area, said she was working with police, AutoZone and landlords in downtown Eastmont to halt repairs to the parking lot.

“There is no quality control when it comes to the services they provide,” Brooks said. “And I would venture to say that we get no tax revenue from what they provide.”

Almost since the AutoZone opened in 2005, mechanics have been flocking to the area, Brooks said.

“It doesn’t appear that this activity is happening in any other AutoZone in the city,” Brooks said. “It feels like a meeting place as opposed to a place that welcomes community members.”

State law requires mechanics doing commercial work to have licenses — and while it’s not uncommon for car owners to ask friends and acquaintances to repair their cars at garages or outside of homes, it is unusual for a black market to be so open. Violation of the law results in an administrative fine of $5,000 or up to six months in jail.

In March, the city council voted to paint the curbs near the store red, so men couldn’t lift cars onto the street.

Bolo, George and the others moved to the parking lot.

Now the places in the parking lot are dirty with grease. A few empty oil bottles lie in the bushes. When there are no cars to work on, the group hangs out, chatting and smoking cigarettes.

AutoZone spokesman Ray Pohlman said store workers couldn’t stop people from working on cars in the parking lot.

“We complied with all the regulations that the City of Oakland asked us to do,” Pohlman said.

Bolo, 31, said he learned how to fix cars at WyoTech, a mechanics school. Sometimes his day starts around 8:00 a.m., when the store opens, and ends around 9:30 p.m., a little before the store closes. On good days, Bolo says, he makes $500.

Ken Hoskins, 49, of East Oakland, brought a few of his cars to the parking lot for repair.

“They take care of their car like it’s their own,” Hoskins said as Bolo replaced a blown taillight bulb. “The mechanics at the store, they’ll jerk you off, make you spend more and more money. I’d rather come and help these brothers, they’re trying to feed their families, they’re doing what they have to do to survive.”