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At Bryan’s Marathon in Cleveland Heights, the gas and repair jobs come with a side of full service

November 24, 2018

At Bryan’s Marathon in Cleveland Heights, the gas and repair jobs come with a side of full service

CLEVELAND HEIGHTS, Ohio – A man walks into the lobby of Bryan’s Marathon on Lee Road and asks: “Do you guys have air?”

Bryan Barrett quips: “I’m breathing, aren’t I?”

“I mean air for my tires,” the man explains.

“Oh yeah, I have air,” Barrett said, cracking a grin. “Pull closer, and I’ll slip the hose under the garage door. Here, I’ll get it for you.”

Bryan Barrett, owner of Bryan’s Marathon in Cleveland Heights, has been working in the auto repair business since he was 14. He now knows most of his customers by name, and they say he is honest, reliable, trustworthy, and knows everybody in the close-knit neighborhood.

The 8th of 12 children, he followed three of his brothers into part-time jobs at what was then called Sohio, Standard Oil of Ohio, a successor of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil. A 1978 graduate of Cleveland Heights High School, he spent a year at Cuyahoga Community College, but ended up coming back to the garage.

“I enjoyed it. I enjoy helping people,” he said. “I do not like to sit inside an office. I don’t mind the cold or the heat. This is what I wear all winter log: short sleeves.”

“Gas was 39 cents a gallon when I started,” he said. “There were more stations and less cars. Back then, you only had one car in the family. Now every kid has a car, and there’s less and less places to get them serviced.”

When Barrett isn’t tinkering under a hood, he is hosting car washes for local students, selling Girl Scout cookies for a neighbor’s daughter, and pumping gas for customers who ask.

“Nobody gives full-service anymore,” he said. It helps set him apart, and keeps people coming back to his station even if they don’t live in the Heights. When one woman pulls up to the pump, he points her out to one of his workers: “She’s full service. Fill her gas, check her tires, everything.”

“Other places don’t care and won’t help you,” said Mary Ann Katzenmeyer, who still patronizes Bryan’s station even though she lives in Shaker Heights. “But here, they care. It’s just personal here.”

Customer Ann Donkin agrees. “I drive an old car — a ’92 Ford Ranger — so I pick his brain all the time about what’s going on with it. He’s always super helpful. He’s kind of like my big brother. He’ll harass you in a big brother kind of way. He’s fair, he’s honest, and he isn’t going to sell you more than what you need. There’s not a lot of people like him around. I get my gas here, too, because I like to support him.”

When she tries to pay him for topping off her transmission fluid, Barrett reminds her that she’s coming in for some major engine work soon, and says he’ll get it from her then. She smiles, climbs back in her truck, and drives away.

Barrett teases a customer wearing cargo pants under her jacket. “You have so many pockets! Your shirt, your pants, your jacket,” he said, holding open the door. She playfully jabs him in the stomach as she walks in to pay.

“I’ve known him forever,” explains Jennifer Cavatino. “He’s always so kind, generous, helpful, and always thinks of others. He does work for everybody. He cares about people.”

Bryan’s Marathon hosts fund-raising car washes almost every weekend in the summer, because Barrett likes giving teen-agers a chance to work for their money. He doesn’t mind them using his water or tying up his lot. “I figure if I give to them, they’ll help me out” by buying his gas, he said.

He also sells Girl Scout cookies for a neighbor’s daughter, and pauses his work to keep an eye on the schoolchildren walking to and from school across busy Lee Road.

“He’s always willing to stop everything he’s doing to help you out,” said Aisha Ellis. “He’s more than just a businessman; he’s just a really hard-working nice guy.”

Unlike most convenience stores, he doesn’t sell beer, liquor, cigarettes or lottery tickets. “I was broken into for cigarettes once,” he said. “It’s just not worth it.”

He gets to the station around 6:30 a.m., and starts the first pot of coffee for his regulars, who swing by to visit before it gets busy. Barrett works pretty much nonstop after that, chugging coffee, skipping lunch, and answering calls between walk-ins.

The station’s shelves are full of model cars, National Geographic magazines, and a book called The 1,911 Best Things Anybody Ever Said. But nobody notices.

Instead, from behind the Lemonheads, Slim Jims and Juicy Fruit on his counter, Barrett said he sells service. Regulars say no matter how many cars he has to work on, he usually answers the phone himself, and makes every walk-in feel like his only customer. “I don’t know how he does it. He’s like the Energizer bunny,” one woman marvels.

“I enjoy running around,” Barrett shrugs. “If I sit down, I’ll go to sleep.”

Barrett doesn’t know who will take over when he’s ready to step down. All three of his children, now 26, 22, and 17, learned to count and add on his register, but none of them want to run their Dad’s business. Their mother, Meg, keeps track of the paperwork. “Nobody wants to work with their hands anymore,” he said.

He employs five people. Mariono Griffin, 17, a senior at Horizon Science Academy, boasts: “I can do an oil change now, so that’s pretty cool.”

One man who asks Barrett to come listen to his engine says, “He’s saved my behind for close to 20 years. He’s one of the nicest individuals I’ve ever met. You won’t meet a nicer guy.”

He said that when his wife spun out in a winter storm and tore up the underside of their car, Barrett tossed him his own car keys and had the man’s sedan fixed in three days. When the man told him he didn’t have the $2,000 to pay the bill, Barrett told him he could pay it over time. “He doesn’t even know where I live,” the man said, still incredulous. “Who does that?”

When asked about the customer’s story, Barrett said he’s willing to be patient with customers he knows and trusts. “And I do know where he lives,” he added.

Another customer comes into the store as Barrett’s hands are busy repairing a tire. “I’m taking a cup of coffee, Bryan,” he announces.

“No chips?” Barrett hollers back, not looking up from his work.

“I’m taking a cup of coffee and a bag of chips. Leaving the 50 cents for the chips here on the counter.”

Barrett nods, still not looking up, “OK. See you at church.”

The man nods and walks out the door. “See you at church.”

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