‘Windle’s Union 76’ in the late 1970s
From 1968 to 2000 my family owned a gas station on Mercer Island called ‘Windle’s Union 76.’ I worked there in high school and college. My experience working at and operating the gas station left a deep impression on me. It is a major reason I became an advocate for small businesses. It is also what I consider my “real” education in life.
We had great times during our thirty years in business. The station closed in 2000 after we built many enduring relationships and served many people in a great community. The closing coincided with my graduation from college from the University of Washington and my desire to pursue a career in public service. Still, the lessons I learned as a small business operator remain with me. In Congress I would work tirelessly to make it less difficult for small business operators.
Life in a Small Business
From the outside, a family-operated small business can look like an obsession. For others, it looks like a second family, always competing for time and attention. The gas station represented not only a way of making a living for my family, but a way of giving and participating in the community. We received a lot back from the community as well.
My dad started working at the gas station as soon as he could drive. My brother and I did the same. We had a few other mechanics and attendants, but the family was the engine of the business. We kept it running for seven days a week and for most holidays. We would even work on Christmas Eve and then head straight from the gas station to my grandparents’ home nearby to celebrate the holidays with the family. It is the gas station that formed my understanding of community as an extended family.
The Community Gives Back
The station demanded a lot from us, but it also gave back to us in unexpected ways. Financial hardship led to me taking time away from school to save money for tuition. I would get creative to pay college expenses. To pay for books, for example, I would have car washes in the spring and summer. I would pull a few of my friends in to help.
James Windle, on the left; his brother, at right, is wearing the Seahawk’s sweatshirt
During one car wash, a customer on a Harley Davidson came through to buy gas on a rare sunny June day. He broke out some chrome polish and asked if we would do detail work on his bike. We agreed and worked for about 15 minutes. When we were finished he wrote a check, creased it, and handed it to me. When he left, my friend asked, “How much was that?” I opened it. It was enough to pay for half of my summer quarter’s tuition at the University of Washington.
This is just one example of how I benefited from our business’ reputation. We had a reputation as hard working, honest local business operators. We treated our customers fairly and they showed patience with us. I will be forever grateful for the generosity of our customers, who helped to support my college ambitions that took me through community colleges, Washington State University, and the University of Washington.
Fixing Flats to Fish and Chips
The facility is still there today. A significant investment was made to clean-up the site when it was clear the location was not profitable for a gas station. It is now a great small business called Freshy’s Seafood Market. They serve delicious fish and chips and sell fresh seafood, among other specialty food and drink. The old 76 sign still stands, declared a historic landmark, wrapped in plastic. It reminds me what my family gave to and got from the Mercer Island community over thirty years. There is also a Windle for Congress sign in the window
The facility today: Freshy’s Seafood Market
I know it is hard to be a small business operator. But after experiencing both the joys and hardships of operating a small business, I can say that as a member of Congress, I would focus on making the journey of small business owner easier.