by Jeff Woodburn
WHITEFIELD –Brad Lufkin can remember when he had to compete with 5-full service gas stations in Whitefield. Now, he is the only one in town, and one of only two full service auto repair station left in Coos County. Self service stations with convenience stores have grown so popular that they are threatening the very existence of old style filling stations that provided services from windshield wiping to the local news. All told there are only 3 gas stations– Lufkin’s Service Station in Whitefield, Lemieux Garage, Inc., in Colebrook and Munce’s in Berlin — that pump gas for their customers.
Gas stations are struggling despite the high gas prices because their margins are slim, competition is stiff, regulations are strict, upgrades are costly and credit card fees are high. Many sell gas as a way to attract customers to their higher margin goods or services. The age-old gas station offered gas, but was really in the business of repairing automobiles. That was the model followed by Scott Lambert, owner of P & L Auto, on North Main Street in Lancaster, who recently closed his full service Sunoco gas station, but remains in the auto repair business. Lambert, who leases the building from Falcon Petroleum, said, ““Self service is taking a lot of the profit away. (I have) to pay the help (to pump gas.)” He says that if he is only 1 or 2 cents greater than his competitors he’ll lose business. But, what really forced him to close was the requirement to replace the old oil storage tanks. He estimates the cost for new tanks is from $100,000 to $150,000.
“You’d be surprised at the number of people who don’t know how to pump gas,” said Lambert. This leaves his customers—many of whom are elderly literally out in the cold, ice or rain trying to pump their own gas and figure out how to operate the complicated automated systems that vary from station to station. It also means lots of walking back and forth between the car and cashier, as well as waiting in check out lines. Not only that, Mr. Lambert says his customers will miss the social connections that are the hallmark of small towns. “I really think that we’ll be missed,” he said, “the ‘personable-ness’ is gone.”
Lambert is not alone. Many old style gas stations are being closed or converted into convenient stores often with food service. For forty-years, Dean Blanchette, of Lancaster, has been the guy to see in the North Country about commercial fuel tanks and pumps. He has also watched the steady decline of old style filling stations. Up until the late 1970s, he recalls “everyone who had a gas station worked on cars. That’s all there were.” Back then, he said, it was typical that the buildings, tanks and pumps were owned by big oil corporations and lucrative commissions and incentives were provided to operators based upon volume of gas sold. Banchette remembers the first self-service station in the area,”everyone thought they were crazy.” The idea took off, he said, and great “change (was) forced upon the small, full service stations.”
“I guess it’s going out the door with dinosaur,” said Richard Cote, who runs the state Division of Weights and Measures. He out to know, it is his department that insures the accuracy of the 2,800 gas pump measuring devices. Of the 800 New Hampshire businesses that sell fuel, most are self service convenient stores, he adds. “The few full service stations that exist have been service stations for generations.” The trend worries historic preservation leaders. The remaining full service stations build community and preserve tradition, said Linda Wilson, Deputy Preservation Officer at the State’s Division of Historical Resources. “They create a place for people to come together and create (social) connections… and invest in their local communities.”
The 3 remaining stations that offer full service in Coos County are deeply rooted in tradition. When asked why they pump gas for their customers, Robbie Munce, who grandfather opened the station in 1968 on Pleasant Street in Berlin, answers “We always have. It is just the way we’ve always done it.” Munce’s is not simply nostalgic throw back. They are formidable enterprise with 200 employees and nearly 2 dozen stores throughout New Hampshire. Berlin is their oldest and only location that offers full service gas. The location offers a convenient store, but does not repair cars. It is a service that the people of Berlin want, said Mr. Munce, and are willing to pay 2 cents more per gallon than their closes competitor. Munce’s hires high school students to pump gas, wash windows, check oil and tire levels. Robbie Munce grew up pumping gas and said, “It’s an easy job, but it takes initiative. When it’s nasty weather people don’t want to pump their own gas.” He recalls once it was so cold that he saw “gasoline gel.” He credits the experience with the basics of running a good service oriented business. Munce, an Anglophone, had to learn to “make change in French.” The service station was the local social center, he said, we were the “first to know the scores of the hockey games that were out of town,” and people came not only to get gas, but also the news.
Pauline Limieux’s family has been in the gas business in Colebrook since 1934. She is the vital link between the past and the present. She is presently owns Limieux Garage, Inc. with her son. They fix cars and also are snowmobile dealers. When asked about the distinction of being one of the last remaining full service stations, she responds: “I don’t know how long we’ll be able to do it,” but then she turns very practical, “the pumps aren’t set up for automatic. Can’t put in a credit card.” She says her customers seem to like “to know the person that pumps their gas,” and often “like to pass words.” Mrs. Lemieux also noted that some customers’ dogs have come to expect a treat from the pocket of the long-time attendant.
Back in Whitefield, Lufkin’s Service station has been pumping gas and repairing cars for customers since 1945. You can’t buy a soda, sandwich or snow machine. The current owner, Brad Lufkin, keeps the family close – his son Mark and his grandson and namesake Bradley make up most of the work force. Mark Lufkin ticks off the attributes of this small, local operation. “We have long standing customers some of them for 30-years.” Meanwhile his son, Bradley, cleans the windows and fills the tank of Virginia Poole’s car. She’s writing a check to pay for her purchase, something she can’t do at many of the big self-service outfits. Poole likes the convenience and service that the Lufkins’ provide, and doesn’t seem to mind the conversation. Mr. Lufkin pauses and looks at his son and says we have to be careful, “Brad will talk their ear off.”
1) Bradley Lufkin washes Virginia Poole’s windshield at Lufkin’s Service Center, in Whitefield. (Photo by Jeff Woodburn)
2) Scott Lambert, of P & L Auto, in Lancaster in front of his defunct gas pumps. (Photo by Jeff Woodburn)
3) Bud Matott’s American Gas Station shown here in 1961 sat were the present Cumberland Farms is in Whitefield. This photo is from www.suitorsgarage.com., a web site that documents some of Whitefield’s old garages.