Some of Joe Goldman's customers have been buying his gas this week without even realizing how cheap it is. They just come in like they always do, chat with Joe and fill up the tank.
It's only when they glance at the inconspicuous price sign that they take a second look.
Mr. Goldman's independent Subway Service Center, located in the 4200 block of Wabash Avenue in Northwest Baltimore, is selling gas for $1.19.9 a gallon -- a nostalgic, pre-Persian Gulf crisis price some 18 cents lower than his nearest competitor's.
The price is Mr. Goldman's way of saying thank-you to the loyal customers who have kept his business going since 1983.
Mr. Goldman, 44, made his last mortgage payment on the station two weeks ago. He now owns it free and clear. So when the wholesalers who supply his gas began dropping their prices this week, he decided to drop his, too. On Tuesday, he took 10 cents off the price of his gas.
"I'm independent, I'm single, and I figure I can pass it [the savings] on to the customers," he said yesterday.
Oddly enough, some of his customers, mostly regulars from nearby middle-class neighborhoods, didn't notice the price until they had filled up their tanks. They frequent the station because Mr. Goldman's gas is often slightly cheaper and they like his personal service and ready smile.
But they're not complaining.
James R. Johnson came back three times yesterday to top off his gas-hungry 1984 Buick Electra. Bryant Costley stopped by to buy gas and shake Mr. Goldman's hand.
"He's the cheapest guy in town," said Horace P. Wilson as he filled up his van's gas tank. "He could be charging the same prices as the others charge."
Mr. Goldman didn't want to reveal what he paid his supplier for the gasoline, but he says his gas comes from both independent wholesalers and major oil companies. He just doesn't have to pay for the national advertising and overhead that name-brand stations do.
"Basically, gas is gas," he said, twisting the brim on his brown corduroy baseball hat. Referring to the major oil companies, he added: "It's a racket, what they're doing out there."
The American Automobile Association's latest survey in Maryland, conducted Dec. 7, showed that regular unleaded gasoline at a self-service station was selling for an average $1.42.6 per gallon. Super unleaded was selling for $1.51.6 per gallon and premium for $1.60.8. Those figures represent the average in all of Maryland, excluding Prince George's, Montgomery and Charles counties.
Mr. Goldman carries only two grades of gasoline. His 92-octane gas, a premium level, now sells for $1.39.9.
The Mobil gas station two blocks away on Wabash sells its regular unleaded self-serve gas for $1.37.9 per gallon and its premium gas, a 93 octane, for $1.51.9 per gallon.
When Mobil dealer Sung S. Cho heard that a station down the street was selling gas for $1.19.9, he jumped out of his chair.
"What? He's crazy," he said.
Mr. Cho said Mobile charges him $1.32.2 per gallon for regular unleaded gas, leaving him with a 5.7-cent profit per gallon. He was surprised that Mr. Goldman could find gas at a price much lower.
"I'd like to buy at that price," he said.
As cars pulled in and out of the larger Mobil station yesterday, Joe Goldman was getting ready for a few more customers in response to his price cut. Normally he's closed Sundays, but he plans to stay open this Sunday as long as he can keep his prices down.
"There's not too many people out there who like what they're doing," said Mr. Goldman, who runs the station and fixes cars there. "I just couldn't sit at a desk or bust rocks all day, so I do this. It's a lot of fun."