Feature

Gone to the Tote-Sum

David Blankenhorn, The American Interest, 2/27/2017

Perhaps what truly has the power to keep us together in divisive times are the “mystic chords of memory.”

All my life I’ve called convenience stores “Tote-Sums.” As in, “He’s gone to the Tote-Sum,” or “Let’s stop at the Tote-Sum and get some beer.” Moreover, it seems that nearly everyone over the age of forty who grew up, as I did, in Jackson, Mississippi, tends to refer to any convenience store as “the Tote-Sum.”

Martin Cooper, who runs a Facebook page called “Memories of Growing Up in Jackson, Mississippi,” says that “Tote-Sum stores come up frequently on the site” and that “just about everybody I know who grew up with them continues to call all convenience stores Tote-Sum stores.” This hardy linguistic group includes many Jacksonians who, like me, left Jackson years ago, but who continue regularly and unselfconsciously to use the term, despite the fact that, when we do, we usually get quizzical stares.

Why do we do it? This question interests me. In a time when so much in our public life seems to divide and anger us, perhaps it’s worth reflecting on those remaining things, even long-past things, which can unite and soothe us. So let us now remember—or more precisely, let us now examine the meaning of remembering—some convenience stores called Tote-Sums.

Ed had three daughters.…When the girls were young Ed took them out each Sunday in his Austin Healy to Seale-Lily Ice Cream parlor, the Tote-Sum and an amusement park featuring a super slide.

—Obituary of James E. Ruff, Jr. of Jackson, Mississippi, Northside Sun, 2016

The Tote-Sum to which Ed Ruff took his daughters on Sunday, across the street from Seale-Lily Ice Cream, was about a half-mile from the house I grew up in, and the first commercial establishment to which I was allowed to walk on my own. Starting at age seven, with my weekly “allowance” of 25 cents in my pocket, I’d walk up to the Tote-Sum on most Saturdays, usually hoping to buy the latest “Superman” comic book, which would set me back 12 cents, and also (if my budget allowed) a large Coca Cola Icee, a slushy carbonated drink wildly popular at that time with the elementary school crowd.

Several years later, at the same Tote-Sum, I’d sneak past the comic books in favor of visiting the “adult” magazine rack in the rear of the store, near the back exit and mostly out of sight of the cashier, where at my leisure I could study the photos of scantily clad women (or glaciers if anyone looked my way) in National Geographic and in the risqué magazines.

My first Tote-Sum, officially known as Tote-Sum Store No. 2, circa 1960s. Photo by Deborah Hill Harloe.

When I was ten, I often rode my bike to another Tote-Sum, perhaps a mile away, in search of baseball cards, candy, or whatever else I could afford. My frequent companion on these treks was my dog, MacArthur. One day McArthur took a Tasty-Kake from a shelf and ate it on the spot without notifying me or the guy behind the counter. I had already spent all the money I had, so we skulked away, with only MacArthur in a good mood. When we got home and I told my mother, she gave me a quarter and insisted that we go back to pay the man for the Tasty-Kake, which we did. Later that day, MacArthur was hit by a car in front of our house and died. (For some reason we let our dogs run free in those days, despite the dangers.) For years afterward, whenever my family remembered MacArthur, we took some comfort in the fact that his final meal, which he’d thoroughly enjoyed, came from the Tote-Sum.

In sixth grade, I was a safety “patrol boy,” stationed each morning and afternoon at a traffic intersection near my elementary school, charged with helping the younger children cross the street. Near that intersection was a Tote-Sum, where I breakfasted each school morning throughout that school year, enjoying a Mountain Dew soft drink and a pre-packaged Honey Bun, purchased with money given to me by my father for just that purpose. To me it was a fine time and good eating.

I don’t think my Tote-Sum experiences were unusual. Here are some comments from a recent discussion of Tote-Sums on a Facebook page called “Northeast Jackson Remembered”:

I think we went to the tote-sum every day! The one we went to was where Green Oak is now, and you would just drive up and they would come out and bring you what you asked for.

My brother worked at a Tote-Sum store as a car runner in the late 1950s. The folks who ran it got all the boys started smoking. My brother was a smoker all his life and my mom was furious that they got him started.

I worked at a Tote-Sum part time after school and on weekends, I’m thinking maybe 1955, 56, 57. It was awhile back, but it was a great experience. Those stores gave me a lesson in work habits and how to treat customers that I used my whole work life.

Will never forget how good those Coca Cola Icees tasted on a hot summer day, and the best part is we could walk there by ourselves. My children and now their children will never know that kind of freedom.

We rode our bikes there all the time. Icees and Pac-Man!

