Columbus, Ohio USA
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More than 30 years of Thurber BP
by Jennifer Hambrick
© PHOTOS Gus Brunsman III
L to R: Sue Meehan, Chris Davis, his father Dan Davis, owner of BP Thurber,
and daughter Anne, an auto mechanic.
You can drive right by it heading south on Neil Avenue, your eye on the road as it curves beneath the I-670 overpass. And even if you do see it, you wouldn’t necessarily know that the gas station at the southeast corner of Neil and Poplar is one of Victorian Village’s oldest family-run businesses. Although BP announces itself in the greens and yellows that have branded the oil supplier into the average American mind, the people who live in the neighborhoods surrounding the station know it as the Davis family’s station, the corner gas station that Dan Davis has run since 1975, where he and his children Anne and Chris know your name. To some loyal customers it’s also the place where Sue Meehan has your snack order ready and waiting on the front store counter when you walk in, and where you can chat with Anne about your car or your favorite brand of cigarettes.
Dan Davis’ customers say more than 30 years of care and personalized service have earned Thurber BP a loyal following, one the Davis family hopes will stay with them through coming changes.
It was mostly by chance that Dan Davis got into the gas station business. It was the summer of 1967, Davis was 18 years old and his parents had decided he needed to start earning his keep.
“I was in high school and my mom and dad said ‘Get out and go to work,’” Davis said.
So Davis went down the street from his parents’ Bexley home to the SOHIO station at the corner of Broad and Gould and got a job pumping gas. At the time there was no such thing as self-service gas stations, and Davis said he didn’t know anything about cars. But he learned.
“Through the years I watched mechanics and I learned by doing things hands-on,” Davis said. “It was kind of the best experience you could possibly have. In between pumping the gas, you’d always go back and help the mechanics, be their go-fer, so to speak. You’d watch and ask questions and they’d show you things.”
The gas station job brought in some cash, but Davis never considered it more than stop-gap employment to buy him time to decide what he wanted to do in life. Meanwhile, the war in Vietnam was escalating at a frightening pace. Davis feared being drafted into the Army and sent to die in the southeast Asian jungle. He hedged his bets by enlisting in the Air Force.
“It’s not that I didn’t believe in the Army or anything like that,” Davis said, “but there was so much going on with the young boys going over and coming back in body bags. I was scared. I thought it would be safer with the Air Force.”
In 1970, Davis was sent to Omaha, Nebraska, to work in aircraft maintenance at the Air Force’s Strategic Air Command base. SOHIO gave Davis a military leave of absence and promised to hold his job until his discharge from the service. For three and a half years he worked himself into the position of crew chief on a 135 tanker – an in-flight refueling aircraft – taking on full responsibility for the aircraft’s maintenance.
While in Omaha, Davis met and married his wife and had their first child, a son, Chris. He returned with his family to Columbus in 1974, contemplating his next career move. With the full weight of family responsibilities on his shoulders, Davis went back to SOHIO.
Although he had been doing mechanical work on airplanes while in Omaha, he hadn’t been working on cars. His transition back to work at SOHIO wasn’t easy.
“Those four years (in Omaha) really hurt me. I just never had the time when I got out of the service to continue my education because I came back with a family, I had to work most of the time and never had a chance.”
But he did have a chance to attend SOHIO’s manager training school, at that time in downtown Columbus. He finished the brief program and was sent to work first as assistant manager, later as manager, at a SOHIO station at Lane and Neil Avenues. He was transferred to the Thurber SOHIO station – now Thurber BP – at the corner of Neil and Poplar in 1975, the same year Davis’ twin daughters were born.
Today Davis is bemused by his career path.
“I got out (of the military) and I thought, Well, I’ll go to SOHIO and stay with it, but I don’t want to pump gas for the rest of my life,” Davis said. An ironic smile crosses his face. “I’m still with it.”
Thurber BP at Neil and Poplar in Columbus, Ohio.
The Birth of a Mechanic
The service station that is now called Thurber BP has known only two managers and five years without Dan Davis. It was built in 1970 as a SOHIO station, and was operated by its first manager until Davis took over in 1975.
For a long time, the station was a “company” station, meaning that SOHIO owned it, paid all of the overhead expenses and gave Davis a commission for monthly sales.
Things started to change when BP bought SOHIO in the early 1980s. The station was immediately re-christened Thurber BP. More significantly, in 1992 it was converted from a company-owned station to a “dealership,” making Davis manager/owner and leaving him to pay all overhead expenses out-of-pocket, expenses that Davis says have soared over the last decade.
Still, the station provided a living and gave Davis’ children a place to explore as they grew up. As a kid, Thurber BP second shift manager Chris Davis, 36, used to go to the station with his father on Saturday mornings.
“There used to be a donut shop across the street,” he said, “and I remember coming down and getting chocolate milk and donuts and aggravating everybody.”
