7-Eleven Remembered

by Mark Brown

10/08/2011

As fitting a name as it is for a pub, “Ryan’s” looks out of place over the word “Mercadito.” Ryan’s looks and acts like a convenience store, but, as the name implies, it functions more as a neighborhood market. You can get a fountain drink there, but also two dozen jars of Valentina—the versatile and ubiquitous chile sauce of Guadalajara—if that is your need. I’d just eaten lunch next door at El Rinconcito and didn’t need a thing.

But I was curious, so I called Jim, who used to own the store back when it was 7-Eleven No. 1. Even in 1978, the store anchored one of the saddest little strip centers you ever saw, on a slice of Braden Avenue tucked between a golf course and an interstate. Time and apathy have tired it even more. You really have to be looking for it, and without the tacqueria next door, I wouldn’t have been. Ryan’s breaks the convenience store rule of locating in a high-traffic area. But that rule had been broken two decades before, by Jim.

He was easy to find, tipped off by the 711 suffix, which turned out to be a fax number. It rang several times before whining at me. It was the only number listed, so I kept calling, kept wincing. One day, I heard his voice through the screech.

“Everything OK?” Jim asked when he finally figured out who it was. It was an odd question, after so many years. But then, there was only one thing Jim and I shared, and that was Ken. Through that window it made sense, the slight urgency in the voice, Ken and Jim being at that stage when old soldiers start fading. I had to reassure him.

“I haven’t seen your dad in ages,” Jim admitted of Ken.

“Everything’s great,” I told him. “I just wanted to talk about store No. 1.”

I’m enamored with anything that’s first, not for the ranking, but for the suggestion of others to come. Game 1 of the World Series is the only real date with television that I annually keep. The first step of any four-step program pretty much covers it. The first line of a novel bears such a burden. First things first, as they say.

“What do you want to know?” Jim said.

I wanted to know what the big sellers were back in the day, way back in ’78. But that was just a start, something to establish footing. Really, I wanted to know where all this convenient consumption was taking us in the long haul. If we are what we eat, we’ve become a snack treat kept fresh in colorful plastic. I thought Jim, who now keeps his hand in doing property appraisals, could shed some light.

“You had beer and cigarettes and that made up 60 to 70 percent of sales,” Jim answered my question. “Even as we sit here and talk, 85 percent of everything bought in a convenience store is consumed in the car.”

He told me that store No. 1 had the first self-service fountain drink machine in the city. Southland, the company that owned 7-Eleven, had tried it unsuccessfully down in Baton Rouge. “Their people down there said that’ll never work, you know?” Jim said. “So I drove down there and got it. It was funny … the margin in that was astronomical.”

Jim is fond of telling a story: A guy would take a cup, fill it up first with ice then with fountain drink, take a sip, then fill her up again. So, instead of making 87 percent profit, you made 85. The syrup was all pre-mix, and Ward Farmer’s Magic Refrigeration provided the ice. And there’s your Big Gulp.

The margins spread from carbonated beverages to bar candy to packaged sandwiches, which is where Ken jumped on board to ride the wave. Ken walked into store No. 1 to sell his old buddy Jim, aware of the potential if unaware of the bonanza. From the one, Jim built 91 more 7-Elevens before all was said and done. After Braden was cleaved in half by the laying of I-44, before midtown began its southern migration.

“That was a class part of town,” Jim recalled, “really a class part of town. It all started with the Hilton right across the street, which was one of the main reasons I went against all of Southland’s advice. They said you don’t build a store back on a side street like that and I said, well, I think I will.”

Braden ends on a one-way service road heading east. Half a mile up the road, at the intersection, a perfectly good strip center remains largely unoccupied. A Best Buy does its best to keep the lot filled, but it’s an odd spot for retail. I still think of Children’s Medical Center when I drive by that spacious plot. Maybe I’m not alone.

