Service station closes after 35 years GOODBYE, AL SLAGLE

January 17, 1992|By Patrick Gilbert | Patrick Gilbert,Evening Sun Staff

For 35 years, Al Slagle's service station pumped the gas, tuned the engines and presided over the life and final cough of generations of Overlea automobiles.

Generations of customers in turn invited Slagle to their birthday parties, weddings and funerals. It was a mutual exchange of trust and affection.

Often, when regular customers came to pick up their vehicles, Slagle would tell them to "drive it for a day and make sure we got it right. Then come back and pay me."

"You won't find 'em like Al Slagle anymore," said Bob Hurley, who was a customer for all of Slagle's 35 years at the corner of Belair Road and East Northern Parkway. "You never had to worry about getting ripped off when you brought your car in to Al."

"There are a lot of elderly people living around here and we depended on Al to take care of our cars," said Mildred Plumhoff, another 35-year customer.

In an era when large oil companies operate stations that only pump gas monitored by an employee locked in a glass booth, Al Slagle was a throwback both in business and in customer relations.

But all that came to an end Dec. 31. With a deadline approaching this year of meeting tougher federal regulations for underground tanks, Slagle decided to close his Citgo station.

"It would have cost me about $200,000 to replace the tanks and at this point in my life, I didn't want to go that much into debt," said Slagle, 59.

Roy Littlefield, executive director of the Maryland Service Station Owners' Association, said that independent owners like Slagle, as opposed to oil companies and distributors who own stations, are finding it tougher to afford meeting the new regulations.

Littlefield noted that of about 2,200 service stations in the state, only 200 are independently owned.

Slagle sold his station and the lot last month to Cloverland Dairy. The company plans to build a Royal Farm convenience store on the property, known in the community simply as "the corner."

John R. Stewart, president of the Overlea Community Association, said the group has not taken a position on the proposed store.

"When we met, the people just wanted to talk about how to persuade Mr. Slagle to stay," said Stewart. "They didn't want to lose our neighborhood service station."

Slagle said he never seriously considered keeping the place going just as a repair shop. To make it profitable, he would have had to open more service bays, purchase more equipment and "again I didn't want the debt."

When Slagle came to "the corner" in 1956 he was 23 years old -- he said he was the youngest service station dealer in the Baltimore area at the time -- gasoline was 23 cents a gallon and there were 12 other filling stations along a one-mile stretch of Belair Road.

Now gasoline is more than $1 a gallon and there are only three stations left on the same stretch of Belair Road. Make that two.

"It was tough getting customers at first because Overlea was very clannish and I was considered an outsider," recalled Slagle, who grew up in the Walbrook section of Baltimore. He lived for a few years in nearby Parkville until moving to Harford County 30 years ago.

To overcome the competition from the other filling stations, Slagle said, he often had to change the price of his gasoline three times a day.

The station's sign changed over the years from Overlea Esso to Overlea Texaco to Overlea Citgo. But the brand of gasoline never made a difference as long as Slagle was at the pump.

People in Overlea say that Al Slagle stayed in business because he was Al.

A customer didn't have to be a regular, or even from Overlea, to get a spare part or an act of kindness from him.

Several months ago a young couple on their way home to Massachusetts steered their sputtering car into Slagle's service station.

"I'll be honest with you, they looked pretty scruffy, didn't have much money and I was a little leery about them," Slagle said.

Despite his reservations, Slagle scoured junk yards for a cheap part. In the meantime, he found the couple an inexpensive motel for the night.

In his office tacked to the wall is a card Slagle received from the couple thanking him for taking care of them and wishing him well in his business. It came after the station closed.

In the middle of December, Slagle put up a brightly colored sign in the station's window thanking all his customers for their 35 years together.

When the news spread, he received many notes and letters tucked into Christmas cards. One woman wrote, "The corner will always be a pleasant memory for me because of you." Another customer wrote, "You never failed us."

Plumhoff said she recently bought her first tank of gasoline since Al closed. Going to another service station after 36 years, she allowed, was . . . "well, it was kind of weird."

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