There are certain local institutions which help make up the very fabric of Southern cities. Columbia is no exception to this rule. Columbia natives are passionate about the South Carolina State Fair, ice cream from Rosewood Dairy Bar, squabbling over the best barbecue spot, and college game days. Right up there on the list of community favorites, is a car wash with an unusually large fan base and colorful history.
The Constan Car Wash was founded in 1949 as the first automated car wash in S.C. The unusual name is a combination of founder Stan Smith’s name and his wife Connie’s. Since opening, the car wash has enjoyed steady success. It is rare to see it empty, even at early or late hours. Just in 2018, Constan was recognized as the runner up in the Free Times “Best of” Awards for best car wash.
A large factor in Constan’s widespread success has to do with their dedication to customer service maintained by the hard working staff. Roxie Mitchell can attest to that; she has been part of the Constan family for 42 years. She tried to retire two years ago, but one week later she was back as assistant manager. She explained things just couldn’t run without her, and she couldn’t adjust to life without her job.
Mitchell has such a warm nature about her, it comes as no surprise that the other employees, regardless of age, refer to her as “Mom” or “Granny.” Mitchell “keeps the peace” so to speak. In an environment like Constan with so many different employees, it takes an understanding assistant manager like Mitchell to run the ship. Not only does she offer advice and a listening ear to everyone who works at Constan, her own son, grandsons and granddaughters work there as well. It truly is a family atmosphere. Her grandson Derik Mitchell said “She might know a thing or two about this place…,” with a smile.
When Mitchell started working at Constan in 1976, she was the only woman who worked there. She ran the cashier desk. She said everyone has always treated her with respect and been kind to her. She has some customers who she has known since the day she started. She joked that customers will come in and say “Roxie you’re still here?” and she has to laugh and say “I’m still here…don’t think I’m ever going to be leaving.”
Since the car wash opened, not much has changed. There was one location move from Main Street to the current home on Gervais Street, but other than that, not even the sign has changed. Taking a step inside is a 1970’s time warp, the green and yellow tile floor, house plants and strange assortment of greeting cards and candy offered for sale reminds customers of a different time. Constan is one of those places where you wish the walls could talk. Lifelong Columbia resident Boo Major can attest to that. “Oh nothing has changed in that place. It’s still the same car wash, and the same service,” she said.
An interesting ripple in the Constan history comes with the story of Happy the tiger. In 1964, as part of first owner and founder Smith’s effort to bring a zoo to Columbia, he purchased a tiger cub for $1,000 and put her up in a cage at Constan.
Mitchell said how busloads of school children would come on the weekends to visit the tiger in her special enclosure. The attraction drew so much attention, they added a self-powered bike merry-go-round next to the cage. Major said “We used to beg our mom to take us to the car wash, we always wanted to go see the tiger.” After nearly 10 years of calling Constan home, the Columbia Metropolitan Zoo was founded and Happy was able to go live out the rest of her years and fulfill an average tiger lifespan of 15 years. Mitchell described her caregiver and said, “His name was Jimmy something, he’s dead now. He used to go in the cage with her all the time and feed her. He cared for her since she was a cub, he had no fear of her.” It is hard to imagine a time where a pet tiger called a car wash home.
These days, Mitchell says the only things that have really changed about Constan are the ever-changing student customers. Constan is owned and managed today by founder Stan Smith’s son, Chip Smith. Constan seems to run on the old adage “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Customers from a new generation come to Constan for everything from a car wash to an oil change. They may not remember Happy the tiger or the merry-go-round, but the helpful staff keep them coming back. Out of state student Farley Wickre said “I love coming here to get my car washed, I know exactly what to expect. They are affordable, quick and the employees are always so friendly.”
Perhaps when thinking of the word “landmark,” a car wash isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. Yet in Columbia, the Constan Car Wash holds special meaning for both lifelong residents, and transient students. Some things like good service and friendly employees never go out of style.