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February 26. 2012 11:35PM

Rising gas prices dooming NH's full-service gas stations


John Sylvain, owner of Direct Gas in Goffstown Village, pumps gas for a customer. He closed the station after 14 years in business. (Kathy Remillard Photo)
Along with milk delivery, phone booths and eight-track cassettes, full-service gas stations may soon be considered a thing of the past.

Direct Gas, Goffstown's last full-serve gas station, closed Wednesday, leaving no other options in town for customers who don't pump their own gas. Its owner, John Sylvain, said rising gas prices made it impossible for him to remain in business.

There are about 865 gas stations in the state and the majority of those are self-serve, according to Bill Boynton, public information officer for New Hampshire's Department of Transportation.

Steve Mario, owner of the Goffstown Mobil on North Mast Road, said he's been trying to come up with a solution for Direct Gas customers who may make their way to his station. The Goffstown Mobil was a full-service station up until about three years ago, when Mario said it simply began to cost too much.

“I wish we could've stayed full-serve, but pricing wouldn't allow us to,” Mario said, adding he couldn't afford to keep someone at the station to pump gas on a full-time basis.

According to Mario, the profit margin for selling gas has shrunk considerably in recent years. With every credit card swipe costing his station from 2 to 6 percent of a total sale, Mario said there isn't much room for a profit.

“It can be up to eight cents a gallon, depending on the card,” Mario said.

State law doesn't allow stations to charge a higher price for credit sales, Mario said, and if he increases his gas prices to cover the credit charges, customers will look elsewhere for gas.

“People complain about gas prices, but I see in the backs of their cars they have a case of Dasani water,” Mario said. “They'll pay $12 for a gallon of water in little plastic bottles, but they complain about gas?”

Services that Mario used to provide for customers include windshield washing, checking under the hood and checking tire pressure if necessary. He continued those services for a small fee when the station went to self-service.

“In '06 and '07, when things were good, people didn't mind paying for stuff,” Mario said. “Now, people don't have the extra cash.”

Mario said he has focused on his repair business to make up for what he doesn't make selling gas.

The same is true for Ralph's Service Center in Milford.

“It's hard to make money on gas if you're a small guy,” said owner Ralph Porter. “Full-serves are a dying breed.”

Tony Clark, an attendant at Ralph's, said what customers seem to enjoy is the personal touch that a full-serve station provides.

“Some people like to get out and talk and socialize,” Clark said, “and our air is still free,” he said with a smile.

Lorrie Knoll of Wilton was getting gas at Ralph's Thursday, and said she doesn't mind paying a little more for full-serve.

“For two pennies less, I could pump it myself, but it's worth the two pennies,” she said.

Clarence McLaughlin said he has been a customer of Ralph's for more than 40 years, because of the people.

“This is the only place I come to,” he said, and added that he likes to stop and chat while he's getting a fill-up.

“It's too bad,” Mario said. “Where else can you go where the owner of the station will pump your gas?”

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