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When I rode bike across the country in the first half of the 1980s, I would often stop at gas stations, to fill my water bottles, and to buy a can of cold soda from the vending machines that were almost always out front by the gas pumps.

 

Gas Station, North Carolina, 1983

 

At that time, a gas station had two or three gas pumps, (one for each grade of gasoline), a coke machine, maybe a vending machine with few candy bars, and an owner/mechanic who could fix a tire or replace a fan belt.   As a child, I remember when a service station attendant would come out of the gas station to pump the gas—most stations had a rubber hose across the front that would ring a bell to let the attendant know that there was a customer out front.  My dad usually paid cash for the gas, handing the attendant a few bills, getting change back, often from a metal coin holder on the attendant’s belt.  I don’t think my dad had a credit card then, but when credit cards did come along, the transaction required a paper form that would take an imprint of the card, and required a signature on paper.   Sometimes the attendant would offer to check the oil, or clean the windshield.   Mostly the gas station attendants were high school kids—the mechanic was often busy working on cars inside the garage.

 

Richmond, Indiana, 1981

 

I can’t remember when gas stations became mostly self service—I think it was about when I began to drive—and a big part of the reason we didn’t need attendants anymore was the advent of the auto shut-off valve that cut the gas flow when the tank was full.  The self service station meant that a single attendant could manage more gas pumps while sitting next to a cash register.  At the beginning of the self service age, you had to pre-pay for the gas—the pump would shut down when you hit your limit—or leave your credit card with the attendant.

 

Eastern Oregon, 1985

I recall the evolution of the convenience stores back in Pennsylvania—Turkey Hill started small stores to directly market milk and ice cream to customers—over time they added junk food and packaged sandwiches.  I recall when they first added gas pumps to their new stores—they needed a larger lot to handle the extra cars.  In the beginning, you needed to go to the clerk to pay for the gas at the pump, which often meant standing in line behind people buying cigarettes and lotto tickets.  The advent of the credit card pump meant that you didn’t even have to enter the store to get your gas.

 

Florida Panhandle, January 2020

Florida Panhandle, January 2020

 

On the trip my wife and I took in December and January, we bought gas at convenience stores almost exclusively.  In the mornings, we bought coffee on the same stop.  In most of these places, the coffee stand is huge—lots of choices of fresh coffee, plenty of cream to add.  Sometimes we bought a breakfast sandwich from the hot deli.  In the Midwest, the chain we used was Casey’s, in the south it is Circle K.  The Circle K stores have coffee machines with computer interfaces that grind beans and brew the coffee fresh into the cup, a far superior product compared to the aged and burned coffee from the glass pots of years ago.

 

Gatesville, Texas, January 2020

 

Illinois, December 2019

 

In the smallest towns there are now unattended gas stations (locally known as “kiosks”)—gas stations that require a credit card, and have no attendants.  These gas stations sell only fuel—no oil, no coffee, no candy bars.

 

Mississippi, January 2020

 

Occasionally, there are problems at a gas station—like when the credit card reader doesn’t work.  My response is usually to drive off—why reward a station with business when they can’t keep their pumps running.  And on this last trip, I had a gas pump where the auto shut-off failed to work—I was adding oil to the engine—and several gallons of gas spilled on the ground.  When I told the attendant about the spill he brought out three absorbent pads—not nearly enough to absorb the spill—I left as quickly as possible—wanted to get away before a fire started.

 

Texas, January 2020

 

Driving across the landscape, it’s apparent that in most places, the small independent gas station is gone as a functioning businesses.  The ruins of old gas stations dot the landscape.  Some have been converted into other businesses—coffee shops or antique stores—and a few have become tire shops—but the mechanic running a gas station is mostly gone.   One reason why the old gas stations have disappeared is the problem of leaking underground gas tanks from these small gas stations.  Typically, a steel tank will rust out after a few decades, releasing gasoline into the local water table—not a good idea—so the EPA began requiring double walled tanks for underground storage.  However, the investment required to dig up the old tanks and replace them with the new ones is significant—which provided the opportunity for consolidation of the market.

 

Abandoned Gas Station, somewhere in America, 2019

 

 

 

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