Keep the change a day at columbia’s obama gas station as trump’s america dawns cover stories natural gas jokes


Since adopting its current name in 2011, the gas station at 5831 North Main St. has been a curiosity and a landmark. The store — which, to be clear, literally is called “Obama” and has the 44th president of the United States’ photograph on its sign, just above a scrolling digital board pitching, among other things, the “Coldest Beer in Town” — is a regular shopping spot for residents in the mostly black area of upper North Main.

The station generated local and national media attention when it adopted the Obama name in 2011. Attention only intensified as many locals began to consider the station a lucky spot to buy lottery tickets, a legend that was likely bolstered by several big-ticket winners, including a $2 million ticket, at the store.

“I think it’s a good idea that it’s named ‘Obama,’” says clerk Brandi Colon, a New York native of Puerto Rican descent who typically works the station’s cash register during morning hours. “We get people from out of town and they come and they’re surprised. They get excited when they see it. They tell us ‘Hey, keep the name. Don’t change the name.’”

As the Obama presidency winds to a close after eight years — and with America set to be governed by Trump, the caustic real estate baron who was elected with the support of people like former Ku Klux Klan Imperial Grand Wizard David Duke — Free Times wondered about the general mood at the Obama gas station. So we went to the store and spent a day chatting with the staff, jostling with the store’s vendors, gazing upon its sometimes-strange inventory and meeting its customers, a colorful cast of characters that, for the most part, inhabit the North Columbia neighborhoods near the station.

What we found was quintessentially American. A place where an immigrant is running a successful business — helped, no doubt, by a clever bit of marketing. A place where people queue up endlessly to take a chance in the lottery, fueled by the thrill of the risk and perhaps that most undefeatable American trait, one Obama pushed himself: hope. A place, as you might imagine, where the opinion of President Obama still runs high.

And the feelings about Trump? Well, you might be surprised. Little is predictable at a place in which you can pump a tank of gas under a sign bearing the president’s name, then go inside and get a pack of King Kung Male Sexual Performance Enhancer.

Josh Saleh seemed at ease as he stocked cigarettes in the cramped space behind the register on a recent morning at the Obama gas station. A Middle Eastern native who says he has been in the United States for about 15 years, Saleh goes about his business in the effortless manner that comes with working in a space for 10 or 11 hours a day for years.

The store co-owner chats with regular customers, goes over invoices with a revolving-door lineup of vendors (the potato chip man, the soda man, the cigarette guy), makes coffee and does it all while seemingly always keeping one eye on a large monitor that shows security camera feeds inside and outside the store.

In talking to customers, it quickly becomes apparent that many think the Obama station is somehow a luckier establishment at which to play the lottery, as if there is some kind of magic in getting a ticket from a store that has the same name as the president.

Donald Clyburn, a tall, older black man who lives within walking distance of the Obama shop, says he plays the lottery there four or five times every day. He says he sets a certain amount of money aside to play each day, and when that’s gone, he’s done for the day. He says the most he’s ever won on a single ticket is about $500.

The store has produced a $2 million lottery winner, as well as multiple $250,000 winners. A Sept. 10, 2013 press release on the South Carolina Education Lottery website tells the story of a man who won $250,000 on a ticket bought at Obama. The release says that people were “buzzing” about the Obama store and that the station has a reputation as a “hot spot for lottery winners.”

Free Times reached out to officials at the South Carolina Education Lottery in an attempt to determine whether the Obama station is any luckier than other convenience stores in terms of big lottery winners. A spokeswoman said tickets are distributed randomly to stores throughout the state.

Solomon, the owner of the nearby cellphone store, says traffic around the Obama station becomes almost overwhelming when the Powerball jackpot grows large, and Colon, the Obama store clerk, says the station’s reputation has spread far and wide.

It’s not surprising that Barack Obama, the Democratic president whose road to the White House was launched with a resounding South Carolina primary victory over Hillary Clinton in 2008, remains popular with the crowd at a store called Obama.

There’s plenty of support for Grayson’s opinion. According to, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, as of October 2016 the economy had added 10.7 million jobs during Obama’s presidency — many more than the 1.3 million added under President George W. Bush, though still less than half the 23 million added under Bill Clinton. Unemployment is down, median household income is up, and the housing market has largely recovered.

Colon also says she thinks President Obama has improved the economy — she says she sees fewer unemployment checks coming through the store than in the past — and adds that the nation’s first black president served as an inspiration to many people of color.

On a recent morning, as a Free Times reporter and photographer stood outside the Obama store, a truck rolled up to the gas pumps and a large, gregarious older black man bounded out of its driver’s side door. He looked at the reporters, flashed a gap-toothed grin, spread his arms wide and bellowed, “Take my picture!”