Davis’ daughter Anne, 32, remembers causing mischief with her sister by jumping on the round rubber cables that, in the days of full-service, would ring a bell and alert the service station attendant when customers drove over them.
“We’d go out there and jump on (the cables), and my dad would come out looking for a full-serve customer and we’d start laughing,” Anne Davis said.
Anne Davis also remembers that a barbecue sandwich from the Johnson food service truck was a special treat for her and her sister.
“We’d scam my dad for money to eat off the Johnson truck,” Anne said. “They used to come to service stations, and we’d come to the station so we could eat off the truck. That was one of our fond memories.”
Long after the bell prank had gotten old and the Johnson truck stopped coming by, Anne liked to spend time at her father’s station, including the service bay. There she started watching the mechanics as they worked, looking over their shoulders and asking them questions. She’d also patch tires and do low-level maintenance of her own under the supervision of the mechanics. When it was time for her to make a living, she took her lifetime of on-the-job training and started working as a mechanic at her father’s service station.
“It wasn’t something that I looked for,” Anne said. “It was just something that I knew. So I just decided to dive into it and make a living out of it.”
Anne admits that female auto mechanics are a rare breed but seems unconcerned about any notion of glass ceilings. Maybe it’s because her father never questioned his daughter’s interest in working on cars.
“Back when I started, (a woman mechanic) was totally unheard of, and it’s still mostly unheard of,” Dan Davis said. “But the way things have evolved, every time you turn around you see a woman doing what had been a man’s job in a man’s world. I think it’s wonderful. The female customers who come in, the first thing they say is, ‘Go, girl!’ She does a remarkable job, she’s got plenty of experience and I think it’s wonderful.”
Anne Davis with her brother Chris.
Deb Roberts, a Victorian Village resident and regular Thurber SOHIO/Thurber BP customer for more than 20 years, had been unimpressed by the car repair service she had received at other stations.
“I was getting charged for things I didn’t get done,” Roberts said, “or I’d pay for things and they’d tell me I hadn’t paid for it. Or I’d take it in to get something fixed and it still didn’t work. I hate to say this, but if you’re a woman sometimes mechanics will take advantage of that because they think you don’t know what you’re doing.”
After enough bad experiences at other service stations, Roberts took her car to Thurber SOHIO. She was surprised but encouraged that the mechanic at her neighborhood station was a woman.
“I thought it was cool,” Roberts said. “And it’s about time. A woman can know as much about a car as a man can know about a typewriter.”
And it isn’t just female customers who take their cars to Anne Davis. Male customers do, too. Anne has serviced Victorian Village resident Steve Faulkner’s Chevy Lumina for four years.
“Having a woman who’s a car mechanic is out of the realm of societal norms, so immediately you may second guess that,” Faulkner said. “But I’m just as comfortable taking my car to Anne, who I know is going to do a great job and has proven that to me time and time again. Those who would turn away because she is female, it’s their loss.”
Whatever skill Anne Davis brings to fixing cars, she is honor bound by her father’s concern for making sure the repair work is done right. In an area with a high concentration of university students, many away from home for the first time, student jalopies frequently make their way to Thurber BP for routine (and not-so-routine) maintenance. Davis is attuned to the needs of young student-customers whose parents might live beyond Columbus.
“We’ve talked to a lot of moms and dads over the years and we always bend over backwards for them, because mom and dad are there and son or daughter is here, and mom and dad have got to trust somebody,” Davis said. “I know from my own experience if my kids were out of town and they were going to school somewhere else and their car broke down, I would want to feel comfortable that they’re in somebody’s hands that was capable and honest and trustworthy and will take care of their son or daughter.”
Deb Roberts, a Victorian Village resident and loyal customer.
The Neighborhood Gas Station
Faulkner and Roberts are not unique in their loyalty to Thurber BP. Dan Davis says the neighborhood surrounding his station, and the people who live there, have kept him afloat for more than 30 years.
“We have wonderful customers,” Davis said. “I just absolutely love our customer base. Hopefully they feel the same way about me.”
Apparently they do. Davis’ customers say Thurber SOHIO/Thurber BP is more than just a gas station. It’s a community hub.
“If you’re a regular in there, they know your name, they say your name,” Roberts said. “They know what’s going on with your life, you know about them. They’re a great family business and that’s what a neighborhood is all about.”
“They really have become much more than a car service,” said Gay Hadley, 77, a customer for 22 years. “They have been neighbors to me. When my car freezes up on a cold winter morning Dan or Anne walks over and unfreezes the door or charges the battery.”
Hadley tells the story of the day she fell while taking a walk around the neighborhood. Her cheek started to bleed.
“The first place I went was to Dan, and I sat up on a stool and someone put bandages on my cheek,” Hadley said. “Without fail, they’re just terrific people.”
The station staff also have been known to help out in less urgent situations, like the time when Roberts needed to put oil in her car on a day facing long lines at the pump.
