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Free services too costly to give away

By Ricky Swindle

Muffler Shop Musings


Howdy, friends!

We have been overrun at our store these pandemic months, doing our best to help folks take care of their vehicles in this crazy time.

My Mamaw Quebel Swindle always told me “Son, treat folks right and The Lord’s gonna bless you.” I truly believe that.

I am blessed with a good young crew, a mechanically gifted and educated brother, and a daughter who spent every moment possible the first 14 years of her life with my Daddy. She has the same talent of knowing how to communicate and deal with people as he did.

We have always believed in family and teamwork at our store.

As busy as we have been, there are folks that we could not get to at times; and trust me when I tell you that it was not from lack of trying.

Some neighbors tend to get a little upset because they do not understand the reasoning of why you can’t stop a man that is working to simply put a little air in their tire.

Today’s musing will enlighten some, and remind most of the history of the prehistoric dinosaur known as “The Service Station.”

In the early days of automobiles people would have to visit a blacksmith shop, a general store, or some other location to buy a can of gasoline to put in their fuel tank.

Later, in the early 1900’s, a business model was introduced by the oil company Shell to have a service station – a place where automobile owners could pull up under a canopy to be shielded from the elements, and be waited on by an attendant who would pump their gas for them.

Along with the gas sales, the service station offered free air tires, water for the radiator, a check of your oil and other fluids, and cleaning of the windshield for drivers.

All this was included in the price of that one-time gasoline purchase you made that day.

This system worked perfectly for decades.

I know the system and the business model well because this is how my brother and I were raised. It was not by choice mind you. We were just fortunate enough to grow up in a day and age with parents that believed hard work would get you anything you desired.

Daddy worked at service stations all around this area, and he liked the occupation.

I remember being a young boy, not even school age, when he worked maintenance at Sardis Luggage Company during the days and then straight to work at Mr. Dale Moore’s Union 76 where Walgreens is located today.

Momma would cook supper, load us boys up, and take him a plate up there to eat every night.

Around 1969 he acquired the service station that is across the street from the Batesville Courthouse.

During the early 1970’s he not only ran that one, but also Mr. Huron Smith let him have the station that was across the street from the theater, and Mr. O.T. Marshall let him run his station where the late Judge Bill Mckenzie’s law office is now.

He ran all three at the same time.

Growing up around service stations taught a lot of life lessons to a young boy. You learned extremely fast that the words you heard and the things you perceived as humorous at the station did not have the same comedic effect at home in the presence of your Pentecostal mother.

I pumped a lot of gas back in those days. I have aired up more tires than most folks have seen. I have scrubbed bugs off windshields while a demanding older lady would point from the inside of her car to the one bug I missed.

I have been scalded by hot radiators removing the caps to add water, and have burnt my fingers on hot oil dipsticks. All for the price of that percentage of a gallon of gasoline that was sold.

Many great service station men came before me. At one time, on every corner  there was a full service gas station where all of the above was performed for that exact same fee, the percentage of a gallon of gasoline.

Every now and then you could sell a quart of oil, fix a flat, wash a car, or do some other service that would pay you a little bit more. That was fine and well until you heard the ding of the bell from the hose out front alerting you that another customer was at the pump, and someone better be standing there to sell that gas.

There was once a popular commercial on television advertising the Vickers Service Stations with a skinny guy and a chubby guy racing to cross the station lot trying to reach that customer first.

We had Tom’s and Lance candy/nab machines, Coke machines with drinks so cold they hurt your teeth, cigarette machines and all the likes. The vendors would run the routes and pay Daddy his percentage of their take, just to pick up a few more coins to add to the month’s total.

Daddy had full time folks working full time jobs all over those stations and taking care of business.

Then, in the late 1970’s a new and even greater gasoline selling business model introduced by the oil companies was born, and still exists and thrives today – The Convenience Store.

A half grocery store, half café all in one, with gas pumps under canopies. A place that was convenient. A person can run in and out, get a drink, a candy bar, a pack of smokes, a 6 pack and chicken. Hot, juicy Southern Fried Chicken.

But how do we get the public to come to our convenience store? How can we draw them in? The answer was to cut the price of gasoline ten, fifteen, twenty cents a gallon or more.

So, regular folks just being human decided they could save money on gas by just pumping it themselves and even get some chicken, too, while they were there.

The service station owner had to let a few guys go because his gas sales were steadily declining. He cut his price some and spent money advertising the fact that all the perks of full service gas stations were still available for a few pennies more at the pump, but to no avail.

Then folks would fill up at the convenience store and drive over the hose with the dinging bell at the full service station and request the free air, water, fluids check, and windshield cleaning services so they could be on their way.

The service station owner was losing all the way around.

Then one day the service station owner decides to try something different,  and takes down his canopy and removes his money losing pumps.

He invests major money in equipment for tires, brakes, mufflers, tune-ups and all other sorts of specialty services to keep himself afloat.

He hires auto technicians, because the occupation of the service station man is obsolete now.

He still remembers and takes care of his loyal customers, and continues doing and checking everything on their vehicles for them as always, but then he has his busy days, his money days, the days he counts on to pay those technicians, the bank, the equipment lease company, taxes and (oh,my) that Garage Liability Insurance Policy that he better have before he opens his doors.

And on those days, he may not be able to afford to stop a technician that is working on a paying customer’s vehicle to check the air in a person’s tires.

It is not that he does not want to, it is simple economics that he can’t afford to pay the price of a full time salary for an antiquated service station man that produces zero profit.

The next time your tire light comes on, and you pull into any shop anywhere, try to practice a little patience. Those working folks at that shop will help you, it may just take a little bit or so to get to you.

You can always stop by the convenience store and buy a piece of that good fried chicken to nibble on while you wait. (Just joking about that).

Take care of yourself, folks, and always remember patience is a virtue, Especially in the times we are living in these days.

Write to Ricky Swindle at rickyswindle@bellsouth.net