Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Where Have All the Service-Stations Gone?

The Ottawa Citizen recently reported on the efforts to have a service-station located in the city’s Westboro district and built in 1934, declared a Heritage site, on account of its unique “cottage-like” architecture.   

I drove by the location the other day, taking the picture below. What struck me is that there is no “for-sale” sign on the premises – which in fact hadn’t been a gasoline-station for many years. 

Not even close to the Westboro Church.
Photo: R.B. Glennie

It was most recently a used-car lot, but apparently the land has no commercial value – surprisingly enough, given that it is located right in the midst of one of the wealthiest postal-codes in the city.  

The Citizen story is enigmatic on this point. But given its former uses, it is not too much to believe that the property is too contaminated to be a profitable investment. 

The current landlord had no comment about the Heritage application, although last year ta representative said the land “was currently underused and had more potential to serve the community in the future." 

Building-owners generally object to Heritage-designation, because it severely delimits what they do with the property. Reading between the lines, I think the landlord actually wants the city to buy back the land, apparently because it can’t be disposed of otherwise. 

Here’s another enigma: just three years after its construction in 1937, it was sold for $1 (to be fair, this is about fifteen dollars in contemporary Canadian currency). 

One might think that the land is less so contaminated, than possessed by the Devil. 

The supernatural aside, this whole story brought me back to thoughts I had some time ago about the disappearance of the service-station.  

When I was a youngster, virtually all auto-mechanic garages operated also as retailers of gasoline. Now, there are very few of such businesses, if any. 

There are significantly fewer gas-stations, on the whole, and very few are owned independently of large petroleum concerns. As recently as 2008, though, there was on Ogilvie Road in Ottawa a gas station that had, apparently, an attached auto-mechanic service. 

I believe it was still operated by, or affiliated with, the Shell company.  But the Ogilvie Shell was in fact one of a type that was put all over North America, I presume (or at least in those areas where Shell set up business). 

These were built in a “homey” style, with a wood-panelled exterior so as to remind motorists of old-fashioned, supposedly small-town sellers of petrol. These were so commonplace in my youth part of the background. When they began to go away, they did so without much ado, thus. I remembered them only when I started to habitually drive past the Ogilvie Road place, one of the last of its kind.

They were, in fact, a remarkably brilliant exercise in marketing, using the very architecture of the station itself (which was, it must be said, handsomely spartan, with a facade reminiscent of the split-level suburban family home, so common in the area as it happens) to defray the growing perception back then, that oil companies were up to no good. 

I was able to reminisce this Shell station for a while only, before it was closed, demolished and made way for a business plaza (which includes a drive-thru Starbuck’s location). 

These Shell stations I presume were, during their heyday, franchised to certified auto-mechanics, who may have well been independent operators previously. This was becoming increasingly commonplace, as I remember. 

When I was young, my dad took the family car to a garage on Main Street in Ottawa East, that everyone knew as “Mike’s Fina” (or simply, “Mike’s”). 

Looking back, I don’t believe the name “Mike” appeared anywhere on the sign, but it was indeed run by a guy named Mike, whose son, also Mike, took over later. Evidently, Mike Sr. had some kind of arrangement with Fina, the Belgian oil firm (and later, when the domestic interests of Fina were purchased by Petro-Canada, it became “Mike’s Petro-Canada," or really, "Mike's"). 

Mike’s gas station was closed around the turn of the century, I would guess.  The land on which it was situated, lay vacant for a time before it was also sold to developers to put up condos. Mike Jr. is still in business: evidently with proceeds from the sale of his station, he built an auto-mechanic establishment on a property adjacent to the old place (this located in a building that also contains condominiums). 

The transaction encapsulates the general trend in the auto-repair business, wherein the latter has been disestablished from direct involvement in the sale of gasoline. What, for the first decades seemed such a natural fit, is practically unheard-of now. 

What follows is educated speculation as to the reasons for this. 

Sales of gasoline, and general auto-maintenance services were conjoined originally, because pumping one’s own gasoline was considered too tricky, dirty and above all, undignified for the average motorist (who were originally bourgeois or richer folks) to engage in directly. 

Moreover, it would have been unthinkable to expect women drivers (who from early on, consisted of a large part of the motorist population in North America at least, women operating if not their own motorcars, then those owned by husbands, fathers and other males of intimate relation) to get their own gas. 

Thereby, as the gas-retailing system was being set up in the early decades of the twentieth century, young, unskilled labour was employed to carry out not only this duty, but also to check oil, inflate tires, wash windows, and so on. 

