End of an era — Shell station at Meyers closes Sunday
While Kirk Morris doesn’t drink coffee, his crew does.
At least twice a day, Morris, a South Shore cabinet maker and his three-man crew would walk from their shop next door to Meyers Shell and Food Mart to fuel up on coffee and doughnuts, hot dogs, chips and burritos.
The breaks weren’t nearly as much about nourishment as they were a way to get out of the shop and talk to people other than themselves.
“I don’t drink coffee, but sure enough, myself and the crew are over there a couple times a day,” Morris said. “We know all the cashiers, so you can always chat about whatever and talk about this and that.”
On Sunday, after 14 years, the gas station and mini-mart that Morris and his crew frequents will be closed for good as the Shell Oil Company has pulled out all of its gas stations in the Tahoe Basin.
The move is part of a corporate restructuring that has involved about 2,000 Shell gas stations nationwide. In the basin, the Meyers Shell and Food Mart is among a handful of corporate gas stations that have closed their doors in the past three years.
Last month, Shell closed its gas station on Highway 50 at Round Hill as well as locations in Kings Beach and Tahoe City.
“Most of the majors are shying away from Tahoe,” said Mark Witters, who bought the gas station in 1989. “From an economic standpoint for Shell, they are consolidating properties and going toward more high-volume stores.”
While the numbers were good enough in Witters mind to support the gas station — providing him enough income to pay his employees a decent wage — times have changed.
To buy the property and open his own independent gas station would be a risky venture, Witters said. Any accidents involving gas spills like the one that happened in 1998 and was the subject of a lawsuit against the Shell company would fall on the back of Witters himself if he were to operate the station independently.
“The store is a great store. It does well and has a lot of loyal customers, but there is too much of a risk,” Witters said. “If I were to open it up on my own and were to have a spill, there is $1.5 million available from the state for cleanup costs. After that, you are on your own. I don’t want that kind of risk.”
Not going independent at the site was one hardest business decisions Witters said he’s been forced to make. With wife Linda and two sons, each of whom have worked at the station in one way or another, the business has been about family.
“It has been a part of our lives. The community has been very good to us and we’ve tried to give back to the community as much as we could,” Witters said, standing behind the plaques and pictures of the dozens of sports teams the station has sponsored over the years.
Customers say the Meyers Shell was more than a place to fill up their gas tanks. It was its own kind of institution — a place of fellowship, where conversations were as easy to find as a hot cup of coffee and the morning newspapers.
“This is a tremendous loss to the community,” said South Shore contractor and part-time musician B.J. Bjorum, who has stopped at the station nearly every day for 14 years to fill his 12-ounce Shell coffee mug.
“You could be broke — not have a dime in your pocket — and they’d give you a cup of coffee and a bite to eat. That’s the type of people they are,” Bjorum said. “It’s been the kind of place that you think about when you think of a small-town store. They treated all their customers that way.”
While gas could be purchased cheaper at other South Shore locations, Witters has banked on customer service to keep him afloat when the competition kept its prices much lower than what Shell officials had set for his station.
For customers like Morris and Bjorum, it was the people behind the counter that kept them coming back.
“You get to know people, like Reggie (McPherson), the guy that wrote the book or (cashier) Wendy, or (bookkeeper) Debbie. These people are your friends,” Morris said. “There would be some days when I’d walk into the store to buy something and end up staying 15 minutes just talking.”
One afternoon after learning that a good friend had passed away, Morris walked into the store and McPherson, a cashier, was there. Morris had bought a book that McPherson had penned to give to his friend before he died.
“I wasn’t able to give him the book and I felt pretty bad about it,” Morris said. “Reggie and I went out back and we just talked about life and stuff. It’s people like him there that work at the store that you could always talk to.”
It was 10 years ago when Debbie Lacopucci walked into the Meyers Shell looking for a job. She started out as a cashier and a few years later began keeping Witters’ books.
When the door closes for the last time on Sunday, it will not only be a sad day for the Meyers community but for Lacopucci as well.
“There have been people coming in here every day, making it a point to say that they are sad to see us leave. I feel the same way, too. It has been a wonderful place to work and Mark has been a great boss. I’m going to miss him and all of our regulars. They made it worth it coming in to work.”