 

* * *

Jim sold out of beach balls one summer because the guy who ran the Hilton got tired of them junking up his pool, bought them all, and promptly threw them into the Dumpster. Jim laughs now at being such a nuisance.

“I could just picture all those kids bouncing across the street to buy stuff at the store,” he said, “and all of that came to happen.”

Tulsa’s Secret Hotel now occupies that shell and it’s hard to imagine it being the kind of place a family might end up for a few days, let alone the sort of spot where the Allman Brothers might get off the bus. Like they did when Jim was selling smokes and tallboys across the street.

Jon Bayouth once ran the Copa room at the Hilton. He now runs Harry’s Oklahoma Style Smokehouse BBQ , with locations in Lomita and La Quinta, in and around Los Angeles. Then there’s his production company, Industry Events, or International Events, if you go by the web site. It’s a confusion that creates the ambiguity of expansion. Either way, Bayouth got a taste for showbiz in college, promoting the likes of Lou Rawls. It’s a hunger he indulged at the Copa.

“It introduced me to rock ’n’ roll,” he said. “You know what they say about that—it’ll either kill you or keep you young.”

At the Copa, Bayouth cut his teeth on The Mills Brothers, The Kingston Trio, The Gap Band, B.J. Thomas, Della Reese, and “all of Eric Clapton’s people.” Even Johnny Cash made a stop, albeit in the confused middle ground of his rebel-turned-elder career. These were the days, Bayouth recalled, of meaningful music and controlled mayhem.

“When I first went there, there was not a lot going on—Wayne Cochran and the C.C. Riders, maybe Rich Little, the Roy Clarks. The Oak Ridge Boys would come in and work for the door. It had a hotel and restaurant feel to it, free and easy. You didn’t have to worry about DUIs.” You didn’t have to worry about tribes, either. At the end of the 1970s, most of the casinos were still in Vegas and Jersey. While they siphoned off the last of the lounge acts, Bayouth hitched his Hilton to the precursors of smooth jazz and soft rock and the folks who played country when country wasn’t cool. That cut of cloth now makes the casino circuit.

“It’s too bad people gotta lose their asses to go see some decent entertainment anymore,” Bayouth said. What the casinos didn’t devour, the decadence did. The Hilton was a stopgap in a between time now almost unimaginable, of radio, record stores, and cheap thrills. But its bubble was built to burst. Country began fiddling in the realm of pop-rock and lost its way. Then rock ’n’ roll blew a gasket and took the Copa and its supper-club formality with it. Donna Summer and the Bee Gees loomed to sniff the residue. “It was pretty swank in its day,” said Bayouth, allowing himself a last dance. “Then disco ate it up. No accounting for it. It was like the British invasion—you can’t see it coming, but it’s always been around.

“That was the ‘70s,” said Jim. “That was a time when young people were moving out and into apartments, more liberated, that kind of stuff. And our generation was still working day and night, we didn’t know any different.”

Riding my bike recently, I ended up back in there among the mishmash of apartments behind Ryan’s, a string of complexes flying elysian crests: Windsor Village, Brixton Square, Brighton Park, Old South and Highland Park, which has even more of a plantation feel than Old South, with its ivory columns, rust-red brick, green common, and an almost campus-like gentility.

“The apartments were nice, nothing shabby, and directly behind them is a real nice neighborhood,” Jim said. “And that’s a collector street coming out of there. So I put gas pumps out on the corner. Opening price was 29.9 a gallon. Cigarettes were 30-something cents a package. When they got to 49 cents a pack, we said when they hit 50 everyone would quit smoking.”

Jim and Ken made a killing off convenience. They met when Jim was at Safeway and Ken was at Yeager, a wholesale company where he sold a category called health and beauty aids. To Jim and 7-Eleven, my dad’s thing was sandwiches, chicken salads and foot-longs and ham-and-cheeses. Later, the stock swelled to include bottled juice, frozen burritos, freeze-dried Folgers and other products with shelf life. Jim bought and sold it all and everybody did all right. But nothing lasts forever, Jim said, not even the stars.

