CHESTER, Maine — Between the runaway crude oil prices of several weeks ago and Wall Street’s more recent plummet, watching prices fluctuate at local service stations has become a new spectator sport.
But there’s one outlet, the Chester General Store, where the prices are always the same: ludicrously high.
For almost a year — as prices in Maine ranged from $4.14 a gallon to Tuesday’s low of $2.75 — the prices at the set of pumps at the Route 116 store have stayed at an abominable $5.89 a gallon for regular unleaded and $8.39 a gallon for super unleaded.
And what do you get for that price?
The listing, store owner Chris Priest explained, is actually a joke.
“We decided not to carry gasoline about two years ago because the price was so ludicrously high and I got tired of people asking if I was selling gasoline,” Priest said Tuesday. “They would still come up to the pump anyway, so finally I decided to jack the price up so they wouldn’t even try to get gas anymore.”
Priest recalled that when he bought the store he had to install new tumblers in the pumps to get them to handle gasoline that costs more than $3 a gallon. When the price of gasoline went over $4 a gallon, he quit selling, partly because he didn’t want to have to retune the pumps again.
That’s when he set the faux price at $4.79 a gallon, he said, and it worked for a while. Except for the occasional tourist, people stayed away from the pumps in droves.
Then a funny thing happened. The price of gasoline climbed so high that $4.79 a gallon seemed almost reasonable. The number of people seeking gasoline at Chester General started to climb again, so Priest adjusted it to its present rate.
“The primary business base I have understands what that’s all about,” Priest said. “We sell food and we have a nice business doing that. Our customers understand, but others do a double take. Some laugh and some just look at me like I’m an idiot. It’s OK. Life is too short to worry about what everybody thinks.”
Most people in the area know that the store doesn’t sell gasoline, said Dakota Downs, 22, of Lincoln.
“They haven’t had gas here for I don’t know how long,” Downs said. “Still, it’s kind of scary when you look at that price because you know that someday it’s going to get that high.”
The irony is that Chester General probably would have to charge something close to $5.89 a gallon to sell gasoline profitably, Priest said.
“Being only 10 miles or so from Lincoln, with all of its gas stations, it wouldn’t make any sense to sell gas at that kind of price anyway,” Priest said.
If the price of gasoline continues to plummet, however, and stays down, Priest said he probably would revisit the idea of selling gasoline.
Then the listing in front of the store won’t be a joke anymore.