Commentary

Shaffer: Raleigh’s 50-cent Coke machine a cherished downtown throwback

jshaffer@newsobserver.comJune 29, 2014 

The Coke machine that stands in Boyette Automotive on Martin Street downtown still sells cans of soda for 50 cents. Owner John Boyette said Coke could take the machine if it raised the price.

JOSH SHAFFER — jshaffer@newsobserver.com

— On a corner of West Martin Street, inside an old auto machine shop, there stands a secret so precious I hesitate to share it – a stubborn remnant of days when pocket change bought more than a homeless man’s smile.

It’s scarcer than free parking, rarer than a phone booth and more nostalgia-inducing than a drive-in movie.

A 50-cent Coke machine.

For two quarters, one penny less than the price of a stamp, you can still buy a can of soda, pop or whatever regional dialect you prefer for a carbonated beverage full of sugar.

This beautiful anachronism exists only because John Boyette, the owner of Boyette Automotive, insists his machine dispense the cheapest possible refreshments. The Coca-Cola people advised him of the profits even a modest price increase might bring. He’d sooner they took the thing back.

“If they jack it up to a dollar,” Boyette told me, “we don’t need a Coke machine. We can go to Sam’s and just put them on ice.”

In the blinding light of the 21st century, we’ve adapted to paying for coffee with a $5 bill or a sandwich with a 20-spot – the cost of living in the glorious age of electric ear dryers and laser-guided scissors.

For me, it’s so head-turning to find somebody who could charge you more for something but doesn’t, that it merits a loud mention. It’s as much a treasure as a jukebox that still plays 45s, or a firehouse that still has a brass pole or a downtown newspaper that still has a two-story press inside of it.

I checked with the Coke people in Charlotte, and they informed me that Boyette’s machine is indeed a rarity, one of maybe a few hundred of its kind in the Southeast. Downstairs from me, a Coke costs $1.25 in a 20-ounce bottle.

This distinction has won Boyette many fans among the art galleries and design studios in the Warehouse District, his neighbors on Martin Street. To them, a 50-cent Coke is as adorable a throwback as a hurdy gurdy man – a pleasure worth walking three doors down.

“Over there, it’s going to be $2,” said Britt Freeman at Designbox, pointing in the opposite direction of Boyette Automotive. “And it’s full of ice.”

Boyette’s father J.L. started the business in 1949, and it’s been rebuilding engines on Martin Street ever since. For most of that time, the company has shared a relationship with the soda pop giant, even having its name hang on a Coca-Cola sign until Raleigh City Hall deemed it improper.

Boyette can remember drinking nickel Cokes from the machines that dispensed bottles, and you had to crack the caps off with the opener on the front panel. They also came with the city of origin stamped on the bottom of the bottle, and Boyette and his friends would take bets on who got the most far-flung location.

Now, Coke sets the price on Boyette’s cans. He just won’t abide a three-quarter soft drink. Coke also brings Boyette cardboard trays for storing auto parts. It’s a good relationship.

“We make no money off the machine,” Boyette promised. “We pay for the electricity.”

I don’t really drink Coke. I’m more of a plain seltzer guy, as drab as that sounds. But when I get the rare hankering, I’m dropping my quarters at Boyette Automotive. Then I’m squashing the can flat, traveling to 1977 and getting Dad to drive me to the recycling center, which pays 15 cents a pound for aluminum.

jshaffer@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4818

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