However, “pumping gas” is not only a job-descriptor, but a term with greater symbolic import, denoting a very low-status, unskilled occupation. 

Thus, In order to defray high rates of turnover, and to attract more reputable candidates for employment, service-station owners had the gas-jockeys become informal apprentices to the more skilled mechanics who worked to repair car-engines. 

Not nearly all of those who have pumped gas have gone on to be auto-mechanics. However, virtually all auto-mechanics of an earlier era started out in the business pumping gas, which was in turn considered merely the simplest and least-statusworthy job in a continuum of filthy (and thereby to many, vulgar) activities involved in the repair and maintenance of cars. 

As the "century of the car" progressed, and business became more concentrated (with firms such as Shell and Texaco becoming national and continental in reach), service-station concerns sought competitive advantage through the employment of polite, friendly, uniformed (and most importantly, relatively clean) staffers. 

The professed commitment to good service naturally extended to the auto-repair part of the business, with the mechanics given customer-relations training and at least rudimentary understanding in the academic side of their trade (so as to present to the public framed “diplomas” allegedly certifying the expertise of in-house auto-mechanics). 

As these innovations were costly, only larger firms could afford them. But as they were also successful with the public, independently-owned service-stations were less able to compete with the combines, and went out of business or were bought up by the big players (as apparently occurred with Mike’s station on Main Street, Ottawa). 

The old-fashioned design of the Shell stations of the ‘60s, was a concession to the fact that the “neighbourhood mechanic” was a thing of the past, and the company succeeded to a great extent in making people forget that Shell was the proverbial “faceless corporation.” 

Going against the grain of economic history, though, wherein business in most sectors tends toward oligopoly — auto-repair and gasoline-sales have undergone dis-aggregation.  
In contrast to decades ago, most auto-mechanics are today independent operators, and the business itself seems to resist concentration. There are of course, larger players involved in the auto-repair business. 

The Canadian Tire chain offers not only auto parts and products for sale, but each outlet has a garage for auto-work as well (more recently, Arkansas-based Wal-Mart has got into the auto-mechanic business in Canada as well). 

However, both Canadian Tire and Wal-Mart make most of their money in the sale of general, non-auto merchandise (the ad slogan for the former chain was for many years, “There’s A Lot More than Tires at Canadian Tire”). 

Whatever the dominance exercised by Wal-Mart especially in the retail sector, there seems little prospect that it or Canadian Tire will become oligopolistic actors in the auto-repair industry. 

The Canadian firm is even referred to as “Crappy Tire” in large part for its reputation for substandard and inadequate repair and maintenance services, and is patronized mainly due to its promise of relatively cheap rates compared to the independents. 

But peer into the garage at a Canadian Tire, and one will find very few veterans of the trade. Like the workforce inside the store, the mechanics are young and inexperienced, and underpaid as well; if they have any talent, they will move on to better-paying jobs at independent operators, or else open their own businesses (I’m sure this the case at Wal-Mart garages, too).

Auto-companies also offer car-repair services, so as to (as in the ad slogan of one of them) “offer genuine GM service and parts at the best prices”. Most of contemporary auto-makers have large service-centres in major cities, attracting customers based on the knowledge and skill that allegedly comes from specializing on engines belonging to a certain brand. But this branch of business was set up largely in fulfilment of warranty services offered on the sale of new vehicles.  

The car companies insist on in-house work being done, so as to control discretion as to whether the repair fulfils the terms of the warranty. As new-car warranties are really a type of car-insurance, auto-mechanics employed by automakers must act as adjusters, as much as servicemen, in order to save costs as much as possible, for their employer. It may be that car-maker service-centres are not profitable in terms of their gross expense on labour and materials (I know this to be the case with appliance-repair for Sears Canada,for example), less the sales accrued through the purchase of extended-warranties to be included in auto-financing (this is why Sears sales-people must concentrate on these “extended protection agreements” when selling washers, dryers, fridges, etc.). 

Aside from this, it seems that there are no examples of an auto-mechanic firm expanding from a single owner-operated outlet, into a regional, provincial or national chain. This has occurred in most other forms of business: as with, say, McDonald’s in the fast-food sector, or Starbuck’s in the sale of “premium” coffees. 

Certainly, national and continental chains have developed around relatively simple and quick repairs and maintenance on automobiles (such as Speedy Muffler or Oil Changers). But there is no large concern that I am aware of, in Canada, the United States or elsewhere, that as its major line of business, is devoted entirely to the comprehensive maintenance and repair of cars and trucks. 

