THIS IS ABOUT a gas station. Specifically, it is about our gas station, known formally as the Kirby Road Texaco, which over the past 10 or 12 years has played a fairly vital role in the survival of our family. It has, through gas shortages and busted mufflers and snowstorms and heat waves, kept the cars running. When you work in the city and live in Virginia, that is no small matter.
But our station has been much more. It has been an oasis from the corporate grab of America. Here was still a place where people knew your name when you called for an appointment, and where they recognized you when you pulled up for gas or found a terrifying leak under the hood. Here was a place where you were still dealing with people and not computers, and where a woman could take a car with a funny sounding muffler and be pretty sure she would come out with a new muffler and not a new exhaust system. It was a gas station that let the 4-year-old ride in the tow truck and that didn't rip you off.
But now the owner, Shirrell Moore, has decided to go out of business. For him, there's no money in oil anymore.
This is not some spur-of-the-moment decision, some protest against yet another tax on gasoline. He's been thinking about going out of business for the past year or so, ever since his profit margin started declining. Moore, father of three and modern-day small businessman, has found out that long hours, hard work and a fair deal aren't enough to succeed in business anymore.
Moore left construction work during a bad year in the mid-60s and got a job pumping gas. A year and a half later, when the Texaco station became available, he decided to go into business for himself. That was 1968, when gas was cheap, and he kept his station open 14 hours a day on weekdays, 10 hours on Saturdays and 7 hours on Sundays. Moore built a business with the philosophy that, as he says it, "you should do a dollar's work for a dollar."
"When the car leaves here," he says, "I want it to be right. I want a good job done if it's coming out of my shop at a fair price."
When the first gas shortage occurred in 1973, he shortened his hours. "You could sell your allocation in a couple hours, do the repair work and close at six." It was, says Moore, his most profitable time.
By this past winter, he was employing two mechanics plus himself in the two-bay station, two part-time people in the afternoons and an attendant who ran the tow truck. Until the past two months, he was pumping 24,000 gallons of gasoline a month, which was his allocation. He was grossing at least 13 cents a gallon, which was enough to pay rent to Texaco for the station, utilities and labor costs of attendants to pump gas.
Then a series of things happened that convinced Moore the ballgame was over. In May, Texaco gave him a new three-year lease that raised his rent and made him responsible for maintenance of the buidling, including plumbing, which had previously been Texaco's reponsibility. In July, the state tax on gasoline went up to two cents, statewide, and an additional 2 percent in Northern Virginia to help pay for Metro. That, Moore says, is one of the things he is bitter about: "Basically we're subsidizing Metro, which is a competitor."
While all of this was going on, his gasoline sales were dropping. They were down 30 percent during the past two months. Moore thinks some of this has to do with the discount gas chains owned by the oil companies. They can sell gasoline for less because it doesn't go through a retailer like Shirrell Moore. The same day Moore was selling regular for $1.27.8 a gallon, a nearby discount station was selling it for $1.19. His sales are now down to between 16,000 and 18,000 gallons a month. Because of the new taxes, he is grossing only 8.9 cents a gallon now instead of 13, which is enough to pay the rent on the station but not the untilities or the attendants who pump the gas. He cannot increase his sale volume -- and his profits -- because he cannot increase his allocation.
Moore believes that the era of full-service gasoline and repair stations is ending. "I think probably in a couple of years, the only thing you'll have is gas-and-go and convenience stores where they sell gas. As for automotive repair, you'll have small individual shops and your dealerships."
Moore says the consumers will, in the long run, suffer. They won't get the preventive maintenance they can still get now when they stop gasoline -- the funny noises inspected, the check to see if the battery is dry, the look under the hood that might spot something about to go wrong.
Shirrell Moore doesn't know what he's going to do. He is looking for a buyer and he wants out.He figures he'll take a 30 percent pay cut in whatever else he does, but he also figures that whatever else he does can be done in a 40-hour week. So maybe, for him, it's a good thing.
But it's not for us.