Out of gas, but not the service of helping people

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Hillsgrove Servicenter on Post Road has been pumping gas since 1936, when Arthur DeFrance moved his family from Silver Lake in Providence because his son Alex had asthma and the air was “cleaner in Warwick.”

The station is still operated by the DeFrance family – the third generation brothers Arthur and Peter now run it – but come Dec. 7 (Arthur picked Pearl Harbor Day) they won’t be selling gas any longer. That doesn’t mean they will be folding up shop.

The sale of gas had always been a part of the service station business and, if the brothers had a say, it would continue that way. The issue is the four underground tanks the station uses. They are monitored regularly and they don’t leak, but to meet regulations they need to be replaced with double-walled tanks at a total cost of $176,000.

“My point of view is that I’d be faced with a 20- to 30-year note and I’d just rather not,” Arthur DeFrance said, taking a break from working on a van in the bay.

There are other considerations as well. With the continued widening of Post Road over the decades, the station has lost land to the road, and Arthur questions if there’s the land to meet setback requirements. Also, the excavation of the current tanks and the installation of new ones could take a couple of months, raising fears the business could lose customers.

That doesn’t seem likely. The DeFrance brothers have a loyal following who rave about their work.

Nancy, who lives on Lakeshore Drive, is likely to be one of them. She had heard about the work the DeFrances do and stopped in to see if they could fix the exhaust on her car. An appointment was set up for Monday, but Nancy was concerned that she couldn’t get a ride unless she came by very early.

“We’ll give you a ride home,” Arthur said in a heartbeat.

Nancy looked relieved, and then Arthur had a better idea – drop the car off Sunday and put the keys through the mail slot.

“By the time you wake your pretty eyes we’ll be working on it,” he said. It was a plan. Peter went over to the green chalkboard, the one that came out of the Hillsgrove School when it closed decades ago, and jotted in Nancy’s appointment.

The station office is a far cry from the polished counters and computers of dealer service centers where customers can help themselves to free coffee while watching television or focus on their smartphones as their car disappears for an oil change.

At Hillsgrove that’s different.

“You are talking to the guy working on the car,” he said.

Arthur finds a tag with a string on it from the papers spread across a desk.

“Park alongside the garage,” he said to Nancy, pointing. “Lock it and drop the keys with your name on it through the slot.” Nancy smiled. She was happy.

That practical and personal way of doing business has been a Hillsgrove Servicenter trademark for years.

Arthur remembers his father’s advice: “‘You can screw everyone once but you can keep them a customer for a lifetime.’”

The station’s clientele includes a number of companies that have accounts. Arthur holds up a board with slots filled with receipts for work done and gas purchased at the station.

“We’ve been the gatekeepers for a lot of companies,” he says.

He tells the story of how one company noticed the gas mileage on their trucks suddenly improved when they required their vehicles to use Hillsgrove. They learned that one driver had had family members follow him and gas up their cars when filling company trucks on the company credit card.

Hillsgrove has always been a full service station, and Arthur wonders what will become of some of the older and handicapped drivers who need that service when they no longer pump gas. But then the station is likely to continue its ways of helping people.

Arthur says the station deserves the “Robin Hood Award.”

“We try to help people who need help,” he said. That has meant setting up weekly payment plans for some customers who don’t have the money to pay the bill at once.

Arthur said today’s cars with their computer systems are more complicated, but they have the diagnosis equipment and the know-how. While there isn’t a computer in the front office, there is one in the garage, and it gets used.

Arthur muses about the changes in automobiles and then laughs. He grew up pumping gas and he also pumped his own gas, so when he pulled up to a self-serve station while on a trip with his girlfriend he was at a loss of what to do. The girlfriend showed him how to use his credit card. Naturally, he then pumped the gas.

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