Feature Image: Rufus Sykes cracks a smile as he holds the door open for a customer at the South Memphis Grocery on West Mallory Avenue. Sykes co-owns the corner store with other family members. (Malik Martin)
By Ivy K. Arnold, for High Ground News
Corner stores in poor neighborhoods get a bad rap as bastions for unhealthy food, vagrancy, and blight. High Ground Community Correspondent and South Memphis resident Ivy Arnold has a different take—corner stores as necessary and beloved institutions.
Up east they call them bodegas. On the west coast, it’s tiendas.
The U.S. government calls them convenience stores or food marts and defines them as small-scale businesses selling primarily packaged food, beverage, and tobacco excluding gas stations and grocery stores.
In South Memphis, we call them corner stores—pronounced cona sto’.
Alongside churches, barbers, and beauty shops, corner stores hold South Memphis’ stories, keep its people fed, and define its culture. They also have a culture all their own.
Through the decades, the neighborhood’s name for them has changed from sundries to mom-and-pops to corner stores, but the customers kept coming. It’s the proximity, familiarity, affordability, customer service, and essential items that keep us bound to these stores across generations.
It’s the corner stores that introduced us to nostalgic snacks like Rap Snacks, Frooties, and Jungle Juice that, in many cases, you can only find there.
They serve as meeting places and information hubs for friends and neighbors. If you hang around long enough, they become classrooms with lessons and stories shared among the oldheads and young folks.
South Memphis is a food desert. A lot of the community don’t have cars, public transportation is scarce, and a bus ride to and from the grocery store can take hours.
Corner stores keep food deserts from becoming barren food wastelands.
This country looks down on corner stores because they don’t provide fresh produce nor healthy grocery items for a balanced diet, but they do provide hot meals and stock their shelves with shelf-stable items, affordable cleaning supplies, toilet tissue and paper towels, and more.
Corner store owners will often let it slide when a kid is short on cash to keep them from going hungry. Some will still run a tab for their regulars until payday hits.
In low-income communities, these small kindnesses matters.
FEED THE CHILDREN
Without restaurants and grocery stores, corner stores are an essential place for South Memphis’ children to grab breakfast, lunch, and after school snacks.
A lot of the neighborhood’s corner store owners live in the area. They’re black, they’re business owners, and the kids are watching.
They may be owed some credit for sparking an entrepreneurial spirit in youth who sell ‘chip-juice’ and themselves become important figures amongst their peers. They go to school with whole backpacks stocked with drinks, chips, candy, honey buns, the whole nine—little walking corner stores.
Yes, it’s not exactly approved by the schools. But just like real corner stores, they’re important for supplementing low supplies at home and terrible school lunches with snacks to fuel studies and after-school activities.
CORNER STORES IN COVID
According to the National Association of Convenience Stores, consumers everywhere have turned to convenience stores as an alternative to grocery stores during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But in low-income neighborhoods they’re truly essential.
Hitting the grocery store is even harder when you’re unemployed, there are new public transportation restrictions, and hoarding may mean what you came for isn’t even there.
It’s more convenient and less stressful to go to your favorite corner store that subject yourself to a hectic experience of a grocery chain.
“[Corner stores] are more flexible with the community and the neighborhood. Whereas big stores, you know, they just do things as corporate asks them to do. We do things as we feel fit and as the people in the neighborhood or community see fit,” said Rufus Sykes, co-owner of one of South Memphis’ most famous corner stores.
South Memphis’ stores have kept their doors open every day during the pandemic to serve the increase in business from their neighborhoods, and it’s important we remember and support them after it’s passed.
“We are doing wonderful. God is good all the time, and He has blessed [this] little store,” said Sykes.
LEGACIES AND LEGENDARIES
One of the most popular stores in South Memphis is the Shop & Save Grocery at 1499 South Third Street. In September, Shop & Save will celebrate 30 years in business.
“We started out selling just grocery. We were doing deli food like hamburgers and hot dogs and things of that nature, then eventually we started selling soul food” said manager Scott Woodard.
Now they’re neighborhood-famous for their soul food.
“We like to be perceived as being a family-oriented place .. [we] like to make them feel good when they come in, feel like they’re welcome. Feel good about spending their money, getting what they want, [and] have fun when they’re spending their money,” Woodard said.
They’re open from 5:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from 6:30 a.m. on Sundays serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Inside, customers are met with fye food and great service. The walls are covered with framed pictures and posters of appreciated customers and families, which add a homey vibe that makes patrons feel cherished and connected.
Up the street at 9 West Mallory Avenue is another long-time favorite, the South Memphis Grocery. The community knows it as Sykes.
The Sykes family has owned and operated the store since 1972. It was originally located at 2197 Florida Street. The current location is now a landmark in South Memphis.
“We look at people not only as customers but also as neighbors. We’re number one as far as good food, and we are good people,” said Sykes.
Famous for their cheeseburgers, even outsiders and those who have relocated always come back for more. Customers can order breakfast, lunch, and dinner from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Sunday and until 9 p.m. on Sundays.
Like the Shop & Save, Sykes’ walls are lined with photos, obituaries, and local business and event flyers. The Sykes family considers their store to be one of the last mom-and-pop operations in the area.
“It’s like coming into your neighbor’s house and saying, ‘Hey mane, let me get this until tomorrow,’” said Sykes.
This story was originally published June 3, 2020 by High Ground News.