Farewell to the Pukinmäki Esso
The last REAL service station in Helsinki makes way for an ABC
By Jarmo Aaltonen
"Your food's getting cold", Minna Hakkarainen calls across to Gerd Kamke as she takes a plate over to Jari Silvola, who has just stopped in to eat at the Pukinmäki Esso.
Kamke stands with a pair of parrot-nose pliers in his hand as if he was off to the grease-pit, but he's not.
"Put these aside somewhere for safe keeping. Someone left them by accident on that table", says Kamke and passes the pliers to Hakkarainen, and he goes back to his lunch.
The Pukinmäki Esso service station is more than handily placed for Kamke, as his company is based in Pihlajamäki and he lives in Tapaninvainio, and Pukinmäki is slap-bang between the pair of them.
And to make matters even simpler, the place is run by Tapani Holm, whose previous service station in Pitäjänmäki used to be Kamke's local a quarter of a century ago.
Holm took over the Esso here in 1986.
And he clearly made a pretty good fist of it.
But the days are numbered for the Pukinmäki Esso, an absolutely legendary place through the metropolitan area for the quality of its service.
The station is going to close on May Day, when work starts on converting it into an ABC outlet, one of those establishments - often open 24/7 - owned by the S-Group and with pumps and a shop, and a restaurant, and just about everything else - except someone to fix your car.
The remainder of the stuff at the Esso will be going under the auctioneer's hammer on May 3rd.
For Gerd Kamke, the closure is a bitter, bitter pill.
"For me, it is important that I get decent service, and I'm willing to pay for it. Round here I've been able to get everything from the same place - tyres changed twice a year, autumn and spring, car wash, regular service, repairs when necessary, and food and drink, all from a competent and friendly staff. It's a crying shame it's all going."
"A shame" is the sentiment expressed by Jari Silvola, too. His company's delivery vans have always filled up here.
"I've been around these streets since I was a little kid. This is like coming home. And from this Esso you've always been able to get more than just a hotdog and a tankful of unleaded."
Every Friday, like clockwork, the delivery trucks will come in here to fill up before going off to the depot, Silvola says, just as Kaius Heiskanen swings onto the forecourt in his bread van, another of Silvola's fleet.
"Nowadays when the authorities are tough on enforcing drivers' rest-times, oases like this are important. You can get your car fixed up, and yourself", adds Silvola.
A car draws up at the pumps, next to Heiskanen's truck. It is driven by Sven "Svenkka" Holm, Tapani Holm's 83-year-old father.
He used to be a building contractor, who built gas stations for Esso. Then when the Esso in nearby Malmi couldn't find an entrepreneur to run it, Holm stepped in and managed the place himself for 25 years.
The entrepreneur gene was passed on. At one stage, the family was running five Esso stations, as Tapani's brothers Risto and Juha Holm were also in the business.
Tapani Holm has been interested in things technical ever since he was a boy. And customer service became a passion along the way. The man who started his first gas station at the age of 21 has plenty of stories he could tell about families whose holiday in the car has been rescued from disaster at the service station.
The Pukinmäki Esso has specialised in electrical repairs, as batteries, dynamos, and starter motors are often the first things to go, especially in older models.
The service crew has also dealt with fan belts and timing chains, changed lamps, fixed up mufflers and exhaust manifolds, and nursed distributors and fuel pumps back to health.
Customers come here from other gas stations farther afield, where the grease-pits are no longer occupied.
"You know what? Just now we had a lady coming in who'd bought some wiper blades from the Shell in Lauttasaari [way out west and nowhere near Pukinmäki], and the sales clerk there, he told her to come here and get them fitted", says Holm with a shake of the head.
Head mechanic Sami Hyrske, who has worked at the Esso for nearly twenty years, tells a story about a bunch of guys who had been planning, for years on end, this big trip to Europe on their motorcycles.
Then when there was about an hour and a bit until the ferry was suppose to leave, one of the biker's had the battery on his Ducati go west.
One of the group had the wits to call up the Pukinmäki Esso, where they found a battery to match, and the bikers made their connection.
Then there was the famous case (reported in this paper, too) when the Pukinmäki Esso spared the blushes of the national broadcaster and its evening newscast.
The Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE) had given its evening news bulletins a new look and a new studio last September, but a couple of hours before the maiden transmission with the revamped studio and desk and theme music and all, the Italian-made ceiling camera decided not to cooperate.
System engineer Pertti Sirén hazarded a guess that the camera, mounted on a rail, might be persuaded back to life if it could be hooked up to a couple of 12-volt car batteries.
But where would one find a car battery at this time of the evening - on a SUNDAY?
Someone remembered there was this "old-fashioned service station", and the YLE TV head of news Hannu Kataja jumped into his car and drove to Pukinmäki.
When the news anchor started to read the 6 o'clock news, the Italian camera was whirring cheerfully along its rail over his head, powered by two trusty car batteries, courtesy of Pukinmäki Esso.
Sami Hyrske's realm has spare parts and components stacked up from floor to ceiling.
For all that, the bigger repair jobs get done in Malmi, where Tapani Holm set up a workshop and spareparts outlet just over a decade ago.
The Esso's car and van rental business, which has now gone to Scandia Rent, will move a short distance away across the other side of the Inner Ring Road [Kehä I].
"This whole gas station thing has come down to selling potato crisps and beer. Of course it's a darned sight easier stacking the shelves with rice and sugar than it is to change the headlamp bulbs on a Fiat Stilo". mutters Hyrske.
Customers have asked with a worried frown - when's this all going to end - where will you be moving to - will there be a similar operation coming in your place?
"I'm afraid I have to tell them there won't be", says Holm.
Tapani Holm guesses that the farewell party for the full-time and part-time staff of around 30 "may turn out to be a rather emotional evening".
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 27.4.2008
Previously in HS International Edition:
Car batteries from nearby gas station rescue television news transmission (18.9.2007)
SOK Corporation to buy Esso gas stations in Finland (13.12.2006)
JARMO AALTONEN / Helsingin Sanomat