“(The station is) self-pump, and I didn’t want to tie up the line by going inside, so I called Anne on the cell phone and said, ‘Anne, can you bring me a quart of oil?’ and she brought it right out and put it in for me. If you can’t get out of the car because you’re physically challenged, honk your horn. They’ll come out for you.”
There was also the time when Roberts had to leave her car at the station for Anne to service, but needed to get to the airport to pick up a rental car.
“Anne drove me out to the airport,” Roberts said. “That’s pretty good service.”
Then there are the little extras at the store. Though of Lilliputian scale, the convenience store at Thurber BP holds a bounty of sinful pleasures, from chips and soda pop to cigarettes and chewing tobacco. Daytime customers – including Dawn Sanford, who walks to Thurber BP every day for a snack and sometimes a pack of cigarettes – know Sue Meehan as the friendly face behind the counter.
“I’ve gone into the store for my drink or cigarettes and haven’t had any money and they just say, ‘Oh you can just get it to me tomorrow,’” Sanford said. “They know you. It’s like a small town. I’m not just a customer.”
Sue even has some customers’ orders memorized. When she sees Roberts coming toward the store, she takes down a pack of Roberts’ beloved Marlboro Lights and has them on the ready.
“Sue always knows what I want when I walk in the store,” Roberts said. “She always has it on the counter. She always has this sheepish grin on her face, her hands to her side, like she’s totally innocent, with a pack of cigarettes lying on the counter like she had nothing to do with it.”
“You think of the Short North as a true neighborhood style atmosphere, and you don’t necessarily think that the gas station on the corner is part of that neighborhood atmosphere as it was decades ago,” Faulkner said. “But this one is.”
Although Thurber BP’s customers are a loyal bunch, Davis says he’s concerned about the future of the station. He’s seen rent soar from $3300 to $5300 per month in just the last four years, and credit card fees can reach $10,000 in any given month. He’s also seen a steady and drastic drop in car service orders over the years. Davis thinks there are many reasons for the drop in service requests.
“I get this guilt complex, what have I been doing wrong,” Davis said, “but there are a lot of (service stations) that have closed down. The cars last longer. The maintenance on them doesn’t require the once-a-year deal; they require maybe every 100,000 miles. We’ve had people move out of the area who knew us well. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard, ‘We didn’t know you had bays because we can’t see them (from the street).’”
Davis wonders what he would do without the convenience store, which generates the lion’s share of his profits.
Why would this be so when gas prices at the pump have hovered around historic highs for nearly the last half decade? Davis says Big Oil is to blame. Even though Davis, as Thurber BP manager/owner, pays all of the station’s overhead costs, he says BP still takes an increasing greater share of everything he earns as company profit.
When prices at the pumps first started soaring, Davis said some of his customers took him to task. All that has changed, however, as reports of staggering oil company profits have reached consumers.
“I think they finally figured it out that it’s not the guy on the corner, because it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out when you see the profits come out quarterly– Exxon/Mobil, Shell – billions and billions of dollars,” Davis said. “In business there’s no such bad word as ‘profit,’ but I think there is to some degree when you’re just reaping the profits and you could keep the price down.”
With steadily decreasing car service revenues and consistently lower gas prices nowhere in sight, Davis had to make some changes in order to stay in business. He is currently in the process of purchasing the property on which Thurber BP sits. Once he obtains the deed, he plans to remodel the station, doing away with the service bay (and therefore the entire car service operation) and expanding the store from 400 to 1,600 square feet.
“The bays are not producing, but the store will,” Davis said. “Some people are going to be upset about that, but we don’t have enough people coming in to support the bays, and we’ve got a lot of people coming in to support the store.”
Davis also plans to expand the store’s offerings to include ready-to-eat hot dogs, donuts (possibly Krispy Kreme), ice cream and, eventually, lottery tickets.
“Anything that we can squeeze in or hang from the ceiling that’s sellable we’re going to have,” Davis said.
The Davis clan will be there to see their customers through these changes. Anne Davis will be working in the store after the service bay has been permanently closed. Her brother, Chris, will still manage the station during second shift and weekend hours. And Chris Davis says even his nephew is now following in his footsteps, spending Saturdays with him at the station, “aggravating everyone,” as he himself did 25 years before.
Davis says he will continue to serve his community of loyal supporters. He also says he will once again make a donation to Children’s Hospital in the station’s name, something he has done every year for as long as he can remember.
“We’re just so proud of that because it goes for a good cause. They’ve taken care of my kids when they had problems. It’s just a wonderful organization,” Davis said.
Davis has built his business – and his clientele – with his concern for the people around him.
“Dan’s just far more than a gas station owner and operator,” said Thurber BP customer Gay Hadley. “He’s a member of this community.”
© 2007 Short North Gazette. All rights reserved.
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