Fuel-filling career ends

After 53 years, station owner looks forward to an active retirement

After 53 years, station owner looks forward to an active retirement

January 29, 2006|By CANDICE BOSELY


When Bob Burger left the Navy in 1953, he was 20 years old, had saved $2,890 and wasn't sure what he wanted to do with his life.

As it turned out, a routine trip to buy gas for his car would determine how he would earn a living for the next 53 years.

When he stopped to fill up his car at what then was a Sunoco station at the intersection of Pennsylvania Avenue and Park Lane, the "old gentleman" who owned it - Burger could not remember his name - started chatting with the former seaman about his plans.

When he found out Burger had nothing definite lined up, he made a proposal.

"He said, 'let me sell you this place,'" Burger said.

Burger decided to buy the business, spending $2,800 of the $2,890 he had saved while in the Navy.

Now, Burger is closing down the gas station and repair shop he has owned for more than five decades, with his last official day of business to be Wednesday. He said he feels fine healthwise, but that it simply is time to retire.


"I just want to try to have some free time," said Burger, 73.

He plans to hunt on some mountainous acreage he owns near Hancock. He and his wife live on 15 acres near Clear Spring, land that includes a stream and a small park used for picnics and other events.

"We mow a lot of grass," Burger said. "I'll find plenty to do."

One thing he will not be doing is flocking south with other retirees seeking the sun.

"Everybody says, 'Are you going to Florida?' I say, 'No, I love Maryland,'" he said, adding that he does not play golf, but likes to hunt and live in an area with four distinct seasons.

A time before traffic

When Burger first opened his station, gas was 28 cents per gallon, Northern Avenue was a dirt road, Burhans Boulevard had not been built, the Fairchild aircraft plant still was in operation and there was less traffic and fewer traffic lights to control it.

"When I bought this station, from here down to where the Laundromat is, there were six service stations," he said.

His is now the only one.

Those in his generation lived their earlier lives in a better time, when drugs and crime were not so problematic, he believes.

"Everybody was nice to you and knew you," he said. "Times have changed and people have changed and not for the better."

Still, he said what he will miss most are the people he has met and befriended over the years.

And what will he miss the least? Getting up at 6 or 6:30 in the morning to be at the station by 7:30 a.m., he said.

A burglar paid a visit to the business just once, breaking a window and taking keys to used cars Burger was selling. A couple of cars were taken and one never was found.

No cash was stolen because Burger had a policy of not leaving any at the station overnight.

Tire after tire

One of Burger's biggest ventures over the years was selling tires.

In the 1960s and '70s, before all-weather tires were common, drivers had to have snow tires put on in the fall and removed in the spring.

Today, when a snowflake falls, people clamor to the bread and milk aisles in grocery stores. Decades ago, they headed to service stations such as Burger's to have snow tires put on their cars.

On the day of the first snowfall, Burger and his employees would work until midnight or later, putting on tire after tire.

"You couldn't even get in the parking lot, people would be here waiting," he said.

In the mid-1970s, Burger bought the land on which his business sat, and had the existing building constructed in 1971. He switched from being a Sunoco station to a Texaco station in 1988 because Sunoco wanted to focus on stations that sold more than 100,000 gallons of gasoline per month - a feat most common with gas stations along interstates, Burger said.

He repaired cars, but did not do engine or transmission work. Instead, he specialized in putting on tires, and doing state car inspections and brake and exhaust work.

He never operated a convenience store, but still has a soda vending machine outside of his garage. A handwritten sign taped to the Pepsi machine warns would-be vandals to "save yourself the trouble" - it is emptied daily.

Burger stopped selling gas last fall when the effects of Hurricane Katrina drove prices up to more than $3 per gallon.

He sold his real estate to a man from northern Virginia, who has discussed possibly turning it back into a used car lot. Burger sold used cars until last year.

Nothing is definite.

"He doesn't know what he's going to do," Burger said. "He didn't say too much, to be truthful, and I don't want to push him too much."

Nobody should wonder if they see Burger's car parked at the station after Wednesday. He hasn't had second thoughts.

"I've been coming in here so long, I might drive in (out of habit) and forget what I'm supposed to be doing," he said.

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