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Requiem for a Gas Pump

Dan & Whit’s Adopts Self-Serve

  • Mike Dubuque, left, who has worked at Dan & Whit’s for 26 years, takes money from Joe Cook, of Thetford. While the store recently switched to self-serve gas pumps, Cook was looking to have his gas pumped and another customer went inside the store to ask Dubuque to give him a hand.<br/>(Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    Mike Dubuque, left, who has worked at Dan & Whit’s for 26 years, takes money from Joe Cook, of Thetford. While the store recently switched to self-serve gas pumps, Cook was looking to have his gas pumped and another customer went inside the store to ask Dubuque to give him a hand.
    (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Jaime Allard, of Enfield, gets gas at the pumps. <br/>(Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    Jaime Allard, of Enfield, gets gas at the pumps.
    (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • A sign on the gas pumps at Dan & Whit’s tells customers where they find long-time pump attendant Mike Dubuque<br/>(Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    A sign on the gas pumps at Dan & Whit’s tells customers where they find long-time pump attendant Mike Dubuque
    (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Mike Dubuque, left, who has worked at Dan & Whit’s for 26 years, takes money from Joe Cook, of Thetford. While the store recently switched to self-serve gas pumps, Cook was looking to have his gas pumped and another customer went inside the store to ask Dubuque to give him a hand.<br/>(Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
  • Jaime Allard, of Enfield, gets gas at the pumps. <br/>(Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
  • A sign on the gas pumps at Dan & Whit’s tells customers where they find long-time pump attendant Mike Dubuque<br/>(Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

Norwich — Dan Fraser, the manager and co-owner of Dan & Whit’s, the Norwich general store that is like a step back in time, acknowledges that he’s not a big fan of change. But occasionally he is forced to make some concessions to modernity — like switching to self-service gas pumps.

Some customers may not notice the switch, since self-service pumps long ago became the norm at gas stations across the country. For the elderly and people with physical disabilities, however — or just those who enjoy old-fashioned service when gassing up — the do-it-yourself-pumps are not necessarily an improvement.

And perhaps the person who is most affected by the change is Mike Dubuque, who, for 26 years, manned the gas pump at Dan & Whit’s. It’s an adjustment for many who expect to see Dubuque outside in all kinds of weather — summer heat, frigid winters and rain-soaked springs — will have to make, not least Dubuque himself.

When Dan & Whit’s switched to self service last month, Fraser and his father, George, made sure that no employee lost their job. Dubuque still puts in 42 hours a week, but most of them are now spent unloading deliveries indoors, making coffee or bagging groceries for customers. The high school students who used to help pump gas are now working the cash register or stocking shelves.

Fraser has tried to make the transition easier by making attendant service available from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Tuesday, and if a customer wants someone to pump their gas, all they have to do is walk inside the store and ask for help, and whoever is working the cash register will call for Dubuque.

Dubuque admits his new duties have left him somewhat in a predicament — namely what to do with his trademark collection of all-weather work jackets and boots.

“I’d rather be outside pumping the gas,” Dubuque said, adding that the cold doesn’t

bother him. However he’s not a fan of the rain.

After more than two decades on the job, Dubuque has honed pumping gas to a science: He knows customers by face, and can detect them approaching just by their car, and knows by habit whether they want a fill-up or just buy $20 worth to top off the tank.

Of course, Dubuque still gets the occasion to venture outside. He was standing near the cash register yesterday afternoon when a customer came inside and said, “Hey Mike, a gentleman out there needs help.”

Dubuque, who has a salt and pepper beard and black hair that sticks out from under his baseball cap, walked outside and sized up the situation at the pumping station where 81-year-old Joe Cook, of Thetford, was standing.

“Can you do me a favor?” Dubuque asked Cook. “Can you back up? This one doesn’t have a hose on it.”

(Earlier in the day, a customer had driven off with the pump’s nozzle still in the gas tank. According to George Fraser, that would occasionally happen, even before the introduction of self-serve pumps).

Cook remained in the driver’s seat of his gray Dodge while Dubuque pumped his gas.

“It’s nice out here,” Dubuque said as he stood next to the pump and breathed in the cold air — temperature yesterday afternoon mid-to-high 30s — while one of the season’s first snow flurries swirled around him.

Once Cook’s tank was filled, Dubuque carefully twisted the gas cap shut. “You’re all set,” he said.

As Cook drove away, Ben Andrews, of Quechee, pulled up almost immediately afterward. Andrews stayed in his car for about 30 seconds, thinking that Dubuque would begin to assist him, when Dubuque spoke what is likely to become a familiar refrain: “Pump it yourself if you want. It’s self- serve now.”

“That didn’t make you lose your job, did it?” Andrews asked as he stepped out of his car.

“No, I’m inside now,” Dubuque said.

While Andrews pumped gas into his Toyota Tundra, he said that he doesn’t really mind the switch to self service. He added that attendant service isn’t what it used to be when the attendant would check the tire pressure, check the oil and wash the windows.

“Full service isn’t really full-service anymore,” Andrews said, adding, “I think the charm of Dan & Whit’s is inside the store, not at the gas pumps.”

Dan & Whit’s made the switch not because it wanted to stop offering attendant service, but because it didn’t have any choice. There was a failed tank underground that needed replacing, and so the store’s management decided, as long as they were doing that, they’d replace the pumps as well.

But when Citgo, the store’s gas provider, was showing them options for new pumps, the gas company explained that all the pumps now come with bank card units installed that are aimed at eliminating any need, and any expense, for a pump attendant.

Fraser looked into other gas providers, such as Exon and Shell, but he said the oil giants weren’t interested in working work with a small mom-and-pop general store.

Installing the pumps cost the store about $70,000, but Fraser said that the new system should prevent “drive-offs” (people who get gas and then don’t pay) because every customer has to pay in advance before the pumps will work. Previously, people often pulled up and filled their tanks with gas while the attendant was inside running another customer’s credit card, and then drove away without paying. Fraser said Dan & Whit’s often lost between $20 to $100 a day due to drive-offs.

“There is no money in gas,” Fraser said. “It’s just a convenience for your customers to have gas. Anyone that sells gas will tell you that.”

Fraser said he plans to offer attendant service indefinitely on Tuesday mornings because, he said, some customers still rely on old-fashioned service. An elderly woman who declined to give her name walked into Dan & Whit’s yesterday afternoon after waiting several minutes in her car and asked the cashier, “Is there anyone to pump gas?”

When she was told it was now self-service and she could do it herself, she asked if the pumps were difficult to understand since she’d always relied on someone else.

A few minutes later, Dubuque showed up at the front of the store and recognized the customer. He took her credit card — he knew without asking that the familiar customer wanted a full tank.

“She always gives me her credit card,” Dubuque said as he stood in the cold and held the gas pump.

Dubuque also knew that the woman would want her receipt, and when the machine refused to print the piece of paper, he went inside and wrote her a hand-written copy.

As the 80-year-old Norwich woman walked outside, she said she was too old to learn new tricks.

Sarah Brubeck can be reached at sbrubeck@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.