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09-02-05, 09:31 AM
Valley Drivers Pay at Pump
No One Happy As Prices Soar
By Brendan Cooney
Valley News Staff Writer

Windsor -- Lorraine Richards was charging $2.99.9 a gallon for all grades of gas yesterday at her station in Windsor, and her price will not go up today. But that's not by choice.

Her 30-year-old pumps do not have a 3 in the dollar column. “Thirty years ago, they didn't think gas would go up to three dollars. One dollar was outrageous,” she said.

Buying new pumps would cost her $10,000 a piece, which she's not going to do any time soon. Instead, she's hoping to get a technician who specializes in old pumps to come update hers next week. But parts are hard to find, she said.

“I can't make any money on gas,” she said. “Everyone in town will be coming to me unless I can fix the pumps.”

Two of her employees pried off the front of one pump and scrambled to fix a gear, because even the $2.99-per-gallon price had thrown it off. “The gears aren't used to being turned up that high,” she said. “It's insane. Who knows what’s going to happen?”

Richards, who owns the Richards Gulf Station on Main Street, said she might ask the state Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets if she can somehow sell gas by the half-gallon.

But Richards said she was more worried about how low-wage workers would be able to afford gas than she was about her bottom line. “I feel like I should be giving out apology cards with the gas.”

Officials in the fuel industry blame a nationwide increase in gas prices on supply disruptions caused by Hurricane Katrina, which shut down a number of oil refineries along the Gulf of Mexico, one of the nation's most important oil producing areas. This week's increases come atop a 40 percent price rise in the last year that boosted the average retail price of unleaded regular to $2.61 a gallon nationwide last week, Energy Department figures show.

All over the Upper Valley, people were feeling the pinch yesterday.

At Dan and Whit's General Store in Norwich, prices soared 58 cents yesterday, from $2.62 per gallon in the morning to $3.20 in the afternoon, according to manager Dan Fraser. That's a 22 percent increase.

Up and down Main Street in Windsor yesterday, residents could not believe their eyes as they saw gas prices approach $3 a gallon.

“I can remember back when it was 13 cents,” said Bob Bartlett, 70, a farmer from Hartland.

But recent events have put things in perspective for Bartlett. “We're lucky we got it. We could be in New Orleans.”

Bartlett was chatting with owner Ken Brown near the cash register at Brown's Sales and Service, surrounded by 30 mounted deer antlers from animals Brown and his son have shot over the years.

The Browns say they don't make money from gas anyway. Their main business is selling and repairing vehicles. But soaring prices have affected their vehicle sales. “Nobody looks at a pickup anymore,” Brown said. These days, people prefer a Dodge Neon, Ford Focus or Chevy Cavalier because of their better gas mileage, he said.

“We've been spoiled over in this country,” Bartlett said. “I saw a woman who said she couldn't afford to take the kids out, so she leaves them at home. But she's driving this big SUV.”

Lead mechanic Paul Cormier walked by.

“What's up?” Bartlett asked.

“Gas prices.” Cormier said. “Ain't that the way?”

Cormier has worked at Brown's for 27 years. “I'm worried about my job,” he said. “People are going to stop driving.”

Cormier has dusted off a 1981 Honda 750 motorcycle to drive to work to cut back on gas expenses. “I haven't ridden it for five years.” The bike gets up to 80 miles per gallon, compared with 23 for his 2003 Grand Am, he said.

He said many people in town are riding motorcycles to save on gas. “Every morning at 7 a.m., I hear nothing but bikes. People I've never seen riding bikes. It's really unbelievable.”

On Route 12A in West Lebanon last night the prices at the Sunoco station ranged from $3.16 for regular to $3.36 for ultra. And across the street at the Mobil station, the prices ranged from $3.10 to $3.30.

Denise Labby, manager of Fleming Food Mart in Windsor, drives 30 miles a day from her home in Bellows Falls, Vt. “It's bad, but it's not that bad,” she said. “I don’t have it as bad as the people down South. I got a home to go to.”

Labby said the station is bracing itself for people driving off without paying for their gas. “We haven't seen any yet, but I'm sure we’re going to, especially when it gets dark.”

Outside, Clarence Hollis of Windsor was filling up his Jeep Cherokee with $47 of $3-per-gallon gas.

“They blame it on the storms and this and that, but I know it's not true,” he said. He blamed the price increase on President Bush. “I like the guy's attitude, but there’s something going on behind the scenes.

“I believe it's got a lot to do with this war. Five billion dollars a month for this war, and we're suffering; we’re paying for it.” Hollis served in the Marines for six years and supported the invasion of Iraq, he said.

Hollis drives a truck hauling chemicals and other freight for Land Air Express of New England, which has cut his hours in half since diesel prices started soaring two months ago, he said. His pay has dropped from $1,100 to $497 per biweekly check.

Carl Goulet, owner and pastry chef at Christopher's Cakes and Pastries on Main Street in Windsor, has raised the prices of his cookies once in the past six or eight years, he said. “But at some point it'll have to go up.” Goulet’s costs of delivering his cookies to groceries in Hanover and Lebanon are rising with gas prices, he explained.

His employee, Leigh Vincent, a bakery assistant, has been walking a mile to work this summer to save money. “It adds up pretty quick,” she said.

For Nancy Sutton of Windsor, escalating gas prices mean less family time. “I don't go to visit my relatives anymore in South Royalton and Randolph,” she said.

-- Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.