Georgia Clemons is only 5 feet tall, but she cuts quite a figure: pastel suit, black high heels, hair coiffed and a twist of pearls around her neck.
She looks as if she could be dressed for her monthly meeting of the Daughters of the American Revolution, where she has been an officer for many years. Or she could be on her way to her beloved Porter Memorial Baptist Church.
But she is standing behind the front counter of Georgia's Service Center, a circa 1963 filling station and auto repair shop at the corner of Nicholasville Road and Malabu Drive. She owns the place, and she runs it seven days a week.
"I dress like this every day," Clemons said. "It's a business, and my customers appreciate me looking professional. I never wear slacks — except when we have our DAR picnic."
Clemons greets everyone who comes in with a big smile. "I know 95 percent of my customers by their first names," she said. The seven men who work for her call her "Ms. Georgia."
Clemons plans a "grand reopening" Sept. 30, 11 a.m. — 4 p.m., to celebrate her station's recent switch to Sunoco gasoline. Gas will be discounted, and Sunoco will have a NASCAR race car there. The station had been independent after Chevron pulled out of Lexington.
"I just can't get out of the business," said Clemons, who has owned and managed three South Lexington service stations over 45 years. "It's a good business, but you have to be dedicated and work long hours."
Clemons works nearly 60 hours a week. "I don't work as much on weekends," she said. "I cook on Saturday and go to church on Sunday. But I'm always just a telephone call away."
She never intended to be a businesswoman, much less a service station operator. She was a kindergarten teacher in her native Lancaster when she married Gomer Clemons, who had a Sunoco station two blocks from her current location.
He wanted them to have the same schedule, so he asked her to quit teaching and help him at the station. "I said, 'I don't know anything about the service station business,'" Clemons recalled. "He said, 'There's nothing to it but meeting people,' and I love meeting people."
They sold that station in 1990, but Clemons was hooked. "Gomer loves retirement, but not me," she said. After a couple of years off, she bought a Marathon station at Southland Drive and Rosemont Garden.
"Naturally, when I went into business, he said I would fall flat on my face," she said. "But I said, 'I'll show you.'" And she did.
After a successful decade at that location, Clemons leased and later bought her current station, which is bigger and on a busier street. "I love Nicholasville Road," she said. "All the hustle and bustle."
Clemons said talented mechanics, reasonable prices and personal service have kept her business strong. "Customers know we're honest," she said.
The new partnership with Sunoco included new pumps with automatic credit card readers. Her customers like the convenience, she said, "but they still come in to say hello."
Doug Logan was one of those customers last week. "When I get through pumping gas, we get to talking," he said. "She's a good lady."
Another was Ann Latta, a Realtor who works nearby and has been a friend and customer for 20 years. She had stopped to visit and have a candy bar earlier in the day, then came back later because she realized she had forgotten to pay for it.
"Everybody is somebody special when they walk in the door, whether or not she's ever seen them before," Latta said.
Georgia's is one of the few stations that still offers full service, which includes cleaning the windshield, checking tire pressure and checking under the hood. Full service costs 25 cents more per gallon, although there's no extra charge if the customer is handicapped.
Regular customers whose cars use premium gas know to fill up on "Wacky Wednesdays," when it is discounted 7 cents a gallon. Compressed air is always free, even for customers who don't buy anything.
Clemons' mechanics work on all car makes and models. Because the station is open every day, from early morning until late at night, wreckers often bring in new customers whose cars have broken down.
"They know we're going to make every effort to fix them and get them back on the road and not charge them an arm and a leg," she said.
Clemons' senior mechanic, Logan Adams, has been with her since she got back in the business with the Marathon station in 1992, and he had worked for her husband before that. Many other employees, including grandson Jason Hale, have worked there for many years. Supervising men has never been a problem. "We're just friends," she said. "But they know what I expect."
The station has never been robbed — there is little money there; most customers pay by credit card — but Clemons keeps an old baseball bat behind the counter, just in case.
She has no plans to retire. "Retire? They'll have to carry me out," she said. "I think you stay younger longer if you're working. You stay healthier, too. I can feel terrible, and I come to work and forget all about it."
Clemons acknowledges that she is old enough to retire, but she won't be more specific. "My mother always said a lady who would tell her age would tell anything."
"She's the only person I know who gets younger every year," said Shannon Morris, a former employee who now teaches auto mechanics at a state technical college but still comes in to help.
Running Georgia's Service Center is one of the joys in Clemons' life, along with family, church and the DAR. "I just have a love for people," she said. "You make friends in this business. They're not just customers; they're friends."
Reach Tom Eblen at email@example.com or (859) 231-1415 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 1415. Read and comment on his blog, The Bluegrass & Beyond, at Kentucky.com.