The reason for this resides in the fact that cars are probably the most sophisticated engineered technology sold to a largely consumer marketplace. Fixing them thus requires a high level of skill, a sort of expertise that apparently is never completely grasped in theory, and requires at least several years of practice and tutoring, in order to achieve true professionalism. 

As well, working on cars is intricate enough (at least, when done professionally) so that it cannot be easily rationalized and routinized (making the tasks achievable by those of average or below talent) — excepting with the aforesaid muffler- and oil-change concerns. It means, paradoxically, that this thoroughly modern workplace — the auto-repair garage — has had to operate something on the lines of a medieval guild. 

This was especially true of the owner-operator full service-stations of the earlier part of the automobile era, when novices would taken on, based on their perceived interest or ability to work on cars. Most would move on, but the few who remained would progress through menial tasks — like pumping gas — to more responsibilities in the garage, until in a few of these cases, the completion of apprenticeship for auto-mechanic. 

This process was essential in the initial years of the automobile, when no schooling was available to certify auto-mechanical proficiency. The modern auto-repair garage, shorn of its functions as a retailer of gas, has no ready method of informal apprenticing in this manner. 

Accordingly, auto-mechanical knowledge has been subject to credentialing (though car-repair has never been undergone official or even informal licencing — basically, anyone can set up shop as an auto-mechanic, regardless of any schooling or apprenticeship). 

But the head-mechanic’s skills, much like the medieval master, is not something that can be conveyed in full academically. It must be learned by direct exposure, and is somehow unutterable (it may be treated as trade secret). It just reinforces the fragmentation of the auto-repair marketplace, with no one firm growing so much larger than all the rest. 

The divestment by gasoline-retailers from the auto-repair business, occurred incidentally it seems, as service-providers sought to save rising costs brought on by the “oil crunch” of the 1970s. 

Installing self-service pumps at busier stations, petrol firms came to understand that people — even women! — didn’t really mind pumping their own gas, especially as it took a motorist as much as half the time to do so, than to be waited on by a potentially unfriendly or unsanitary attendant. 

Soon enough, exclusively self-serve gas stations were opened, gradually taking over as the standard until by now, perhaps one in a hundred gas stations is full service. Unanticipated or not, gasoline firms realized that self-service was much more lucrative than the alternative. 

They were significantly less expensive to operate — requiring a single attendant per shift, instead of half-dozen or more, for a full-service centre. They could also be kept open round-the-clock, without the worry for paying staff overtime. 

As the self-serve station employee’s duties were restricted to cash and custodial duties, he didn’t have to any auto-mechanic skills at all. 

Appropriately redesigned, the self-serve gas-station was rendered into a kind of assembly line, wherein motorists became casual-labourers on their own behalf. It was part of a more general trend of automation throughout the “service” sector, which saw consumers taking a hand in the work process, such that the dispensing of services could achieve something approaching a mass-scale. 

Thus, the invention and spread of the auto-teller machine, has turned the stolid, columned bank of the past, into today’s “banking centre” through which file hundreds of customers each day, most of whom do not interact with any of the staff on hand, a far greater volume of business for an average outlet, than even the largest bank of yesterday could accommodate. 

The shopping cart turned the neighbourhood groceteria into the supermarket, while self-service cashiers do away with even minimal contact between shoppers and employees on site. Many parking lots have dispensed with the exit cashier, as motorists retrieve their own tickets, and pay their own exit. As for the gas station, in older times when it was inevitably linked to the service garage, it had one or two pumps, with larger outlets having three or four. 

Self-service gas-stations rarely have less then half-a-dozen pumps, while many have a dozen or two, accommodating several times the number of customers per day as the average service-station of yore (with the self-service stations occupying usually no greater amount of real estate than the older stations). 

The interesting point to be made is that, in order to achieve economies of scale in the service sector, consumers had to become involved, at least menially, in the productive process. 

Self-service, at least in gasoline retail, comported awkwardly with the auto-repair function of the business, just for the latter being a workshop activity. Gas stations purpose-built for self-serve, virtually never were connected with auto-maintenance. 

Full-service stations that converted to self-serve, eventually gave up either on auto-repair, or selling gas completely. The inherent graduality of car-repair, along with the space required to park vehicles, the awkwardness that comes from manoeuvring broken-down automobiles onto the lot for repair, the need for customers to loiter for long periods whilst they wait for their car to be ready, not to mention the filth that accompanies this line of work, militated against the very advantage of the self-service station, which was to fill as many gas tanks, in as little time as possible. 

In all major cities, there remain the old service-stations, long ago taken over by single-proprietors for auto-maintenance and repair purposes only, but the areas where the gas-pumps once stood leave a visible impression on the pavement. 

