Episode No 4 / Gias Talukder

This car dealership is a hub for Detroit’s Bengali community.

February 27 / 2020 Article by Serena Maria Daniels, Photography by Ali Lapetina

Gias Talukder

Bengal Auto Sales

Growing up in an immigrant household can present a unique set of challenges. Whether it’s helping a parent fill out important paperwork, translating for a teacher at school, or figuring out how to pay a parking ticket, it’s often the responsibility of the children of immigrants to help their parents navigate in American society.

Mohammad Hoque knows these challenges well. Born in Bangladesh, the 20-year-old who moved to the U.S. as a child often had to figure things out for his family. And when you don’t know the answer yourself, it’s crucial to reach out to folks who understand the struggle.

Which is why he turns to his car dealer, Gias Uddin Talukder.

“I look up to him in a way like an uncle,” says Hoque. “If you understand Bengali culture, like most people, they’re independent. They are in their own world, they don’t trust people easily.”

Though a neighborhood car dealer may seem like an unlikely source of community support, Talukder has earned his neighbors’ trust over the years he’s owned and operated Bengal Auto Sales in Hamtramck. He’s become known within the diaspora as a sort of ambassador, someone who connects people with tools and resources.

“Here, I want to be known to people not just as a business man… I don’t act like a business man,” says Talukder. “When they come to me for a car, I ask them if they’re from Bangladesh. I ask them, ‘What city are you from?’ I have a conversation, make them feel calm. My typical day is not always about a car. People know that if you go to Gias he helps in different directions.”

The key to his success is that he can relate with the many headaches that his mostly Bangladeshi clientele have dealt with as immigrants.

And it all started in 2010 when he tried to buy a car for one of his brothers who relocated to the states.

But before we get to that, it’s worth mentioning that Talukder immigrated to the United States in 1998, first settling in New York. He started taking vocational courses to become a pharmacy technician and received his work visa when he got a job at a Dunkin Donuts in New Jersey.

But his family needed help, and he began sending money back to Bangladesh. After a while, going to school part time while working just didn’t make sense, so he dropped out and got a job at a pharmacy, a job he would continue doing for the next 10 years.

He moved back to Bangladesh briefly in 2007 to get married and figure out his next steps. When he returned to the U.S., he decided to skip New York and move to Florida, where a friend was already living.

By then, Talukder says, he wasn’t really happy with the thought of working for someone else.

“I never wanted to be a job person. I don’t like being scheduled. I want to be a freewheeler. So that’s the only way, you know, having your own business,” he says.

At the same time, his brother joined him in Florida, so it was Talukder who was tasked with finding him transportation. Only thing is, he’d never owned a car before. He didn’t have one in his youth living in Bangladesh and India, and he certainly didn’t need one in New York. He had no idea what he should be looking for. So blindly, he searched Craigslist until he came across something that fit his budget and looked fine enough.

The deal went through easily, except for one problem: Talukder and his brother didn’t realize until after the fact that there was a hole in the roof.

“I only found out about it after a week when it started raining,” says Talukder.

So Talukder went back to Craigslist and listed the car for what he originally paid. He figured he could get rid of it and use the money to find something else. What he wasn’t expecting was for his phone to ring nonstop with buyers looking to purchase the hole riddled car. Encouraged by the response, he took down the ad and reposted it with a higher asking price. The calls didn’t slow down and he ended up selling the vehicle for $500 more than what he originally paid for it.

That’s when he had a lightbulb moment. His path from worker to business owner would be in auto sales.

He borrowed $20,000 from friends and family to get started. A friend took him to the car auctions, where he bought his first batch of cars for sale. But in the early days, he encountered a lot of the same drama he faced with his first purchase. Without knowing anything about cars or what to ask, Talukder would end up buying something and, most of the time, he had to tow it off the auction lot because it didn’t even run.

With time, he learned those lessons and began to think about ways to take his business to the next level.

On to Hamtramck

The Bengali community in Detroit and Hamtramck dates back to the 1960s, though its growth took off in the early 1990s. As new arrivals settled in, many folks turned to those who were more established to help them land jobs in small manufacturing plants, help them apply for drivers licenses, and set them up with housing.

Today, some 6,000 Bangladeshi-Americans call Wayne County home. In the past few years, Detroit city leaders have announced revitalization efforts around the area known as Banglatown — centered mostly on Conant Street between the Detroit and Hamtramck borders. Initiatives include redeveloping a vacant Catholic school into apartments, razing abandoned homes, and improving commercial corridors.

Within the community, however, Bengali residents have long engaged in resident-driven efforts to bolster the area’s existing and thriving businesses and more recently have taken steps to get more involved in local politics. In fact, Talukder ran an unsuccessful bid for Hamtramck City Council in 2017.

When Talukder arrived in 2012, though, he didn’t really know any of this. Rather, it wasn’t until he researched, “states with the highest demand for used cars” that he happened upon Michigan. Turns out, the state’s broken roads and bad weather drive Michiganders to be in a near constant cycle of buying used vehicles whenever their old ones fall apart. So he and his wife packed up, loaded the last of his inventory onto a truck, and headed to Metro Detroit.

It’s only when he arrived that he realized the potential.

Right away, he drew from his own unpleasant experiences with purchasing cars to cater specifically to other Bengalis, slowly working to build their trust. Sometimes that meant selling a car for less than what he paid, knowing that the customer had children who would need wheels of their own in a few years, or that once they wore out one car, they would surely come back for another.

He also took note of the many festivals and carnivals held within the area’s Bengali community. When an organizer for, say, the annual Bangladeshi Festival would ask for sponsorship, instead of handing over cash, he agreed to hold a raffle where he would give away one of the cars off his lot to one lucky winner. For a couple of dollars, a person could buy a ticket, maybe win a car. It put Bengal Auto Sales on their radar.

This approach worked, even if he was underselling or giving away his stock. He was in it for the long haul.

“That doesn’t always make me money, but it made me earn trust,” says Talukder.

It’s paid off. In 2018, he was recognized by the nonprofit Hamtramck Community Initiative as Business Leader of the Year for his work, not just as an entrepreneur but for his efforts to use his position of privilege to uplift his community.

These days, Talukder is looking forward to opening a much larger lot on Joseph Campau Ave., and he takes his role as de facto community advisor seriously. On any given day, people file into his cramped office with questions, not entirely related to the cars he sold them. Maybe it’s a question about property taxes, where to find a house rental, or the best options for car insurance. He also organizes volunteers to help keep the city clean, from picking up trash to plowing snow on business corridors.

Which leads us back to Hoque.

His father had years ago lived in New York and knew Talukder. In Hamtramck, they wound up reconnecting. When it was time for Hoque to think about buying a car, he turned to Talukder with just a few hundred dollars and asked him if he could help him. Instead of turning him away, Talukder asked him about his situation. The younger man explained some financial troubles and that he needed a reliable vehicle to get him to work. Talukder suggested an early 2000s Lexus and made arrangements so Hoque could pay him and focus on getting on the right track financially.

On a recent dreary January afternoon, Hoque was back in Talukder’s office, but it wasn’t his car that he wanted to discuss. He needed advice about a parking ticket he recently received and the elder Talukder was the first person who came to mind to help him figure out what to do about it.

Sure enough, Talukder knew what to say and sent Hoque on his way.

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