My mother turns in to Steve’s BP at Friendly Center in Greensboro, but instead of pulling in at the self-service pumps, where I normally go, she eases in beside the full-service station and waits.
Tommy, one of the service technicians, comes out. My mother rolls down her window and asks, in her earnest voice, “How you doing, honey?” and she means it.
She’s got a headlight out, and she tells Tommy this, and he leans down toward the window to be eye level with my mother and says, “You do, huh? Well, bless your heart,” and he means it, too.
He sets to pumping the gas, and she pulls the lever for the hood, and the mechanic disappears under there, and fiddles with some things, and then he comes out and says, “All right, Mrs. Hudson, got you fixed up. You’re all set.”
Tommy works at the station with his brother, Steve McKoin. Steve has owned this filling station for more than 20 years. He started working here in 1970, when he was 16 years old. When he finally bought the place in 1993, Steve’s dad, Pops, came on to help. Pops died in 2012, and not a day goes by that Steve doesn’t miss working with the man. Steve’s wife, Cathy, works here, too, and Steve’s two sons, Andy and Steve Jr., and Steve’s nephew, Stacy. This place is important to the people who work here; they care about it. They learn from each other. They lean on each other.
When I was 16, I worked in my mom’s craft shop. I probably wasn’t the best employee — I was a teenager and distracted — but the shop was all we had, and we cared about it, too, the way Steve and his family do with their gas station. For years, I listened to my mother talk to customers who became friends.
Back then, I took for granted the, well, familiarity of family businesses. Most all the shops I knew were family-run, and I assumed all businesses, everywhere in the world, were this way and would be forever: Jimmy Southern’s Scott’s Bookstore, Harvey Ferree’s Tank and Tummy gas stations, Carlton Cheek’s One-Hour Martinizing dry cleaners. When my mom and I drove up to the door at Carlton’s, he stopped what he was doing every time and came out to the car to greet us, palming a lemon or cherry sucker for me.
There was Jim Shelton’s Henry James Barbecue and Jim Maness’s Golden Waffle, a wonderful local joint that no one would have mistaken for any other breakfast house.
There was Earlene Ward’s Asheboro Ford and Eva Frye’s dress shop. Eva called my mother whenever she got new clothing in, and she was quick to tell you to take something off if it just didn’t look good. I remember the labels inside the neckbands at Eva’s: her name, embroidered in gold thread. We bought our carpet and wallpaper from Ken and Sally Cornwell’s Interiors/Exteriors. My mother’s first cash register for her shop came from Connell Philips’ Business Supply, and I bought my first typewriter, an IBM Selectric III with lift-off correction tape, from there, too. I still remember loading that 30-pound steel machine into my car to take to college. It never occurred to me that, one day, something new would come along to take its place.
If you lived in Asheboro, you knew all these businesses by heart. If you didn’t, I guarantee you had similar ones in your town, too. And I hope that when you walked in, somebody — a clerk or a mechanic or a waitress or a salesperson or a bank teller — knew your name. Asked you how you were. We didn’t call this customer service. Instead, it was, simply, kindness.
I hope nothing ever comes along to take the place of that.