Good to the last drop

Published 10:27 am Friday, March 11, 2011

Neil Baker stands next to the gas pumps at Hunterdale Service Center. Baker will close the more than 50-year-old business on March 31. -- GWEN ALBERS | TIDEWATER NEWS

HUNTERDALE—A Franklin-area business has become a casualty of $3.50-a-gallon gas.

Hunterdale Service Center will close on March 31. A part of the community for more than 50 years, the auto repair shop and gas station at 747 Hunterdale Road sold its last drop of gas on March 3.

“I wasn’t making any money on gas,” said owner Neil Baker.

In recent years, gas sales have dropped. When prices spike, motorists opt for the cheaper convenience stores.

“Two cents makes a difference,” he said.

In 2008, when gasoline hit $4 a gallon, Baker said he was carrying $70,000 a month from customers with charge accounts.

“They were good accounts,” he said. “I just couldn’t keep that much on the books.”

Since he bought the business 15 years ago, gas prices have tripled.

“I made more on gas when it sold for 79 cents a gallon than now,” Baker said.

The 47-year-old’s health problems — including two failed knee replacements and a ruptured disc in his back — also contributed to the decision.

“When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade,” said Baker’s wife, LeaAnn, a teacher at Southampton Academy.

Kevin Meyers, who for 30 years has gone to the station for repairs, gas and state inspections, told Baker he was sorry to hear the news.

“At some point you gotta do what’s best for you,” Meyers said. “You saved a lot of people a lot of money. He saved me when a major chain told me something was wrong and then I went to him and it wasn’t.”

“It’s like everything else; the mom-and-pop shops are all going away,” Meyers added.

Folks are sure to miss the business — somewhat of a gathering place, particularly for unemployed International Paper workers.

“There’s been a lot of lies told around here,” Baker joked.

His parents, Jackie Baker Hicks and the late Hector Baker, operated the two-bay, full-service gas station for 24 years, beginning in the early 1970s. Their son, who grew up around the business, took it over in 1996.

“When I wanted to buy it, he said I was crazy,” Baker said. “I should’ve listened to him. I had a good business.”

It took him eight months to find a company that would sell him gas. He credits Michael Harrell with Duck Thru in Ahoskie, N.C., for making it happen.

It was also eight years after buying the business before he took a week’s vacation.

Over the years, Baker said he has serviced vehicles for hundreds of people.

“I did a lot of shop work, brake jobs and tune-ups,” he said.

Baker said he plans to sell everything in the shop and, hopefully, the building unless someone wants to buy it as is for the same purpose.

“I’m planning to sell my lifts, tools and tool boxes,” he said.

Baker also will have to lay off employees Greg Mason, who has been with him for 10 to 11 years; Buster Butler, 8 years; and Ronnie Hunnings, a few months.