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Archive for Friday, July 15, 2005

A dying breed still fully at your service

Gas station preserves piece of Americana

July 15, 2005

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Lawrence resident Elizabeth Peters pulled up to the gas pump and waited in her car.

Moments later, a man dressed in a blue work shirt and pants strolled out of an auto shop and walked up to her car window. They chatted briefly, and the man walked away to get to work. He pumped gas into Peters' car, cleaned the windshield, inspected the tire pressure and checked the oil.

"I work close by, and so I do come here for gas a lot," Peters said. "And I need help. I'm not mechanically inclined. So, when it's time for an oil check, I come by."

About once a month, Peters uses the full-service lane at Westside 66, 2815 W. Sixth. It's the only gas station in town that provides the option of full-service at the pump.

The tradition of full-service gas stations continues to lose traction in a society that apparently values speed and cheaper gas over service. Since the 1970s, full-service stations have steadily declined in Lawrence and across the U.S., with a few exceptions. Self-serve pumps are still banned by law in New Jersey and Oregon.

Paul Fiore, executive vice president of the Service Station Dealers of America, said his organization doesn't keep tabs on the number of full-service gas stations.

Mat Fuller washes the back window for a customer while filling up the car with gasoline at Westside 66 gas station at Sixth Street and Schwarz Road on Thursday. The service station is the only full-service gas station in town, where workers fill the car with fuel, wash windows, check the oil and check and inflate the tires.

Mat Fuller washes the back window for a customer while filling up the car with gasoline at Westside 66 gas station at Sixth Street and Schwarz Road on Thursday. The service station is the only full-service gas station in town, where workers fill the car with fuel, wash windows, check the oil and check and inflate the tires.

"But anecdotally, we know there are very few," he said. "The vast majority of stations - even the ones with repair facilities - don't have full-service pumps anymore. You can usually find a handful of them in metropolitan areas, and I'm not sure how much of a demand there is for them in rural locations."

But Westside 66 owner Richard Haig said he couldn't imagine his operation just providing self-serve pumps. Haig has worked at the station, which includes an auto shop, for about 24 years. He began managing the station in 1985 and took over as the owner of the station last year.

"It feels good to offer full-service," he said. "We're more like a neighborhood store here. A lot of our customers we know by name, and they know us. I just feel very strong about keeping full-service as an option."

An extra cost

Two of the eight gas pumps at Westside 66 are dedicated to full-service. The remaining six are self-service pumps. The full-service pumps account for about 20 percent of gas sales at the station, and it usually costs about 30 cents more a gallon to use them, Haig said.

For some, that extra 30 cents a gallon is a small price to pay.

"They do a great job of making sure I've got oil and cleaning my windshields," said Lawrence resident Chris Chapin, who said he's been filling up his car at the station for years. "They do all the service work on my vehicles, too."

Several customers use the service to make sure their vehicles are working well, Haig said. He also said a lot of elderly people who need help use the full-service pumps, as well as people dressed up and not wanting to get dirty or smell like gas.

Haig said he would save money if he ditched the full-service pumps. Having them requires at least two people working at all times. Most gas stations are also convenience stores with just one clerk working per shift.

When Haig took over as manager of the station about 20 years ago, the company wanted to get rid of the full-service lanes and car wash and turn the place into a larger convenience store.

Full-service gas stations like this one of yesteryear at 19th and Massachusetts streets have mostly gone the way of the dinosaur.

Full-service gas stations like this one of yesteryear at 19th and Massachusetts streets have mostly gone the way of the dinosaur.

"But we fought against it and won that battle," he said. "It was worth doing. Service is important. I just feel like if you take care of your customers, your customers will take care of you."

Haig said, based on Phillips 66 gas card sales, his business has one of the highest rates of return customers in the area.

A lost art

Westside 66 looks like a modern-day station. Many times, people aren't even aware of the full-service lane, though it is clearly marked. They stop by the pumps only to be greeted by a service worker.

"We also have people who cut through the lot and drive over our line that sets off the bell," Haig said.

Back in their heyday, people could easily recognize which stations belonged to what companies from more than a sign.

"Service stations were this kind of roadside architecture of the country, and that was a phenomenon," said Virgil Dean, a historian and editor of "Kansas History," a historical magazine published by the Kansas State Historical Society. "There were signatures for a particular brand of gas, like Mobil or Phillips or Sinclair. You could tell by the colors used and the building styles which company owned the station. They were quite distinctive."

Some of those qualities can still be seen in surviving buildings. A former gas station at the intersection of Ninth and Indiana was renovated to resemble a Marland service station, which was the building's first user in 1927.

Other stations died out completely.

"There were 17 full-service stations when I started here," Haig said.

Dane Harris checks the oil for a customer at Westside 66 Thursday. The station offers full service, which can include checking the oil and tires, washing the windows as well as filling the car with fuel.

Dane Harris checks the oil for a customer at Westside 66 Thursday. The station offers full service, which can include checking the oil and tires, washing the windows as well as filling the car with fuel.

He can rattle off a list of locations where full-service gas stations once thrived in Lawrence. Some were turned into convenience stores. Others are gone completely.

"There used to be one on Sixth Street across from where Quick's Barbecue is - you know where that strip mall is with the Subway," he said. "There was one where the Walgreens is on 23rd and Iowa."

The list goes on and on.

Full-service gas stations began dying out during the energy crisis in the late 1970s. The federal government capped gas prices, Haig said. Many companies quit offering full-service pumps and became convenience stores.

Dean, a Lawrence resident, said full-service gas stations have been on a rapid decline in the past 15 to 20 years. Dean worked at full-service gas stations while attending Emporia State University for his undergraduate and master's degrees in the late 1960s and in the late 1970s.

"The first one I worked at was during a time when the gas prices really fluctuated," Dean said. "Part of that was because of these Kwik Shop type places. One of them opened not far from the station where I worked."

Full-service filling stations were once the norm, such as this store which was located at Sixth and Kentucky streets.

Full-service filling stations were once the norm, such as this store which was located at Sixth and Kentucky streets.

The convenience store often was able to offer lower gas prices than the full-service station where Dean worked. That made business difficult, he said.

"I'm not sure why people decided they would rather wash their own windshields, but the decision was made at some point," Dean said. "I think, initially, people decided to pump their own gas because they could save some money and gas prices went up. I also think it became less and less common for stations to employ people."

Dean admits that most of the time he pays at the pump with his credit card. Most of the time, he doesn't even wash his windshield.

Despite an ever-increasing number of people with similar habits, Haig said he would continue to provide full-service in Lawrence.

"I like helping people," he said. "This is a way I can help."

Comments

martyoz 9 years, 3 months ago

I stopped at a BP station in southern Missouri on a recent vacation. An attendent there was roaming the fillup lanes, cleaning windshields. It brought back childhood memories of full service gas stations. I also tipped the kid, a practice I never remember during my days growing up in Hutchinson.

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samsnewplace 9 years, 3 months ago

It is so nice that this is still available, especially for our elderly folks that still drive. Brings back alot of memories because this was the way it use to be. More jobs for people and it was a service to the community, I wonder if it will make a come-back? Good article.

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