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This 1961 Ford F-100 with Esso gas front license plate belongs to Mike Mixon. In its heyday, Esso stations were all over the South and came with attendants who would check your oil for you. Jim Parker/Staff

So I walked into a gas station recently for a cup of coffee. OK, I admit that just across the street there was a high-end mocha, krappa, frappa, latte place — but I just wanted coffee.

This particular station definitely sold gas, but that was clearly only part of the business plan.

In addition to the beer garden and racks of beef jerky, near the coffee bar was a a full-blown kitchen. They had already cleaned-up the grill from earlier breakfast orders. Hamburgers and cheeseburgers now were available along with pizza that had just come out of the oven.

The goal was very clear. If this store could offer something to eat while you were pumping gas, why would there be any need to swing into the drive-thru window just down the street for the Number 1 Combo? And if there were flavored squirt bottles to enhance the coffee, why would anybody need to fight traffic across the road to satisfy a desire for a $4 coffee-fix?

It was then I realized just how much things have changed since the days of the corner gas station.

Gas-tires-oil

I clearly remember the move to self-service stations where you pumped your own gas. At the time, that was a major adjustment.

No longer would the tire wheels activate a signal bell alerting the attendant to your arrival.

Sinclair, Esso, Gulf...anybody remember those names and their colorful signs?

Families often ran these corner gas stations. No doubt, you may still recall the patriarch who manned the pump.

In North Charleston, in my teen-aged years, it was the McCants station on Montague and the Still station near the high school. In downtown, Mr. Jennings oversaw his shop and on James Island it was the Coker's.

The same hands that one minute were installing a distributor cap would also a little later make change at the register.

Remember those working hands? Grease in every dried and wrinkled crevice. And dirt and oil under every fingernail.

Those hands turned the key to open the front door every morning and flipped the switch to turnout the lights when the last customer left the garage at night.

Those hands often went into their own pockets to loan money or establish a line of credit for customers in need.

That same owner might sponsor a little league team or serve as an usher at church on Sundays.

Fill’er up?

We lost something when those corner stations closed. Even though they didn’t stock near the inventory as today’s convenience stores, they provided something else.

It was more than a bottle of orange soda, kept on ice, in a corner cooler. It was more than the attendant who hustled to wipe the windshield.

It was more than the ever-present shop rag in the back pocket or the smell of gas on every dollar bill that was exchanged.

There was a sense of community and a pride in providing dependable service.

We’ll never return to attendants checking the tire pressure or being advised that the oil is a quart low. That’s no longer a viable business model. Besides, there are specialty shops that provide those services now.

It would be nice, though, to see a return to being proud of providing customer service. That’s a business model that never goes out of style, no matter what’s being sold.

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Reach Warren at peperwarren@gmail.com

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