GARDNER – Talk about coming full circle.
For its first 25 years in business, Miller’s Garage – which opened at 207 East Broadway in 1963 – featured gas pumps in addition to automotive repairs. Among the family-owned business’s loyal customers was Blanche Kinner, who as chance would have it, turned out to be the last motorist to fill her car at the station in the early 1980s, when owner Louie Miller made the decision to remove the fuel tanks and focus his business solely on fixing cars.
“I remember they told me they weren’t going to be selling gas anymore, but they gave me the last gas that was left in their pumps,” Kinner recalled. “They said I was their last gas customer.”
Business is handed from father to son in 1988
Ronnie Miller, who is Louie’s son, had been working at the garage since the age of 13, and had officially taken over the garage from his father in 1988. He was quietly planning his retirement in July and was waiting for the last of his customers to pick up their cars before he announced his decision to sell the business.
When there was a single car remaining in the lot, Miller noticed that the customer he was waiting for had a familiar name and he realized that history was about to repeat itself – after nearly 40 years, Blanche Kinner would be the garage’s final customer for the second time.
“My wife, Celeste, decided to mark the occasion by a taking a picture,” Miller said.
Time to make the announcement
And on that coincidental note, Miller announced to his 1,000-plus customers that he was retiring, effective July 25. He made the announcement via snail mail, which is not surprising for the owner of a garage who doesn’t own a cellphone, never uses social media, and has operated his business strictly through cash or check.
“I’d been thinking about (retirement) for the last couple of years,” Miller said. “I’m 64 now and I always had a goal of retiring around that time.”
His parents, Louie and Dot, opened their new Sunoco service station in Gardner after living in Leominster for less than a year, Miller said. The family moved into the house attached to the garage, and Miller said he remembered his father leaving the kitchen door open during dinner so that he could hear when customers pulled in for service.
“We were open from 7 in the morning until 10 at night, so he’d be down there pumping gas after 5 o’clock and running around, trying to eat supper by himself,” Miller recalled. “He worked pretty hard all his life.”
Questionable location works out
The new family business proved to be a success, despite the fact that several people had warned his father early on that opening a service station in South Gardner was likely a losing proposition, Miller said.
“Everybody used to use Route 2A back when my dad bought the business, but a lot of people told him that he would never make it because the new Route 2 was going in,” Miller recalled. “But it worked out fine because he was always busy, and we had plenty of customers. We always had plenty of work.”
Miller said that growing up around automobiles sparked his lifelong interest in cars, and he began working in the garage when he became a teenager.
“I started pumping gas, and I’d work there during the summertime, washing windows and things like that – when we did oil changes, we’d wash windows and vacuum cars,” Miller said. “There was always something to do, and my dad always kept me busy, and I’d work there after school.”
Building loyal customers
After Miller officially took over the business in 1988, he said he continued to practice the work ethic instilled in him by his father over the years – be honest, and always treat the customers with respect. The advice proved to be successful, as the garage continued to build a steady base of loyal customers mainly through word-of-mouth advertising.
“I remember when I was working with my dad and kids would come in and want air in their bicycle tires, and my dad always used to say that they were my future customers,” Miller said. “And then I would have people coming in with their cars who remembered getting air for their bicycle tires.”
Wives take care of bookkeeping
Miller said his mother played a critical role in the garage’s success, taking care of the bookkeeping and other paperwork. He said that family tradition continued after he officially took over the business in 1988, and that his wife, Celeste, took care of the behind-the-scenes tasks while he concentrated on fixing cars.
“(Celeste) always worked a 40-hour job besides doing all the work for the garage, and a lot of people don’t realize that without her I wouldn’t know which end was up a lot of times,” he said.
Miller, who said he was grateful for the support of the community over the past decades, said he was looking forward to doing some traveling in his retirement and spending time with his family, which now includes a new grandson. But he added that it wasn’t always easy adjusting to the idea of retirement after a half-century of steady work.
“This is all new to me,” Miller said.
This article originally appeared on Gardner News: Miller's Garage shuts its doors after six decades in South Gardner