For the past 16 years, Omar Belazi drew in customers by selling some of the cheapest gas on the South Coast from his independently owned American Fuel service station on De la Vina Street. But Belazi kept them coming back by dispensing advice, banter, good cheer, and more than occasionally a song — all for free. This idiosyncratic oasis Belazi created, however, is coming to an end as of July 23 when his lease expires. To say both good-bye and thank you, Belazi is hosting a farewell bash — live band included — for himself and customers this Sunday afternoon. “It’s not so much the store and the money I’m upset about,” said Belazi. “It’s that I’m going to lose a lot of friends.”
Mark Wells, owner of Suds and Duds on the Westside, has been an American Fuel regular the past seven years. He and Belazi talk kids, business, family, life, and, of course, basketball. Belazi, Wells said, predicted the Cleveland Cavaliers would come back to beat the Warriors for the NBA championship even though they were down three games to one. Of Wells, Belazi said, “When he came here he was grumpy and mad. I say ‘What’s up?’ Now when he leaves, he leaves with a smile on his face.” Sandra Tollefson started showing up about four years ago to buy cigarettes. Belazi, she said, has talked her down to just two smokes a day. With her back afflicted with a compression fracture, Tollefson said she walks from her home a few blocks away to American Fuel for “therapy” two times a day. But, she added, Belazi, who was born in Libya — sings to her in his native language and reads her passages of the Koran in English. “It’s not like any other station,” she said. “Or any other place.”
Belazi, now in his late fifties, grew up in Tripoli where he began working at age 6 — thanks to an uncanny ability to add up multiple numbers in his head — as a human cash register in his grandfather’s supermarket. He moved to Santa Barbara 40 years ago and got a degree in electrical computer engineering, a field he emphatically decided not to pursue. In the 1980s, he owned a gas station where American Fuel now stands, sold it, and began working for Radio Shack, where he distinguished himself as one of the chain’s most productive managers. In 1995, he opened the Radio Shack on the 600 block of State Street, and in 2000, he spearheaded what became a very successful class-action lawsuit, alleging Radio Shack abused salaried managers by making them perform countless unpaid hours doing nonmanagerial work. Belazi estimates he was working 60-70 hours a week. Ultimately, Radio Shack agreed to pay $30 million to be split among 1,300 store managers throughout California and the six attorneys who took his case.
After a two-year hiatus, Belazi was back in business pumping gas on De la Vina Street, operating a garage, and selling snacks, drinks, and packs of cigarettes. For the past 16 years, he’s worked even longer hours, from 7 a.m.-8 p.m. six days a week. For 15 years, relations between Belazi and his landlord were cordial and constructive. What happened after that, Belazi said he doesn’t want to talk about. A new gas station will be sprouting up when Belazi vacates the premises. What Belazi will do next he doesn’t know. “One chapter of my life is closed,” he said, “and another will open up.” But for customers like Wells and Tollefson, the transition could prove rough. “I’d come here and there would be a singing mechanic,” Toleffson exclaimed. “He used to sing the blues. Now he doesn’t sing anymore.”
By Paul Wellman