Gas pumps, Americana memorabilia, in demand
By Bernie Schmitt
Gary and Veda Strate had always wanted to open an antique store.
So, two years ago they opened an antique store at 1339 Main St. in Vincennes, though it is the gas pump restoration business, done by Gary and his son Drew, that’s paying the bills.
“The antique market is way down,” Gary Strate said. “A lot of the other stores are gone. It’s a tough business, ever since eBay and things like that.”
Even so, the small shop is crammed full of interesting furniture and other interesting and unique antique items. There is Coca Cola memorabilia, advertising signs, and more. It’s a small shop that deserves more attention.
“There are some young people who like antiques, but not many,” said Veda Strate. “I have always liked old things. I even collect antique dolls.”
In addition to their own collections, the Strates had friends who were going to open an antique store themselves, but didn’t, and then the Strates obtained their antiques. They find things in their travels and others bring items in to sell.
Gary opened the restoration business around four years ago. Old gas, oil, and air pumps that are restored to look brand new fetch good prices, along with old advertising signs. He has restored more than 300 of them.
“It’s what’s carrying us through,” Strate says.
Restored pumps in demand
The family goes to three or four shows a year where they sell their wares. They travel to Chicago, Ohio, and other locations. He sold some of his work at an Evansville show earlier this year. His work is on display at an Evansville museum, at KCARC’s 1972 facility in Vincennes, and other places. Several of his restored pieces have homes overseas.
“Foreigners are crazy about this American stuff,” Strate said. “I have sold to people in the Netherlands and in Switzerland. They come to these shows (like at Chicago) with their own shipping containers.”
People have restored gas pumps or similar memorabilia in specific rooms they’ve designed, and there are people in Japan who have restored gas pumps, old Camaros and Mustangs, and other things displayed outside their homes.
Strate and his son focus on gas pumps from the 1920s through the 1960s, though he does have one of the first-ever gas pumps from the early 1900s. Nostalgia, at least for these kinds of things, is in great demand.
“The groups of people who buy are mostly those who remember it,” he said. “The U.S. runs off of its highways. Going to a gas station used to be an experience, a part of daily life that many remember. Things aren’t like that anymore.”
His restored pumps carry a “Service You Can Trust” emblem, identifying it as his restoration. Gas pumps sell anywhere from $1,500 to $3,000 or more, depending on the year and its rarity. Restoration is purely cosmetic, too. The pumping mechanisms are typically removed.
Nonetheless, Strate says a lot of work goes into restoring a pump that has been exposed to weather for more than 50 years. He may spend several weeks going through the stages of restoration, filling specific orders, and getting restorations ready for shows.
“I’ve gotten the work down to an art,” he said. “I’m faster than I used to be. I understand the work people used to do, and the pride and satisfaction they got from their work. It’s when you get older when you appreciate things like that.”
Strate once worked at Essex Wire, and before its shutdown, he’d travel on his days off, sometimes traveling all day, to come home with a truckload of antiques or old gas pumps. He has several stories about finding and obtaining gas pumps. One had sat on a family farm for 60 to 70 years. Its owner had gotten so used to seeing it he didn’t want to give it up.
“It took us seven years to get that one,” he said.
Strate said he likes going to shows because he and his family have met a lot of nice people.
“They like to tell us stories about the way things were years ago,” he said. “It’s personable. You get to see and talk to people. I’d rather do business with a handshake.”
Works of art
Gas pumps of yesteryear were works of art. Each one, especially with its pumps and signs, advertised its product. In addition, the advertising signs often told stories about a business or the product. The market has gone crazy with these things, Strate said.
“There used to be pride in what people did, in what they created,” said 17-year-old Andrew Strate. “There is no design in these things today.”
The younger Strate is learning the art of restoration from his father. They work together a lot during summer days, when Andrew isn’t in school. He hopes to continue doing what his father does.
“I love it,” he said. “This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.”
His parents talk about the way things once were, too, when Mom and Pop stores dotted the American landscape, and when taking a trip, usually along Route 66, was as much a vacation as the destination. Most people shopped locally, and every place was unique, including gas stations.
“I guess we’re considered ‘old school,’” Strate said.
“It’s personable. You get to see and talk to people. I’d rather do business with a handshake.”
— Gary Strate
“I’d prefer it that way,” says Andrew.
“It’s nice when people come in and we hear grandpa telling his grandson stories about yesteryear,” Veda said. “We try to treat everyone like a customer. People like to be catered to.”
Making a lot of friends often leads to making a lot of sales, and that’s the personal touch the Strates prefer.
“We are always shooting for return customers,” Gary said. “We want customers returning to the shows to see us, and we want to get them into our store, too.”
People who pay Strate to restore their old gas pumps are often giddy with excitement when the job is completed. There is satisfaction to be derived from that.
“It makes you feel good,” Strate said. “There’s something about putting our product out there, and we can say, ‘We did this.’”