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Ideas | Tony Rehagen

Farewell to hot dog rollers and roadside chats: an elegy for the American gas station

A gas station at the corner of Old Colony Avenue and Dorchester Street in Boston.
A gas station at the corner of Old Colony Avenue and Dorchester Street in Boston. (Globe staff/file 1965)

WHEN I’M ON the road, it doesn’t matter what my fuel gauge says, how full my bladder is, or how heavy my eyelids are, I’m always looking for a gas station.

I pull in and compare the price of regular unleaded — rounded down to nine-tenths of a cent to pull in the penny-pinchers — to other numbers I’ve spotted on the trip, even if my tank is full. I do the same inside with cigarette prices, though I’ve never been a smoker. And I spend minutes perusing the snack racks, checking the cold case for house-made sandwiches, and taking a gander at the hot rollers for updates on the latest advances in tube-shaped foodstuffs, though I rarely indulge.

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These are just the habits of someone who grew up in a gas station. My father owned a rural convenience store in Miller County, Mo., from the time I was four years old. We either lived in a trailer right next door, or, later, in a house less than a quarter of a country mile down the road. As a child, I ran barefoot up and down the aisles between towering shelves of rainbow-colored packaging. The store was my early career, from emptying the garbage cans between the pumps, to loading boxes, to stocking the walk-in soda cooler — and finally, to working the register. I learned how to make change and small talk and ham-and-cheese sandwiches for the farmers in from the fields.

That world is beginning to fade into the rearview — and not just in my memory. In 1994, there were more than 200,000 gas stations in the United States. Today, that number is barely above 150,000, a drop of nearly 25 percent. More and more these days, I find myself driving past the ruins of these roadside beacons, windows empty or boarded up, signage stripped. The pumps and tanks have been removed; the canopy dark and riddled with holes.

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The loss is not entirely my own. Every day, nearly 40 million Americans gas up their vehicles. Gasoline purchases account for roughly 5 percent of yearly household spending. Gas stations are an unmistakable part of our cultural identity. We are a nation of motorists, explorers in Ray-Bans, free to steer our destinies along the shimmering highway or dusty gravel road in any direction — as long as there is fuel in the tank.

And it’s not just the petrol. These places are filling stations for the body, where tired drivers can replenish with water, caffeine, taurine, and nicotine or indulge in sugar or salt without judgment, because diets don’t apply here. They are bright bastions of commercialism, where you can sample the newest snacks, drinks, and supplements in no-commitment travel sizes. They are aid stations, for cleaning up spills, replacing wet and soiled clothing with a novelty t-shirt or foam-mesh hat, or asking for directions when the phone fails to account for local construction.

In many ways, the decline of these cultural icons is felt more acutely in the rural parts of the country. Sure, the gas station is just one more mom-and-pop store run out of business by the big-box and discount retailers. But when these places shutter in small towns, those communities lose more than just a local employer and taxpayer. In small-town America, the convenience store is the modern-day trading post, the only grocery store, coffee shop, bait shop, eatery, liquor store, or gathering place for miles around. It’s where farmers meet for coffee and gossip in the morning before heading out to work and where teenagers tailgate beneath the neon window signs in the evening.

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There is a wide range of reasons for the decline of this bit of Americana, from economic realities to advances in driving technology to tectonic shifts in our culture. Still, for better or worse, the glowing canopy and light-box signs, the floating fluorescent oasis on the highway’s horizon, is disappearing, and with it, a special part of our — and my — world.

EVEN WHEN I was old enough to take command of the register, my father was almost always somewhere nearby. He was there to intervene in case a customer wanted to buy alcohol (which, in Missouri, as in most states, you’re not supposed to sell until you’re 18), fix a malfunction with the credit card machine, or contextualize some piece of homespun country wisdom that might come from an opinionated patron.

A common topic would be the price of gas — almost always too high for the customer’s liking, whether they filled up or not. My dad would politely nod until the townsperson left, then as soon as the door closed behind them, remind me that we were hardly getting fat off the profits from petroleum. The market is notoriously volatile, with wholesale gas prices regularly seeing swings of 10 cents or more in a single day. After operating expenses like delivery and credit-card fees, retailers reap less than two cents from each dollar spent on gas.

