Village Exxon Service Manager Hope Whitby started the Art in the Shop series and Books in the Bay club in 2012, featuring the artwork and writing of local artists. Works by Lisa Mistry hang behind her. (Photo by Samantha Willis)
The cacophony of whirring air drills and revving engines at Village Exxon is frequently interrupted by inquires from customers streaming in the door, one after another. They need oil changes, they need their tires rotated, they need state inspections. Hope Whitby, the shop’s service manager, responds to all of those asks with quiet enthusiasm and a smile.
“It gets pretty busy in here after about two,” she says after hopping up three times to handle customers’ requests. She greets each of them by name.
Though she aspired to be a writer when she moved to Richmond in 1999, Hope paused her poetry after a car hit her while she was walking along a street. It took several years, and a curious customer’s query, for her to resume.
“I would sometimes share my poems with customers and people coming through the shop, just as a way of encouraging people,” says Hope as she sits in Village Exxon’s small lobby stroking Princess, the station’s tiny, friendly canine mascot. “Somebody came in one day, a while after the accident, and asked why I wasn’t writing anymore. That sparked me back into action.”
Hope’s new creative resolve manifested itself not only through her own writing, but also through an unusual idea: She wanted to share the work of local artists and writers inside the service station. What better way of spotlighting Richmond’s creative talent than showing it at Village Exxon, an established hub of the community?
Village Exxon owner Jim McKenna bought the shop in 1992 and says it is deeply rooted in the West End community. (Photo by Samantha Willis)
“We’ve been around for quite a while,” says Village Exxon’s owner Jim McKenna, a silver-haired graduate of University of Richmond with a grandfatherly air. He and his wife, Madeline, bought the shop, rooted at the busy corner of Patterson Avenue and Three Chopt Road, in 1992; it has been a West End fixture since 1960. He thought Hope’s idea a bit strange at first, but embraced it fully.
“The community — that’s what we’re all about, and that’s who we are,” he says earnestly. “So, I told her, if this was a new way for us to build up our community, to support the people who support us, I’m all in.”
The first art show at Village Exxon was in 2012, featuring portraits by Richmond photographer Scotty Pels. It served as a fundraiser for the Wounded Warrior Project. “We put art on the car lifts and raised them, and we hung pieces from the bay doors,” recalls Whitby. The offbeat event was an instant hit.
A few months later, Hope organized the shop’s first poetry reading, and soon after that, the Books in the Bay book club. Since then, a range of local and nationally recognized writers, poets and artists have graced the bays to present their work, including spoken word artist Nathan Richardson, author Dean King, and writer and Richmond Young Writers Club founder Valley Haggard.
Books in the Bay meets once monthly, and its membership is growing. “We’ve had people drive down from D.C. to attend,” Whitby says. The next meeting will be Feb. 19 at 3:30 p.m.; they’ll delve into young adult novel “The Boy Who Killed Grant Parker” by Richmond author Kat Spears. When I ask Spears if she’s ever done a reading in an auto shop, she answers, unsurprisingly, no.
“But, a crucial part of my book takes place at a service station, in an oil bay, actually; at first I wondered if that’s why they’d asked me to come,” she says wryly.
Every other month, the work of a new local artist is displayed in the front office of the shop. “I promote them in our newsletter, and they can sell their work,” says Whitby. The work of artist Lisa Mistry, who has a gallery in Petersburg, is up now through the end of February.
“It was a good way to use the space, because before, we just had a bunch of car-related stuff up there, tips and posters that nobody read anyway,” says Whitby. “We’ve had people come in here and buy a piece of art for the first time.”
Spears says Village Exxon’s commitment to supporting local artists provides encouragement and opportunity.
“Not all of us are full-time artists and writers; many of us work other jobs to support ourselves. [Village Exxon] gives authors an honorarium to come speak, and a place to promote our work, outside of the regular gallery or museum scene. That’s very important.”
To learn more about Village Exxon’s Art in the Shop or Books in the Bay programs, and to keep up with future events, sign up for their Braking News e-newsletter here.
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