In the summer I would walk down to the Tote-Sum and buy a Grapette and a bag of peanuts.

I remember the first time I heard the phrase “convenience store” and I thought to myself, “Tote-Sum is so much more convenient to say.”

It was the Road of Remembrance, where the very first one opened up at. Later it got to be a dangerous place.

Whence came Tote-Sums? The principal founders were Charles S. Barry, Jr., a native of Dallas, Texas, who was born in 1912 and moved to Jackson in 1948, and two brothers, Joe and James Wood, also from Dallas. Opening a convenience store in Jackson, said Charles Barry’s son Bryan many years later, “just looked like something they wanted to try.”

These men would also certainly have been familiar with a chain of Dallas convenience stores called “Tote’m Stores,” which date back to 1927 and probably constitute the nation’s first convenience store chain. They were originally called Southland Ice Stores, but in the late 1920s the owners began putting Alaskan-type totem poles in front of the stores, which many customers liked, and which therefore caused the owners to change the name—you may have to be Southern to follow the logic here—to “Tote’m Stores.” As in, where you see totem poles, and also where you buy things to tote home. At any rate, there were sixty Tote’m Stores in the Dallas area by 1939. Then came another name change. In 1946, seeking to emphasize their convenient-for-the-customer operating hours, the Tote’m Stores changed their name to “7-Eleven,” and the rest, as they say, is history.

A Tote’m Store in Dallas, Texas, circa 1930s. Photo courtesy of 7-Eleven, Inc.

Meanwhile in Jackson, the three transplanted Texans opened the first (slightly altered from “Tote’m”) Tote-Sum Store in early 1949, on Road of Remembrance in west Jackson, when Jackson was a city of about 100,000 residents. Later that year, the men opened Tote-Sum Store No. 2 (see photo above) in north Jackson.

In 1952, there were three Tote-Sums. In 1956, there were six. In 1965, there were ten. By the early 1970s, when Jackson had about 154,000 residents, there would be 21. In 1984, when the Tote-Sum chain was sold to Junior Food Stores, based in Meridian, Mississippi, thus bringing an end to a 35-year run as a locally owned chain, there were 13 Tote-Sums in Jackson.

I don’t think Tote-Sums were unusual. In Field of Dreams, a terrific 1989 movie about memory, magic, and baseball, we learn about “Doc” Graham, for decades a beloved figure in his hometown of Chisholm, Minnesota.

Ray: Well, he sounds like he was a wonderful man.

Terry: Half the towns in North America have a “Doc” Graham.

That’s how I feel about Tote-Sums. I’m sure that hundreds of American towns have had locally owned stores that people identify with and remember with great fondness.

Yet why such identification? Why such fondness? After all, at one level, they’re just stores! They’re quotidian. We go there to buy things. But on another level, there appears to be something about them, or at least about our memories of them, that brings us together and creates a sense of community based on shared public experiences.

The great writer Eudora Welty, a native of Jackson, writes lovingly about what people who, like her, grew up in Jackson in the 1910s and 1920s called “corner stores” or “neighborhood stores.” Located in urban neighborhoods, these forerunners of what after World War II came to be called “convenience stores” catered to local residents who wanted to make quick, usually small purchases of groceries without having to travel all the way to the central business district (or in later years, to the shopping center). Welty says that going to the corner store as a child meant that her world became more exciting and dazzling, and she remembers that “enchantment is cast upon you by all those things you weren’t supposed to have need for.…” Going to the store to buy something for her mother (and then keeping and spending the change) also meant a burst of freedom:

The happiness of errands was in part that of running for the moment away from home, a free spirit. I believed the Little Store to be a center of the outside world, and hence of happiness.…”

Decades later, the novelist and my high school classmate Mary Ann Rodman similarly described for her generation a child’s happiness in venturing to the store: “Mississippi in March was for shorts and azaleas and biking to the Tote-Sum for ICEEs.”

Like the corner store—and also like the 17th-century British invention, the coffeehouse—the modern convenience store is a part-private, part-public space in which people who don’t know each other, or don’t know each other well, can mingle together on easy terms. It’s also a known institution of civil society—even Jacksonians who never, or rarely, went to the Tote-Sum knew about the Tote-Sum.

Tote-Sums certainly became a fixture in many spheres of Jackson’s public life. As early as 1950, Tote-Sum was sponsoring a Ladies’ Bowling League team in Jackson. For decades they sponsored one of the city’s Little League baseball teams. I remember as a Little Leaguer myself in the 1960s playing each summer against the boys proudly wearing the words “Tote-Sum Stores” on their uniforms, and I remember reading stories in the local newspapers such as this one, from 1975: “Tote-Sum Stores defeated Colonial Baking Saturday night 11 to 3 to bring the two teams within one game of each other going into the final week of play.”

