Tiny Boxes, Big Boxes

This is the latest post in a series about a road trip to New Orleans that starts here.

When I was planning the trip, I intentionally chose a stop in Oxford, Mississippi as an ironic nod to that other Oxford where Lynn and I had met.  But mostly, I wanted to stop in one smallish town, after Chicago, Memphis, and New Orleans.  Oxford’s population is around 20,000, so it’s not that small, but it is in comparison to the others.

And yet it turned out to be the type of place I had dreaded.

In his 1989 book The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America, Bill Bryson writes about how every town has the same chain stores and restaurants. 1989!  How much worse would it be now, I feared?  Was I going to drive 2,660 miles just to see the same stores I could see in my own town?

When I was a kid, there was a tiny store at the end of our block called Goldenbergs. I don’t know what these little stores are called elsewhere but in the US we called them “Mom and Pop” or “Dime Stores.”  (A dime is 10 cents, for you readers outside the US.)

They were called Mom and Pop because they were usually run by a married couple and the family lived above the store.

I remember standing inside on the creaky wood floors gazing up at the jars of candy on the countertop.  This was where the dime came in—you could buy a single piece of Laffy Taffy, a small pack of Necco Wafers, or a roll of Smarties for a dime.  These were called penny candy, but by the time I was spending my newspaper delivery money I guess inflation had nudged them up to a dime.

Penny Candy

Mr. and Mrs. Goldenberg had been on there for decades.  When my mother was five, two of her cousins died of meningitis and their house had to be quarantined.  There was a yellow tape circling the property.  I suppose it said something like: Do Not Cross by Order of the Department of Public Health.  Every day Mr. Goldenberg would dip under the tape to deposit a box of food on the back step—then run like hell.

I only have a fuzzy memory of Goldnbergs because it was torn down when I was 10 and replaced with an automatic car wash.

Entering Oxford required driving a five-mile gauntlet of Costcos, Walmarts, Home Depots, and other “Big Box” stores.  We’ve gone from the dime store to the warehouse store, and mom and pop are probably working at the register making minimum wage with no benefits.  Who buys only one piece of candy?  That’s for suckers!  Now you can spend your weekends in a windowless warehouse and get a case of candy.  It’ll be so cheap—you have to buy it!

On Monday you can brag about how you got a case of 500 Mars Bars for only $50.  Who cares if they’ll be stale by the time you can eat them all, or if you really shouldn’t be eating them at all?  They’re so cheap!  Watch out for that one coworker, the one who will try to one-up you with his story about the 100 rolls of paper towels he got for $129.

The main drag into Oxford also featured the predictable chains: Olive Garden, Batteries Plus, Panera, Tires Plus, Walgreens, and Starbucks.

And I had booked us into a Quality Inn—a chain!  It was across from Express Lube and flanked by Starbucks and Verizon.

Lynn checked us in and as soon as she opened her mouth, the manager, who was Indian, asked, “Where are you from?”

“North London,” she replied.

“I’m from north London too!” he exclaimed.  It may seem strange that an Indian guy from London would be running a Quality Inn in Mississippi, but Indians actually own half the hotels and motels in America.  I’m not making that up:

Indians

There were little Indian-influenced flourishes, like a glittery, purple-topped table in our room, that gave a bit of relief from the bland, tan town of Oxford.  At least what we’d seen of it so far.

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