March 22, 2018

A life on the corner

Observer photo by Jason Starr
Inez O’Brien – ‘Miss O.B.’ to many of her customers at the Shell station at the corner of Williston and Brownell roads – retired Saturday after 46 years as a store owner and employee.

‘Grandma’ O’Brien retires after 46 years

By Jason Starr

Observer staff

For 46 years, Inez O’Brien has staffed her post at the corner of Williston and Brownell roads as owner and front-end manager of the Shell gas station and convenience store there.

Her friendliness and constant presence has earned the nicknames “grandma” and “Miss O.B.” from three generations of customers. On Saturday, the store entered a new era without her, as the 71-year-old transitioned into retirement and handed the store over fully to her son Ladd.

“I’ve seen everyone in this neighborhood grow up and their kids grow up, and now they have kids,” she said, looking out the store’s front window to the bustling intersection that, when she and her husband Eugene bought the property in 1971, had just two stop signs.

Eugene is a native of Waterbury, but the couple was living in Inez’s hometown of Los Angeles when they decided to move East and start the business. They bought the store from the Phelps family, who also operated it as a gas station. About a decade after buying the store and living on site, the O’Briens replaced the building with the current structure and moved the family to a nearby home across Williston Road.

In the 1970s, before the bigger grocery stores came to town, the O’Briens’ store was a place people in the neighborhood would use for their weekly grocery shopping. The gas station has rebranded four times from Exxon, to Esso, to Texaco, to Shell.

“Williston has changed a lot, but not the character of it,” Inez said. “The people are still friendly.”

The O’Briens’ four children “pretty much grew up in the store,” she said. But only Ladd showed an interest from an early age in taking over ownership. Ladd took over nine years ago when Eugene retired and runs the store today with his daughter, Becca.

Inez worked four days a week until Saturday. She said she will still stroll into the store on occasion and be available to Ladd to fill in when an employee is sick or on vacation.

“I will miss it a lot,” she said. “I was really having a hard time with retiring, but it’s time to start living our life. I want to do some traveling. All of my sisters and brothers live out of state, and I want to be able to spend some time with them.”

Inez made a point to acknowledge Betsy Marshall, an employee who worked with her for 36 years, who died three years ago.

“She was my soulmate in here,” she said. “I miss her.”

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