by Patrick Hussey
HARDWICK – At approximately 4 p.m. this Friday evening, at Brochu Citgo Service, a staple auto repair business in Hardwick’s downtown since the late 1920s, Larry Brochu will push the close button on the automatic doors for the last time.
Larry’s brother, Richard Brochu, who has owned the business with his wife, Marsha, since 1982, unfortunately will not be in attendance for the final day. Richard has been battling a spinal epidural abscess in his back since early March and has been hospitalized with the condition ever since.
Friday, May 13, will be the official closing day of the business. On Wednesday, May 25, an auction will be held at the garage to sell off its contents.
The automotive repair business on Mill Street was opened around 1929 by Ted O’Malley. On June 27, 1957, O’Malley had an ad in the Hardwick Gazette thanking his customers for 28 years of service.
The Esso Service Center turned over to Al Lambert, who ran it until 1970, when Ken and Hollie Williams bought him out. They ran the business until Richard’s dad, Mike Brochu, who also owned Mike’s Gulf Station, bought it in 1975.
The name given to the new business was Pop and Son’s Exxon. Richard and Marsha bought the garage in 1982, and about a year later, they changed the name to Brochu Citgo Service. Larry Brochu was Richard’s first and really only employee and the two have run the business for the past 40 years.
As Larry Brochu cleaned up his tools before closing last Friday night, his thoughts were with his ailing brother and boss. “I sure would like for my brother to be home,” he said. “He ran this place for 40 years. It’s a shame he can’t be here to be a part of this. It’s really the end of an era.”
The entire Brochu family, all seven boys and one girl, grew up in a garage. Their father, Mike, had each of the boys working in some capacity early in their lives. Larry remembers starting around the age of nine. When other kids his age were home watching cartoons on Saturday mornings, Larry was down to the Gulf Station washing cars.
He remembers getting paid 25 cents for every vehicle he washed. His father taught him the proper way to wash a car. Larry recalled one Saturday he washed 12 cars, which put $3 in his pocket. He splurged the next Friday night, going to the movies, easily paying the 35 cents admission along with a 15-cent bag of popcorn.
Richard was the oldest of seven boys who worked under his father. The others included Andre, Charlie, Larry, Mike, Tom, and Bernie. Mike and Tom currently run Mike’s Service center. There was one daughter, Michelyne.
In 1970, the average price for a gallon of gas was 36 cents. Today it’s just over $4. A lot has changed in the automotive business. Larry remembers selling a quart of oil in a round cardboard can. The can had to be pierced with a metal spout without crushing it, making sure it was well seated so the oil wouldn’t spill everywhere once it was poured. Today oil is sold in rectangular plastic bottles with a twist off cap.
Brochu Citgo became a downtown destination over the years. With the very personable Richard at the helm and being located just across the street from the post office, locals poured into the place for service, banter and local gossip. “We’ve helped a lot of people over the years,” said Larry. “And we’ve met an awful lot of nice people.”
In addition to running his business, Richard Brochu is a dedicated community man. He served on the select board, joined service organizations like the Knights of Columbus and Kiwanis, helped run alumni banquets, ran Hardwick’s softball league and the Mountain View Country Club Tuesday night golf league. He has been in Dan Hill’s baseball pool over 40 years and he and Mario Fradette have probably cooked more chicken together than Colonel Sanders.
No one knows more about the who, what, when, where and whys of Hardwick than Richard. He grew up under his dad, gathering knowledge about the older generation. Richard obviously knew his own generation very well and has kept pace learning about the younger generation. He knows Hardwick in and out. He’s a walking Wikipedia and has memorized enough local knowledge to fill up a hard drive.
To say Richard knows his customers is a vast understatement. He has an enviable mind. The guy doesn’t need a phone book, he has scores of phone numbers memorized. He knows where customers live, he knows who their parents are and who their parents were, he knows all your brothers and sisters, and he knows your first, second and third cousins. He even knows your neighbors. He has memorized birthdays and graduation classes. Richard is a 1968 graduate of Hardwick Academy.
