Reginald Baker was 16 years old when he applied for his first job. The year was 1967, and the place was the local Texaco station.
He must have nailed the interview. He got the job, a part-time gig since he was still a student at Lake Highlands High School. But when he wasn’t in class, that’s where you’d find him, out pumping gas on the corner of Kingsley and Audelia.
Baker probably didn’t realize it 35 years ago, but his first interview would also be his last. The job became his lifelong vocation: He eventually became a full-time employee, switched from working in the garage, then managing the garage until, finally, some 22 years later and 14 or so years ago, he bought the whole thing.
And until last month, it was still where you’d find him, out running the place on the corner of Kingsley and Audelia.
But all that’s changed now, thanks to a corporate decision made by Shell Oil Company after it purchased Texaco, Inc.
“Shell chose not to re-brand the station,” Baker says. “The gas volume had dropped considerably. We can pretty much trace it back to 9/11, but there are also a lot more gas options out there now. The new trend is multi-stores: a gas station with 10 or 12 pumps and fried chicken and tacos or something. And every time something new opens, something has to lose.”
Some would have seen the decision as a chance to make a change, to start a whole new way of living. But for Baker, who says he’s really never thought of doing anything else, a new career just didn’t interest him.
“Change is a stranger to me,” he says. “I’ve lived in the same neighborhood my whole life, had the same job for years, the same wife. I romanced her (Tanya, his wife of 30 years) at the Dairy Queen, which is now a Bank One.”
The thought of retiring also didn’t seem right.
“I don’t think retirement looks attractive at all,” he says. “I feel sorry for someone who gets up every day and doesn’t have anything to do or someone counting on them.”
Baker says he first tried to keep the station by leasing the land, but that proved impossible. So he started looking around for other options. He found out the owners of Lake Highlands Automotive, just a little further north on Audelia, were interested in selling.
He and Tanya decided to buy the place. He spent a month getting it cleaned and reorganized, then re-opened for business under the same name, three days after closing the Texaco.
There he’ll keep working on cars, same as he’s done for the past 35 years, just minus the gas sales. Baker says he won’t miss that side of the business, except for the chance it offers to chew the fat with the regulars.
“I’ll miss the conversations with customers who came in every week,” he says. “They’d come inside to talk, or we’d go out to them while their gas was pumping. But the good thing is we’re only going up the street.”
Spoken like someone who has decided to look on the bright side, though not without a few misgivings.
“I’m not leaving the business or the neighborhood, but it’s still a massive change,” he says. “I have a lot of mixed emotions. It’s kind of like leaving home for the first time, scary and exciting at the same time.”
Of course, when a business has been around as long as this one has, its closing affects more people than just its owner.
“I’m taking all my employees with me,” he says. “A lot of them have worked for me a long time. So it’s not just me doing it…it’s us.
“Customers are sorry to see the station go, too. It was built in 1963, and some people have been coming here ever since. It’s as much a part of their life as it is mine.”
So now that he has made the change, does Baker have anything to say to those longtime customers, some of whom he’s been serving for more than three decades?
“Just tell’em where to find me,” he says. “Tell ’em I’m lonely.”