Full-service stations that were converted to self-service, have come to use the areas once devoted to repairs, for inventory devoted to a different, high-volume product — general merchandise as found in a convenience store. 

During the age of full-service, the only non-automotive products found at a gas station were bubble-gum and soda machines. Early in the era of self-serve, merchandise sales were restricted to chocolate bars and cigarettes kept under and behind the cashier. 

Today, stores located at gas-stations have so many non-automotive goods for sale, that much of their business must consist of pedestrians and passersby not purchasing gas at all. Usually, only the most basic auto products (like engine oil or windscreen fluid) are available at self-service stations, and they are usually kept separate (for hygienic purposes) from the other products, placed beside the gas pumps or outside the entrance. 

Thus, it is that the auto-service garage has once again become the neighbourhood and local concern that it was at the commence of the era of the car. 

Here’s something that struck me many years ago, when I first got a car of my own and was subsequently faced with the high cost of car repairs: if the auto-repair and maintenance field is so fragmented between many single-proprietor operations, why is it so expensive to get even relatively minor work done on an automobile? 

It isn’t that the materials used for car-repair have become more expensive. On the contrary, spare parts have become all the less costly to consumers. It is the “service” part of auto-repair which has become so dear, the labour charges that usually take up two-thirds or three-quarters of the bill. 

It is an illustration of the economic principle (introduced, so far as I know, by Steve Antler) that during modern times, the cost of services has steadily increased, whilst those of goods has been on a steady decrease. 

For work that cannot be readily automated — like auto-repair — labour costs never decrease (it is the same with, for example, medicine and law). But unlike white-collar professional vocations, working on cars involves at least a couple of things that boost the premium on labour costs in this field. 

For one, interest in car engines seems to be restricted to a certain subset of the population — so-called “grease-monkeys”, disdained by more than a few and infamous to others — those who, even from early childhood, take an avid interest in engines. 

If public schools in North America (which is acknowledged to be the world-centre of car culture) were more inclined toward mechanical education than is actually the case, more boys (and grease-monkeys are almost by definition male, even today) might take to the mechanical world. 

Instead, since its origins in the nineteenth century, public-schooling has been script- and book-based. To the degree that the physical and tactile has been reintroduced into pedagogy since the 1960s movement toward the “whole child” and so forth, this has not in the main been to expose children to the mechanical, even in principle. 

Auto-mechanic courses, as with the learning of other skilled labour, were reserved for the secondary level, in vocational and technical schools of lower-status in the educational system (which through high school devotes its resources to academics), wherein were typically placed boys from troubled, broken or poorer homes, those regarded by their elementary teachers to have little prospect for book-learning. 

It is another paradox, that a civilization literally driven by engines, teaches a curriculum which is in the main quite divorced therefrom. The disreputable air lent to auto-mechanics and other sorts of technical education by the organization of modern pedagogy, was reinforced by the inclusion of these subjects in the curricula of reform schools, an enlightened notion so as to give juvenile delinquents a useful and legal way to make a living. 

Perhaps it did for some, but it also inevitably meant that adult criminals were disproportionately represented among the skilled trades. It contributes to a situation in which a lesser number of youth choose to be involved in auto-mechanics — and in the skilled trades generally, which is why Canada and most other technologically-sophisticated societies have continued to witness shortages of such workers (the Canadian and Ontarian governments have recently put into place apprenticeship programmes at the post-secondary level to make up for these shortages). 

All forms of skilled labour also suffer in prestige, due to their being to a degree and more, inherently dirty. 

This applies especially to auto-mechanics. Engine grease, which ironically consists of soap mixed with mineral oil, is an unavoidable part of the job. As a “handicraft” vocation, car-repair is intricate enough such that it cannot be accomplished most of the time, wearing gloves. 

Auto-mechanics is one of the filthiest lines of work ever devised, perhaps less so than coal-mining, but more so than most others even throughout history, including butchery and latrine-cleansing. 

Blood and feces wash away more easily than the matter found within a car engine, which is not only lubricant, but the oil and dirt that accompanies the normal operation of an automobile (to say nothing of motorists who neglect basic vehicle maintenance). Cleansers can remove most of the greasy aftereffects of engine repair. 

But grease becomes very fine under constant exposure to the heat of the engine. Microscopic particles of the lubricant, oil and dirt, enters the pores of the auto-mechanic, and cannot be removed without damaging the skin. Ultimately, auto-repair is so expensive not only because of the relative lack of supply of mechanics. Even those involved in the trade will not accept remuneration that will not make them prosperous, given that the work makes auto-mechanics never appear entirely clean.

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