One of the last remaining icons of a bygone era sits at 2236 S.W. Washburn Ave., next to Shunga Park.
Washburn Auto Service Center — still advertising full-service gas to the end, a beacon of nostalgia in an otherwise self-automated world — closed its doors this week.
The man behind that service is Kelly Binkley, who has been a loyal employee of the business since he began working there as a student at Washburn University in 1980. Originally owned by Binkley’s uncle, Gerald Binkley, and known as Binkley’s Service Center, the business first opened in 1961 at S.W. 21st and Buchanan.
“My uncle was my greatest mentor,” said Binkley. “He taught me about ownership, leadership, and giving back to the community.”
The business moved to its current location the same year Kelly began working there. Gerald Binkley retired in 1999, selling the station to brothers who ran it under the name Burnett Automotive until 2005 when it was purchased by Big O Tires.
Kelly has seen the company through countless ownership transitions, market swings and seasons, sometimes working 50-80 hours a week, networking and building relationships for nearly 42 years.
“I try to make everyone feel like they’re part of the family,” said Binkley. “It’s a very diverse business because of our location. We get some of the wealthiest and some of the poorest in Topeka, and I treat them all the same.”
Station brought introduction to wife
The most important relationship of Kelly’s life began at the station as well, when he met his wife, Kim.
“I knew she was in love with me right away,” he jokes.
Kelly met Kim when she pulled into the full-service spot at his gas island. He ran out to greet her and says he was immediately infatuated. Back then, the station was affiliated with the Phillips Co., and Kim handed Kelly her gas card before driving away and leaving it behind.
Kelly called the Phillips Co. to get Kim’s address so he could send her card back to her and learned that she lived in Topeka’s Potwin neighborhood.
“I made up a story about knowing one of her cousins so that I could talk to her,” he said.
His plan worked. Kelly and Kim Binkley have been married for 37 years and have two daughters and two grandchildren.
The station became a home away from home for Binkley’s daughters, Sarah and Megan, a place they hung their pictures and school artwork for the world to see while their father kept the business running.
Days spent multitasking and putting customers first
A typical day included opening and closing, paperwork, hiring and training new employees, inventory and ordering, taking care of his customers, managing the convenience store and gas island, and selling tires and vehicle services as need or making recommendations for repair work.
Binkley says multitasking was key to keeping things afloat.
“I’ve worked as many as 80 hours a week because we didn’t have help. We’ve run a pretty lean crew most of the time,” said Binkley. “I didn’t intend to be in this field as long as I have.”
Auto service is in Binkley’s genes. His grandfather owned a service station in Nortonville and another uncle had a place at S.W. 29th and Fairlawn in Topeka. That kind of longevity in the same industry has made Binkley a well-known figure in the community.
He has serviced the vehicles of local politicians and talked sports with former Washburn men’s basketball coach Bob Chipman.
According to his daughter Megan, Binkley has taught younger generations how to maintain their vehicles, along with the art of customer service, and connected with people of all demographics and walks of life over the years. They bring him lunch and Christmas cookies, and recognize him all over town.
“I’ve met so many great people who have been so great and given me so many gifts,” said Binkley. “It’s helped build me as a person. I’ve learned how to read people, how to withstand adversity and change. I’ve gotten more than I’ve given.”
When the station last changed ownership in 2011, the Binkleys considered purchasing the business but ultimately declined the offer. The service center was slated to close its doors on Tuesday, days before the Thanksgiving holiday.
Binkley said he was told that a combination of factors prompted the closure, including leasing issues, changes to underground fuel storage regulations and difficulty staffing the business for the past six months.
A move to Darrell’s Service
Since Binkley planned to work a few more years before retiring, he will finish out his career at Darrell’s Service at S.W. 21st and Gage, where he and owner Kevin Colhouer have known one another for the past three decades. Binkley said he looks forward to seeing the familiar faces of the customers who have trusted him with their vehicles over the years.
“It will be a compliment to see them,” said Binkley. “When somebody comes back, it’s the biggest compliment I could have. If you treat people right, they’ll come back.”