Over the years Tote-Sums became thoroughly insinuated into the city’s visual and civic landscape. So when public “streaking” made perhaps its first appearance in Jackson, in 1976, it surprised few Jacksonians that it would occur at a Tote-Sum. In this case, a city police officer, J.W. Willoughby, was at a Tote-Sum when, as the police department later reported, a girl “came in and asked for a can of Coca-Cola,” whereupon Officer Willoughby “looked around” and “noticed the girl had no clothes on.” The girl then “fled the store, but was caught by Willoughby in the middle of Jefferson Street.”

Driving around Jackson, you’d encounter tall (44 feet high!) signs made of neon lights blinking “TOTE-SUM” on and off. The chain’s billboard and print media advertisements—including “Tote Sum of Everything” and “Tote-Sum Stores were made in Mississippi”—were hard to miss.

The famous Tote-Sum sign, circa early 1980s. Photo courtesy of Temple W. Barry.

In 1981, if you wanted to pre-register for a “Turkey Shoot” sponsored by the Jackson Police and the Jackson Parks and Recreation Department, you could do so (the entry fee was $3) at any Tote-Sum. In 1983, if you wanted to watch the first 3-D movie (“Gorillas at Large”) ever broadcast on a Mississippi television station, you could get special 3-D glasses at any Tote-Sum.

Many Jacksonians worked at the Tote-Sum over the years. In particular, hundreds and perhaps thousands of Jackson teenagers worked part-time at the Tote-Sum, either after school or at night or on weekends. For many, it was their first job. In 1977, when an 18-year old boy from the public high school I’d attended was shot to death during a robbery attempt at the Tote-Sum where he was working after school, Charles Barry, the president and co-founder of Tote-Sum, said “We’d watched him grow up.”

In Field of Dreams, someone says that people re-experiencing a game they loved as children feel like “they’ve been dipped in magic waters.” I’m not sure that people recalling a store from their childhood, even if that store is the Tote-Sum, feel that way. But perhaps they do, at least some of them, at least a bit. I confess that I do.

In 1861, Abraham Lincoln in his First Inaugural Address spoke to a country on the verge of civil war. Trying to describe what it is—what we have—that might yet have the power to dissipate rancor and reduce mistrust, the new President cited only “the mystic chords of memory.” I’ve long viewed that phrase mainly as a hard-to-understand piece of poetry, but perhaps Lincoln is simply saying as concisely as he can what he believes is true. When public life grows coarse and ugly, and we seem increasingly to view each other as strangers, perhaps it’s not shared political values that can keep us together. Or a shared religion. Or a common race. Or shared levels of education and affluence. Or common dreams for the future. Perhaps more than these, what truly has the power to keep us together in divisive times are the mystic chords of memory—what we find that we can remember together, even seemingly small things, of life and time and place.


Sources:

“7-Eleven, Inc.,” International Directory of Company Histories 32 (St. James Press, 2000).

“Around the Town,” Clarion-Ledger, August 10, 1952.

“At Your Handy Tote-Sum Stores,” Advertisement, Clarion-Ledger, January 1, 1965.

“Billy Simms—‘Innocent, Yet Still a Victim,’” Clarion-Ledger, March 24, 1977.

Eudora Welty, “The Corner Store,” Esquire (December 1975).

“Gala Opening: Special Tote-Sum No. 6,” Advertisement, Clarion-Ledger, July 9, 1956.

“Grand Opening Today,” Advertisement, Clarion-Ledger, September 3, 1949.

“‘Gorilla’ to be 1st 3-D film on state TV,” Clarion- Ledger, August 13, 1982.

“In Bowling Play,” Clarion-Ledger, November 14, 1950.

Interview with Temple W. Barry, February 21, 2017.

Mary Ann Rodman, Yankee Girl (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008).

Obituary of Charles S. Barry, Jr., Northside Sun, June 23, 1983.

Obituary of James E. Ruff, Jr., Northside Sun, September 27, 2016.

The Corner Store, National Building Museum (1999).

“Streaker Strikes N. Jackson Store,” Clarion-Ledger, July 3, 1976.

“Super Stop Acquires Tote-Sum,” Clarion-Ledger, December 20, 1984.

“Tote-Sum Narrows Gap with 2 Wins,” Northside Sun, July 17, 1975.

“Tote-Sums Can’t Put Up Big Signs,” Clarion-Ledger, June 10, 1954.

“Turkey Shoot Scheduled,” Clarion-Ledger, November 4, 1981.

This article was originally published on February 25, 2017 in The American Interest.