Kate Medley likes to eat lunch at gas stations.
She developed the habit in the early 2000s, soon after she’d started her career as an itinerant photojournalist covering politics and social justice in the American South. Her work often takes her to small communities where lunch options are often limited. Between fast food and whatever the local gas station has on offer, she says, the latter is the way to go.
Medley’s first foray into professionalizing her lunch routine was in 2012 when she photographed and coauthored an INDY Week story about gas station food in the Triangle. After the story was published, Medley, a Durham resident who grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, continued the project, eventually landing a book deal with the Bitter Southerner.
Her decade-long journey culminates next month with the release of Thank You Please Come Again, a hardcover collection of photos capturing 75 gas stations—“filling stations,” as Medley calls them—across 11 southern states.
While food is a focus in Thank You Please Come Again— mouthwatering depictions of a sushi restaurant tucked inside a Han-Dee Hugo’s had us hightailing to Apex—the book isn’t exactly a guide to eating along the interstate. Some of the stations in Medley’s images have closed. BMW Pit Stop, for instance, a gas station that Medley photographed in Moon Lake, Mississippi, shut down several years ago.
But the photos of BMW Pit Stop—one of which shows a handwritten note taped to the door reading, “If you need something and we are closed please call Kevin, I’ll come right over and get it”—will still tell you a whole lot about the culture in Moon Lake. Through Medley’s loving eye, we get a look at how gas stations can function as mirrors of their surrounding communities, and we see what’s lost when they shutter.
To mark the book’s release, the INDY sat down with Medley to discuss her photography, her time on the road, and her research into the history of gas stations.
INDY: How did you decide which gas stations to visit and photograph?
MEDLEY: A lot of the time, there was just something in my gut that caused me to pull off the road. In retrospect, I primarily visited independently run gas stations. Some of them were affiliated with corporate oil companies, but they were usually locally owned. There was sort of a framework of “If the head of marketing isn’t behind the cash register, then I’m gonna move on.”
I was always looking for a sign of the human hand. That’s a terrible way of putting it, but, like, I was looking for a sign of a person’s touch. At one of the first places I stopped, there was a cascading row of hand-painted signs out on the highway. There’s something about the imperfections of a hand-painted sign—it’s like a language to me. You start looking for the person behind it.
I did notice a lot of handwriting in your photos.
It’s one of the greatest art forms. It points directly back to a person: how the person is feeling that day, where the person comes from, what the person’s vision for their business is. So handwriting was always a big initial draw for me. Then you get inside, and you see the little pieces of Saran-wrapped cake at the cash register. You see a bulletin board with signs for a lost dog or some wacky class. You see all these reflections of the community.
A lot of the places you stopped at had taxidermy on the walls. Is that common? Or were you seeking it out? I don’t know that I’ve seen taxidermy in a gas station before.
There’s a lot of taxidermy in the Florida Panhandle. But it’s in other places, too. One of the taxidermy images in the book is from Heritage Grill in Durham.
It’s definitely a subculture within Southern gas stations. Hunters will stop by in the morning to fill up their thermos of coffee or get a sausage biscuit. Then they’ll go kill deer. Then—in Hurdle Mills, for instance—they’ll bring the deer back for processing at the gas station. So these places will put trophy photos on the wall or hang the deer heads on the wall.
You also took a lot of photos of workers. Some are posing, but most are shown in their natural state. It’s refreshing to see pictures of service workers who aren’t being forced to smile.
This is a book about the working-class South. It’s a book about the people who keep the South in motion, literally and figuratively. These businesses are run by workers, and their customers are largely workers.
Talk to me about how gas stations have evolved over time.
It used to be very common for gas stations to have full-service mechanics. That was their economic driver. Today, we see much less of that. You see a lot of these places, especially in more economically depressed areas, ripping out the gas tanks and just going with convenience store and food offerings. So that’s one aspect of things.
We’re also seeing a lot of emerging foodways happening in the backs of these places. The majority of gas stations in the United States are run by immigrants. I would love to see a master’s thesis charting the population shifts in the United States by way of gas station food.
There’s a great spot in the back of a BP in Raleigh. It’s an old lunch counter that’s now a taqueria. And they have really good food. I mean, they hand-make the tortillas. I went there 10 years ago for the INDY story, and then I went back six months ago. There’s no signage, and they don’t speak English, and there’s a line out the door at lunchtime. They are getting the workers of central Raleigh through the workday.
How did people typically react when you would come in and start taking photos?
A lot of them were confused. There was a place I visited in Cameron, North Carolina. It’s just a regular gas station. The owner told me that on Friday nights, there are like 100 people in there, because it has all these pool tables in the back. But I was there on a Tuesday morning or something, when it was empty.
I asked him, “Hey, would it be OK if I took a few photographs?” He’s like, “Yeah, sure.” Then he stands and watches me from the corner while I’m doing my thing. Afterward, he was like, “Why is this interesting?”
I asked how people reacted to you in part because your book frames gas stations as homey and welcoming, but I think for a lot of people, especially for women and people of color, if you’re traveling alone in an unfamiliar place, stopping at a gas station can be kind of … scary? I mean, you just don’t know how you’re going to be perceived until you walk in.
What you’re saying takes me back to my research of these spaces in the 1960s. Black travelers had guidebooks and familial connections to guide them through networks of gas stations that were literal safe havens. And those stations had to function as more than just a place to get gas because they were so few and far between. They had to be the rest stop. They had to be the place to get hot food.
This book would be very different if it were photographed by anyone else. There were some places I didn’t feel comfortable stopping. And there were other places where I did stop, but where it was very evident to me that my presence as a white woman—for instance, in an all-Black community in the Mississippi Delta—was jarring for people. Taking pictures for this book was not worth unsettling people. So sometimes I would sort of read the room, buy a cup of coffee, and hit the road.
What’s the best thing you ate along the way?
I’m still thinking about a Cajun banh mi I got outside New Orleans. It was divine. Closer to home, in Greensboro, there’s an amazing Senegalese restaurant inside a Circle K. It’s called Saint Louis Saveurs. They serve hamburgers and chicken nuggets, but the whole rest of the menu is Senegalese food: jollof rice, okra soup, etcetera.
The space used to be a Dunkin’ Donuts. When you open the door, you still pull on the big D handle.
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