By Tim Kelly
The year was 1968. Future Stockton University Athletic Director Larry James was winning a gold medal in the 4-by-400-meter relay and helping set a world record in the Mexico City Olympics. Richard Nixon was starting his first term as president.
And the Wiesenthal brothers, Don and Glenn, were beginning their more than a half century of auto repair and gasoline sales at 860 West Avenue – the highly visible corner of Ninth Street and West Avenue in Ocean City.
Although the brothers had hoped to continue to stay in business, their attempts to buy the building were unsuccessful, and they lost their lease. The building, at a site occupied by a gasoline station since 1935, Don Wiesenthal said, is slated for demolition.
The location will soon be the site of a bank and a parking lot.
“I don’t think Ocean City really needs another bank,” Don Wiesenthal said. “It does need a gas station and a repair shop.”
Wiesenthal’s Auto Service will cease to exist at the end of the month. Don said he and his brother knew of the impending loss of their lease since last November.
“We’ve been looking for a new place to relocate, first on the island and then in Somers Point and in Marmora,” he said. “We had hoped to relocate nearby so as not to inconvenience our customers too much. We wanted to keep going. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t possible.”
Don Wiesenthal noted he was in negotiations with the owner of a building in Somers Point, and that the talks stalled and eventually fell apart.
“(The owners) wanted to rent it, but they kept adding new conditions to the deal,” he said. “We figured if there were this many strings attached now, we were afraid of what would happen later in the relationship. We figured it was just time to hang it up and move on.”
Wiesenthal said his repair shop and the gas station, which shared the same building but was operated separately, were victims of a much-needed plan to eliminate three other former gas stations, which were blighted and creating a bad first impression for visitors entering town via the Ninth Street Causeway.
The city plan called for the acquisition and removal of former BP and Getty stations on the north side of Ninth Street and a former Exxon on the south side. The closing of the gas station at Wiesenthal’s shop left the town devoid of all gas stations along Ninth, and also one of only a few remaining auto repair shops.
“I understand this was a needed thing, for the city, and honestly it is for the best,” Don Wiesenthal continued, “but it comes at a cost. Apparently we are part of that cost.”
The city of Ocean City earmarked over $1 million from its budget to clean up the area and made efforts to purchase the stations. Ultimately, Ocean City partnered with Cape May County to create a landscaped mini-park where the BP and Getty stations had been.
The county purchased the old Getty property for $650,000 through an open space grant and leased it back to the city for $1 per year. The former BP station was purchased in 2016 by the city for $475,000. An earlier county open space grant reimbursed the city for the cost of the old site.
A financial company said to represent a major banking institution purchased lots housing Wiesenthal’s shop and its attached, but separately leased and operated gas station, and a Sunoco station next door at 201 East Ninth Street.
Both properties stopped selling gas last December, leaving the 34th Street Sunoco as the only game in town for those wanting or needing a fill-up. Some consider that disturbing, considering Ocean City’s year-round population of roughly 12,000 people swells up to 150,000 between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
The old Exxon site on the in-bound side of Ninth Street was purchased by the Keller Williams real estate firm, which has proposed building a new office complex on the property. A park was installed at the site of the former BP and Getty stations on the out-bound side of the street.
Meanwhile, the Wiesenthals are doing their best to accommodate their customers in the waning days of the business. Don Wiesenthal said that two of their staff mechanics will be staying in Ocean City and were taken on as full-time employees by Millevoi Best Tire, one of the remaining repair shops at 604 Asbury Avenue. The staff at Wiesenthal will also try to complete all currently ongoing repair work before closing the doors for good.
“I always tell my employees to put themselves in the customer’s place,” Wiesenthal said. “Imagine being miles away from home on vacation and your car breaks down. That’s a bad situation to be in, and we should try to do everything we can do to help.”
Wiesenthal said in the past few weeks, as word has spread of the repair shop’s imminent closure, he has fielded many calls from longtime customers in far-flung locations.
“I’ve received calls from a lot of people from places like Virginia and remote parts of Pennsylvania,” he said. “They are all concerned about what will happen this summer if they break down. You’re going to have people with flat tires, broken fan belts and dead batteries who will have to rely on the kindness of friends to help them out,” he said.