Kenneth “Dusty” Bowlin pops the hood on Nyle Fields’ Honda Civic, checking the oil and other fluid levels while he tops off the gas tank. He banters with this longtime customer even as he checks tire pressure and cleans the windshield.
It seems like just another day at Bowling Green’s Dusty’s Auto Care, the Marathon service station that is a throwback to the days when Bowlin started working at gas stations in the 1970s – except that this day includes a few more concerned comments from regulars such as Fields.
Dusty’s is closing, ending Bowlin’s 42-year tenure at the 1200 Broadway Ave. location that has been a full-service gas station since it opened as a Standard Oil in 1960.
The news that Bowlin has a contract to sell the station and that it will probably be demolished to make room for an oil change business or converted to some other use is greeted with considerably less enthusiasm than the discounted gas prices he is hyping as he aims to empty his storage tanks by Friday’s closing.
“You’re closing up?” asked Alderson Clark, a regular customer who was paying for the gas he had pumped at the self-service section. “What am I going to do?”
That’s not an easy question to answer for those who have relied for their gas and auto maintenance on this station along one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares.
One such customer, Mary C. Steele, gave Bowlin a hug Wednesday morning after paying what will surely be her final bill at Dusty’s. “Dusty’s is more than a filling station,” Steele said.
“The people who have been running hometown businesses are like family. As they disappear and aren’t replaced by other hometown businesses, it changes the culture of the city and we lose something in the process.
“Dusty is an icon here. I don’t know what we’re going to do without him.”
Bowlin didn’t set out to become an icon back in 1977 when he began working the night shift at the Standard Oil that Allen Stewart was running. Bowlin and Stewart became partners in 1992, and Bowlin bought out Stewart to become sole owner nine years ago.
Through all those years of pumping gas and changing oil at the same location, Bowlin has earned more than a few loyal customers, many of whom have sent their children and grandchildren to Dusty’s.
A steady stream of those customers were stopping by Wednesday as word leaked that Bowlin was selling the place. He greeted them beneath the faded, cracking “Dusty’s Auto Care” sign and the peeling paint that were visible reminders both of the station’s long history and its familiarity for those who had been coming since the days when the sign was pristine.
“It seems like all I’ve been doing for the last three weeks is saying goodbye to people,” Bowlin said. “They’re more like friends than customers.”
Fields, who said he has been coming to Dusty’s since Bowlin took it over, is one such friend.
“You don’t find this kind of service at very many places,” Fields said. “I’ve known Dusty for years, and he has always done anything I’ve needed for my cars. He has good mechanics, and they’ve done a lot of work on my cars over the years.”
One of those mechanics, Ray Miller, said Wednesday that the only full-service gas station remaining in Bowling Green after Dusty’s closes will be Shipley’s Chevron on Center St. As he hustled between serving customers at the full-service pumps and working on cars in the station’s two service bays, Miller reflected on the loss to the community.
“I hate it,” he said. “A lot of older people and disabled people can’t pump their own gas. We do it for them. A lot of great people come through here. They’re like family.”
Miller, who has been at Dusty’s for 25 years, said he already has a couple of offers and will continue working as a mechanic. The future for the 65-year-old Bowlin is not so certain.
“I know everybody that comes in here, and that makes it hard to walk away,” he said. “I’m retiring, and I don’t plan to do too much for the first month or so.”
Bowlin does have one concrete plan that will take him out of his comfort zone.
“My wife and I are going to Florida the last week of the month,” he said. “We’ll go to Disney World. I don’t often go on vacation. I haven’t had a week off in 30 years, I guess.”