KINGSPORT — Remember when gasoline cost 19 cents a gallon?
Or when service stations offered service for your vehicle inside a garage instead of drinks and snacks inside a convenience store?
Tom Brooks remembers those days well, and he’s working to keep the “service” in service station.
Brooks is the owner of the last remaining Exxon station in Kingsport. It’s located at 1800 E. Stone Drive — and it’s been there since Brooks opened the doors in 1967.
Brooks began his career in the fuel business in 1952 when he joined Smith Oil Co., a distributor of the Esso brand of gasoline that would later become Exxon.
In the early 1960s, Esso was building service stations and looking for hard-working men to run them. The company approached Brooks, who decided to take on the opportunity.
“I borrowed a little money and started to work,” Brooks said.
He opened his first station on Stone Drive near the Lynn Garden Drive turn off in 1964.
Three years later, he opened a second store — at the existing location — and operated both stations until 1973, when he sold the first one to his nephews and turned his focus solely on the second service station.
For Tom Brooks, the Highway 11W location seemed right. Across the street was the new Kingsport Mall, which had opened in 1970 as the biggest shopping center of its kind between Knoxville and Roanoke.
Mason Dixon opened its new terminal building just down the road on Highway 11W, providing another source of customer traffic. (The Kingsport Pavilion is located on the old Mason Dixon property today.)
And Highway 11W and Stone Drive were the main thoroughfares through the region, and motorists traveled past Brooks’ service station every day, needing fill-ups, tune-ups, and flat tire fixes.
“We used to wait on cars ourselves, pump the gas, clean the windows, and even vacuum the cars out if that’s what the customer wanted,” Brooks said.
In those days, Brooks sold gas for as little as 19.9 cents a gallon.
Business went well for years, then hit a bump in the road in the mid- to late 1970s when Interstate 81 opened, diverting traffic away from Highway 11W and Kingsport, Brooks said.
But the station had built a solid customer base and continued to provide service to its customers.
Over the years, true service stations began to disappear, replaced by convenience stores with self-serve gas pumps.
And the Exxon brand began to vanish as well, as more station owners opted for cheaper brands of gasoline, Brooks said.
The Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska in 1989 didn’t help the company’s image. But Brooks said he doesn’t believe local customers stopped patronizing his business because of something that happened so far away.
“I think most of the people understood, and we didn’t get blamed,” Brooks said.
Today, Brooks’ station is the only Exxon in Kingsport. He recalls when as many as a dozen Exxon stations were in operation in and around the city.
“We stuck with Exxon,” he said. “You know what you’re getting here. It might cost you a penny or two more, but it’s well worth it.”
And through the years, Brooks continued to offer vehicle repairs, and opted not to get into the convenience store business.
“We make car repairs, sell tires and batteries and do oil changes. This is a service station, but not a grocery store,” Brooks said.
And lots of customers appreciate that, he said.
“You can’t go to a convenience store to get your tire fixed. We feel like we’re still providing a service to people, and people seem to like that,” Brooks said.
And even though the station doesn’t have a full-service aisle, those wanting help can blow their car horns, and someone will be available to pump their fuel and wash their windows, Brooks said.
“We’ll be glad to help them,” he said.
At 81, Brooks still comes to work every day, rising at 5 a.m. and getting to work by 7 or 7:30.
Asked if he’s thought about retirement, Brooks said “perhaps.”
“Maybe if I could find somebody who’d like to buy the place and keep it going. So if the right opportunity presented itself, that would be good,” he said.
Brooks has served on the Exxon Dealer Advisory Council and has met with the president and board of directors of Exxon.
He credited his wife, Rose Brooks, for standing by him through the years. She was a manager at Holiday Inn, and then worked for the local Holiday Inn franchise main office in Bristol, retiring in the mid-1970s.
The couple has two children, Tiger Brooks and Mary Younger, and three grandchildren.