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As if that constant fluctuation wasn’t hard enough for small owners to stomach, in the early 2000s, big-box retailers like Costco, Sam’s Club, and Walmart started muscling into the gas game. As with their retail model, these behemoths could buy fuel at massive volumes and endure the slimmest of margins, even selling gas at a loss to drive down prices and attract cars. One way independent operators have learned to compete is to own multiple outlets, allowing them to purchase fuel at bulk rates. But the practice can also lead to consolidation, reducing the overall number of stations.

Obviously, we didn’t make our living selling gas. Petrol was more the draw for customers to pull off the road, so we could sell them a Snickers, a sandwich, and maybe a 12-pack of Busch Light. Gas station owners make 60 percent of their profits on the Red Bulls and Red Vines that customers grab for the road on their way out. That’s even more of a reality for rural stations like ours, which can be the closest thing to a grocery store for dozens of miles. But today that segment of the business is crumbling before big-chain discount stores like Dollar Tree and Dollar General. The latter recently reported that 70 percent of its 15,000 stores are located in towns with fewer than 20,000 people, where they drive local gas station owners crazy by undercutting prices on the same soda, candy, beer, and cigarettes — the same model all big corporations have been using to squeeze out independent small business owners across the country.

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Urban gas stations have their own unique difficulties, chief among them the increasing value of land in cities. Developers tend to think vertically when building on a crowded and costly city block, and gas stations have never really evolved beyond a single-story enterprise. In 2008, there were 52 gas stations in Manhattan; by 2017, there were just 31. In cities across the country, gas stations are being bought up, torn down, and replaced by offices and condominiums.

Another economic challenge that all station owners face is increasing environmental and safety regulation. Every few years, it seems, my father was forced by the government to make costly upgrades to his pumps, tanks, and systems. And in the end, that was what finally drove him out of the business. He retired in 2015, at the age of 65.

Urban gas stations have their own unique difficulties, chief among them the increasing value of land in cities.
Urban gas stations have their own unique difficulties, chief among them the increasing value of land in cities. (Globe staff/file 1960)

IN SPITE OF my father’s frustration, I now see the safety measures as good news. After all, gas stations are peddling hundreds or thousands of gallons of toxic and flammable liquid every day. And despite all the economic challenges that gas station owners face, none of them are likely to be the principal reason for the institution’s demise. No, environmental concerns are what will kill off this particular business.

To be sure, Americans are driving hundreds of thousands more miles each month than we were a decade ago, and buying up more and more gas-guzzling trucks and SUVs. Nevertheless, fuel economy — even on those big vehicles — continues to improve. That means fewer pit stops for US motorists.

Of course, the goal for most environmentalists is to wipe out gasoline altogether. The number of electric vehicles (EVs) has almost tripled over the last five years, with sales up by 40 percent between 2017 and 2018 alone. That brought the total of electric cars on the road to nearly 900,000 as of last summer. A recent report from Morgan Stanley projected a possible 1 billion EVs out and about worldwide by 2050. Almost all of these vehicles require $550 or less in fuel costs each year. Add in the specter of self-driving vehicles, which will utilize a ride-sharing approach, and it’s not hard to see why even big-name petrol companies like BP are bracing for oil consumption’s peak and downturn — and with it, the golden years of gas stations — in the next 20 years.

It’s a reckoning that is probably long overdue. The same fumes that tinge my childhood reminiscences have been poisoning us and our earth all the while. And if those memories and that way of life need to go in service of saving our environment, then I’m glad we are all finally coming to that realization.

WITH APOLOGIES TO my father, even I have backslid in recent years. Wanting to save money and the environment, I’ve opted for a more fuel-efficient crossover to drive the family around. In a time of convenience, I’ll (on occasion) roll up to a pump at Wal-Mart. And I now regularly use my credit card to pay; my dad adamantly refused to install card readers on the pumps at his station, figuring they’d keep customers out by the car and away from the store.

But after I fuel up, even though I’ve paid for the gas, I’ll always go inside. I listen for the welcoming “ding” as I enter, nod to the cashier, and head to the back. I open the cooler door to feel the blast of artificial cold against my face. I always buy something, even if it’s just a pack of gum or a bottle of water. I pay in cash to spare the owner a credit fee. And I leave my pennies in the take-a-penny tray on the counter — a small way to pay it forward to the next road-weary motorist who wanders into this endangered roadside wonderland.

In cities across the country, gas stations are being bought up, torn down, and replaced by offices and condominiums.
In cities across the country, gas stations are being bought up, torn down, and replaced by offices and condominiums.(Elaine Thompson/AP/file 2014)

Tony Rehagen is a freelance writer based in St. Louis. Follow him on Twitter @trehagen.