Speaking through his wife Marsha, Richard said he enjoyed owning his own business after working with his dad since grammar school. He enjoyed helping people out and the challenge of diagnosing and fixing car issues.
The things Richard liked the least were arguing over a bill and pumping gas on cold and snowy days. Larry, who is uncommitted on what he will do next, said he would not miss freezing while working on cars in the winter. Richard guessed that possibly Reg Phelps is his longest running customer.
As for cars, Richard enjoyed working on domestic models, like Fords and Chevys. Vehicles he dreaded fixing were European models like Volvos and Audis.
About the time Richard and his dad bought the garage in 1975, Scott Calderwood arrived in Hardwick. He was driving a truck for Cabot Creamery and then went to work at Mount Mansfield, putting skiers on lifts. Calderwood had a broken down old Jeepster he used to drive back then and got shunned from a couple garages trying to keep it running.
He first met Richard when he needed his rusty Jeep repaired. “Richard took me right in,” said Calderwood. “Richard would work on stuff no one else would touch. He always told me, he hated rust, but he always said, Mr. Rust was his best friend.”
The two of them hit it off and became quick friends. Calderwood said Richard and Marsha attended his wedding in 1977. By the mid ’80s, Calderwood found himself in the insurance business and moved his office from Greensboro to Hardwick, just up the street from Brochu Citgo.
“I have nothing but good memories and big smiles when I think of the bar and grill,” which Calderwood nicknamed Brochu Citgo. “I’ve never laughed so hard in my life than when I was in there. All the nicknames those boys came up with, we would just sit in there and laugh and laugh and laugh.”
“I was in there almost every day,” Calderwood continued. “You know, I’d have to go to the post office, then I just had to swing in there and see what was going on. And guys like Dave Morse would be in there, and then of course we’d strike up a conversation about the Red Sox. I mean, just great, great memories from that place.”
Calderwood remembers the Knights of Columbus Super Bowl party got its start inside Brochu Citgo. Before the event moved to the K of C Hall, about a dozen or so guys would show up at Brochu’s garage for Super Bowl Sunday. They would hook up a television, had plenty of refreshments on hand, would fire up a grill to cook on and hook it to an exhaust fan to pipe the grill fumes outside.
Friday nights at Brochu Citgo became legendary over the years, Marsha’s brother Dana and Charlie Brochu were constant attendees. Scores of different friends would pour into the garage after 5 p.m. over the years and they would toast the end of the work week with laughter, banter and ridicule.
Calderwood said Richard was always a very giving person. He remembers once when their good friend, Robbie McKay, had no money and his van broke down quite a ways from town. McKay had it towed back to Brochu Citgo, and Richard not only fixed the van, but paid the tow bill for McKay.
Hardwick Town Manager Opie Upson was one of Richard’s only employees. He approached Richard in his early 20s about helping out during tire season and Brochu took him in. Upson loved learning the business and enjoyed those Saturdays, working until noon, then shutting down and shooting the breeze with everyone until 1 p.m.
Calderwood and Upson both got a kick out of watching Larry at the shop. Calderwood remembers Larry being underneath the rust buckets Richard would bring in, swearing at how engineers never made it easy to fix a car. Upson loved how Larry would tease kids who came in to fill up their bike tires with free air.
Upson remembered Richard estimating that roughly 2,500 people would visit the post office each day. Over the last decade, Upson said Brochu noticed he knew less and less people going into the post office. The town dynamics were changing.
Upson loved his time in the shop. “Richard always knew everyone’s birthday,” said Upson. “You could ask him about any family and he knew all of them and he even knew their maiden names. He has a vivid history in his mind of Hardwick family trees.”
“He was also the kind of guy that would keep you in the loop of what was going on in town,” continued Upson. “Those guys talked to a lot of people. Richard always knew how the town ran and you could always go to him for information and historical questions. That business has definitely been a mainstay in Hardwick. We’re going to miss him.”
Marsha Brochu said that she and Richard are indebted to the town of Hardwick. Speaking for Richard, she extended their deep and sincere thanks to all their customers for supporting their business over the last 40 years and said they will certainly miss them all.