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Gas station is low-tech but full-service


Gas station is a full-service relic

When cars roll into Charlie's Service Station and over one of the strategically positioned hoses, a bell inside the shop clanks.

It's not a melodious jingle, not an electronic buzz. Just a metallic heads-up for Chris or Wayne or whoever's there.

Clank-clank. Guys? Step out from your air-conditioned lair of crackers, soda pop and bait.

Clank-clank. Hustle over to that idling Ford.

Clank-clank. Deliver the line, the one that, just like that, melts a good 20 years from an old gal's calendar: "Ma'am, what can I get for ya?"

Isn't that worth nearly $3 a gallon?

With its charm, its familiarity and - above all else - its service, Charlie's is an anomaly, a relic, a museum almost: A full-service gas station in a half-service world.

In an age when people pull into Mobils or Shells or BPs, gas themselves up and drive off without so much as a blink of eye contact, or when bulletproof plexiglass stints the little face-to-face interaction one gets, Charlie's survives on a quaint formula of service plus smile.

Right in Randallstown at Liberty and Wards Chapel roads, where a heavily trafficked area seems to run out of steam.

"They're built-up down that way," says Chris Brocato, shrugging toward Reisterstown. He's run the station named after his dad since he died 13 years ago. It has been the Brocato family's petrol-scented livelihood for 35 years. "Here, we've always been the same."

The same white stucco pillars out front. The same view of the stone church across the street. And many of the same customers, week after week, year after year.

Brocato and his assistants might not know all the regulars' names, but chances are they'll know their grade of choice. Whether they like their windshields buffed or their oil level checked. All this for a little less than you'd pay for gas in the heart of Baltimore City.

Sharon Williams, who has lived down the road since 1954, can't imagine using another station. "This truck has never had gas in it from anywhere else," she says as her Ford Expedition laps up more.

"I've been coming here 20 years," says Connie Chesser. "It's the only place I go."

And retiree Pam Abigill? "I go out of my way to come here," she says. "Cause I don't have to get out of the car."

Women, it seems, the more mature ones in particular, haven't embraced the self-service concept. It's not just the getting out of the car; it's touching the mucky pump, risking oil stains, making sense of the doohickey.

"I just don't pump gas," Williams says.

Brocato and his staff get this.

"You go to a McDonald's and eventually they're going to tell you to go back and make your own hamburger," says Wayne Boswell, who helps Brocato part time. "He's got a clientele that would still come here even if it was $10 a gallon."

Inside the store there's a battered postcard taped behind the door, a black-and-white snapshot of Charlie's long before it was Charlie's. The date on it says 1931, and Brocato figures that's about right.

The funny thing is, in the 70 years since someone stood at the edge of the road and snapped that picture, aside from the prices, not much has changed. The pumps might be a bit more advanced - but just a bit. Charlie's and the digital age coexist uneasily. No one at these pumps is swiping any debit cards.

"We aren't real high-tech here," Brocato says, though he doesn't exactly need to point out.

He started at the station when he was 7, helping his dad on Saturdays, stretching on tiptoes to reach the pump.

He's 36 now. He has two kids of his own, not quite old enough to work the pump.

Sometimes, particularly when the property comes up for sale, which it has a few times, Brocato fantasizes about buying it, knocking down his little shack, bulldozing those two solitary pumps and building a Taj Mahal of gas. It would be a brightly lit, 20-pump paradise, where customers would cruise in by the dozens, flash their credit cards, and then drive away with full tanks and maybe one of those fancy coffee drinks.

Self-serve with a Capital "S."

But, nah, he won't do it.

"I'd lose a lot of customers that way."

And besides, his 19-month-old is named Charlie. He can't pass by the chance of having another Charlie at the helm.

"My father raised five kids doing it," he says. "I raised my kids here. And I know he probably can, too."

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