On the go (3:23 a.m.)

Business at the BP in Columbiana has been slow since at least midnight, but that’s all about to change.

Shirley Perrine, 72, takes a break from making her assortment of 125 biscuits to start a new pot of coffee, knowing her next customer will be in soon.

“During the 3 o’clock hour, we go through a lot of coffee in here. I try to keep six pots going at once … and keep it fresh because no one wants stale coffee,” she said.

Less than 10 minutes later, Larry Reynolds of Spring Creek stops in for his 63-cent cup of Joe to start his commute to work. He has stopped in to grab a cup of fresh coffee every Monday through Friday for the past 10 years on his way to the 4 a.m. shift at AirGas in Bessemer.

“I’ve got to have it fresh. I can’t drink it if it’s been there long,” Reynolds said.

As Reynolds walks out to the ding of the side door, U.S. extraditions agent Kevin Wilcoxen grabs a sausage biscuit for the first time, while his partner fills up their marked van.

“Haven’t tried them before,” said Wilcoxen, who just got in town from Greenville, Miss. “We’re just stopping through. Have a few inmates in the county lock-up.”

The stop is the last of the night for the two agents, who are ready to kick off their boots at a local hotel before picking up their inmates and continuing on to Myrtle Beach, S.C., later in the day.

“We like stopping in small towns, because everybody’s a little more personal, and they know quite a few of the law enforcement officials,” Wilcoxen said.

That personal nature is what sets apart the morning shift at this BP Kangaroo.

For 16 years, Shirley has worked the same shift from 10 p.m. to 6-7 a.m. every Sunday night through Thursday night.

During that time she has been able to establish a core group of regulars who enjoy stopping in for a good talk, many of which are corrections officers and deputies from the Shelby County Jail.

“I always come in to check on Ms. Shirley and talk to her,” Shelby County Sheriff’s Deputy Joe Brand said. “Sometimes I get carried away … This is the only place open at night.”

Brand stops in multiple times a night, since he does not let his patrol car get below half a tank.

He said during his short stay he sees 10-15 people each night come and go. Shirley said she has anywhere from 75 customers on a “very, very slow night” to sometimes 400 during her shift.

As the hour drifts on, business continues to pick up.

“He’s a coffee and gas,” Shirley said as one man walks in. “Just diesel,” as another truck pulled into the station’s parking lot.

“I know their cigarette brands and everything. They appreciate it. When you know a person and you know your customers, that’s why they come back. You have to know your people,” Shirley said. “Presentation is nine-tenths of the sell.”

For the regulars, she is almost family, which probably comes naturally for the mother of seven, grandmother of 23 and great-grandmother of 25. After all, it was family that got her working the shift Dec. 27, 1992.

After retiring in 1983 from her position as a production manager in the furniture business, Shirley helped keep the grandkids for 10 years until her sister Betty needed someone to cover her shift when she was going to be off to have surgery.

“She conned me into it,” Shirley said. “I never intended to go back to work.”

But once she did, she has enjoyed it, keeping the night shift as a preference.