Chris Hathaway and Michael Sellitti Jr. stood at the ready on the slab at Up-Island Automotive this week, waiting for the next customer to pull in. The slab is home base for the gas attendants at the West Tisbury station, bouncing off the center aisle from pump to pump attending to customers. “If a customer comes in with a bad mood they leave with a good mood, that’s what we go for,” Mr. Hathaway said. “We try to make them feel comfortable and make them feel like they’re at home.”
This summer marks Mr. Hathaway’s fourth year working full time at the gas station.
“I just love the place,” he said. “There’s something new everyday, nothing is ever the same. That’s what keeps me coming back.”
Mr. Hathaway and Mr. Sellitti are part of a dedicated crew that makes up the West Tisbury gas station. Joan and Pat Jenkinson have owned Up-Island Automotive since 1970, with their son Patrick Jenkinson managing it for the past 25 years.
“Keep it small and be humble with it and not audacious,” Patrick said. “It was hard enough for my dad to get digital pumps [in 2003].”
Formerly Alley’s Auto Service, the senior Mr. Jenkinson and then partner Daniel Whiting purchased the business from Beanie Alley in 1970. Several years later Mr. Jenkinson bought out Mr. Whiting.
One of the oldest gas stations on the Island, it has been the midway station since around 1910. According to an account published in the Gazette about the transfer of ownership in 1970, former whaling Capt. George Donaldson built the station as a side business to his coal and hay concerns. In the Gazette account, the captain’s daughter remembers “cans of gasoline kept in the barn to help out travelers whose cars began to sputter from lack of fuel about the time they reached West Tisbury.”
These days a “Last chance gas” sign hangs in the window, and loyal customers from as far away as Chappaquiddick will travel for service.
“To have people travel that far and take that boat trip really makes you feel like you’re doing something right, you’re doing something for them that they like,” Mr. Hathaway said.
Mr. Hathaway grew up in Edgartown but prefers the West Tisbury scene to down-Island.
“I love it up-Island,” he said. “Everyone up here is so much nicer. It’s a great atmosphere to work around.”
T-shirts, quarts of oil, air fresheners and extra car parts fill the one-room shop with the familiar white siding. But unlike many gas stations, there’s one staple missing. A coffee pot.
“I never did it,” Patrick Jenkinson said. “I just got one now for the employees but I’ve never had a coffee pot for the general public. That was something that Alley’s always did. I didn’t want to step on their toes.” The shop doesn’t carry groceries for the same reason.
Up-Island Automotive has long been a family affair. Patrick began working the pump in high school every day after school and on weekends.
“I was the kid who always had steady work no matter what,” he said. “You were always the first one to know what was happening on a Friday night.”
After a few years in college and “working in the real world,” Patrick returned home. His sister, Holly, now a top executive at Dreamworks, tried out the family gig for one shift and didn’t look back.
“She came in here to pump for one day when I started . . . she looked at me and said, ‘It’s all yours, I don’t want anything to do with it.’ I think she worked about one whole shift here and that was it. I’ve been running it ever since.”
Patrick’s 15-year-old son Wyatt works the pump from time to time. Wyatt isn’t shy to introduce himself to customers, Patrick said, frequently placing his elbow on their windows and asking how he can help.
“I don’t know where he gets that from; he’s a social butterfly so it’s the perfect job for him.”
At 44, Patrick has long gotten over “the stigma of, oh my God, you’re still pumping gas,” he said. After his wife Wendy died of brain cancer in 2008, he opted to take a managerial role “as opposed to a gas jockey” to spend more time at home with his son. During the months before her death, he was overwhelmed by the support from his customers, community and staff.
“These guys bounded around me like nothing else and took this place and ran it when I was gone,” he said. “I’m so thankful for everyone who’s ever worked for us or will work for us because it’s really what it’s all about.”
Patrick’s mother has also played a critical role in day-to-day management, most important as grandmother-in-chief.
“She goes and gets these guys food every day,” he said. Mrs. Jenkinson was on vacation this week and her son worried if the guys would go hungry. “One time she went away and set it up so the people at 7a would deliver breakfast sandwiches,” he said.
“I feel bad for her because feeding me has got to be tough; I heard my mother complain about it for years,” Mr. Sellitti said. “We’re lucky to have her.”
Mr. Sellitti, 22, has worked at the gas station for seven years.
“I like being able to catch up with people you see every week, and in the summer time you get to meet a lot of new people,” he said. “I get farmer-tanned every summer and I get to be outside. I enjoy working with people and interacting with them.”
Mr. Sellitti recently graduated from High Point University in North Carolina and this summer will likely be his last. He’s hoping to work for the FBI someday.
“It’s sad, this place has given me a lot but at the same time I have to start a career path. You make a lot of connections with people and it’s a great way to do some networking here and there, just a little bit at a time.”
Steve Serusa, 23, has also been at the gas station for many years. He began working there when he was 14 and has worked his way up to manager.
“The job, the environment, and Patrick and Joanie . . . and a solid crew bring me back every day, every year,” he said. “We’re one big family, we all work together and help each other out.”
Over the years, Mr. Serusa has seen his share of loyal customers who return to the gas station.
“You get a lot of everything,” he said. “You get the mad customers that aren’t mad, they’re just mad because they can’t get gas right away.”
The staff routinely has to ask customers who have cut in line to go to the back, he said.
“There have been some funny customer-on-customer events, bickering over who got there first,” he said. “But we kindly remind them . . . you’re all going to get gas, we’re not going to run out.”
With the first busy weekend of the season upon them, the crew has turned their attention to summer. Patrick plans to make his annual trip down to the regional high school to post a job listing, hoping to enlist a few more “gas jockeys” to the Up-Island Auto family.
“I want to get a couple of young guys in here,” he said. “These guys are getting old.”