“I was the retailer and he was the supplier and that picture didn’t change for 50 years. But, as things progressed and people’s habits began to change and their attitudes began to change, the business itself began to change. There wasn’t the vast array of eating places there is now. KFC was just comin’ on, McDonald’s was ho hum, Griff’s Hamburgers had five-for-a-dollar hamburgers. It was a time of vast transition.

“As this took place, the quality of the people began to dissipate. Quality meaning the moral fiber, the work ethic.”

The high schools that once provided a steady stream of young employment dried up, for reasons Jim will speculate on. As a test, he offered to give me a hundred dollars for every schoolboy I could round up in a square-mile area to mow his yard just one time. “Used to you couldn’t beat ’em off of you. In this socialistic society we’re in, this nanny-type society, if you don’t work, it don’t really matter. You can get by.”

One afternoon, Ken handed me a thick manila folder. “Here,” he said. “Take this home and read it.”

I was headed to law school the following folly of an autumn, and the legalese of the Chapter 11 language gave me a sinking feeling. I tried to find in the document some sense of reasoning, some explanation for the breach, but of course that’s not what reorganization is about. Jim’s 7-Elevens were sinking and Ken, soon to be a creditor, was aboard ship. The jovial language of the C-store lexicon gave way to depositions and unpaid debt. Halfway in, I dropped it for another round of Flannery O’Connor.

“You go through storms,” is how Jim remembers it. My dad likes to say that so-and-so “had a falling out,” but that’s not how he saw the 7-Eleven deal. Over a glass of peachy iced tea, he said, “I never had to go to Jim if I wanted to sell something new. He always said to me, ‘Kenny Brown, if I’ve told you once I’ve told you many times, I am the sandwich man and you don’t have to listen to nobody.’ ”

Which means that when Ken got a deal on 100 cases of Moon Pies and stuck them in 100 7-Elevens, he did it no questions asked. Over time, he got pretty good at knowing what would move and what wouldn’t, enough to freshen our cars and clothes regularly, and enough to satisfy Jim’s bottom line.

“So when he ran into that problem it really hurt us,” Ken said, “but I never did have any real bad feelings toward Jim.”

“We tried a lot of stuff that didn’t work,” Jim said, “your dad and I, but a lot of stuff did. All that was good to us, it really was. They was great times, it provided us a great living for our families, and there wadn’t a whole helluva lot you wanted that you didn’t have, OK?”

We had a glitter-orange bass boat, for sure, but I never got my Honda Z50. Not because it cost, not even because 50 percent of Ken’s revenues was in 7-Elevens and half of nothing is still nothing, but because Ken had a fear of motorcycles, even little ones. He thanked the Good Lord often for His generosity, I know, and presumably for keeping my ass off of Japanese dirt bikes.

* * *

Before the fall, when they were both flush and feeling it, Ken went to New York with Jim to have lunch with Carl Sagan, the “Cosmos” guy.

“I never did a whole lot for myself,” Jim said. “Never had a boat and motor, an airplane, a place on the lake. I never had those toys. Only thing I ever did, as smart as that guy was, I said I owed it to myself to meet him.”

Fred Davis was Jim’s public-relations man at the time, the media mogul Fred Davis who now guides high-profile politicians and wannabes through the rigors of re-election and runoffs. (John McCain, Chuck Grassley and Carly Fiorina are among his calling cards.) When “the crazies” would call Jim and tell him he was going to hell for selling Hustler and Penthouse in his 7-Elevens, it was Fred who picked up the phone.

“I called Fred one morning and said, ‘Sometime this year, Carl Sagan is going to have lunch or dinner alone, and whenever that is and wherever that is, I wanna eat with him.’ I have a thing about that. I didn’t want to go to his office at Cornell [University]. I can tell more about people when I eat with ’em. I can watch ’em. I didn’t want to sit there like a salesman, visiting across his office and him looking at the clock.”

Fred Davis is nothing if not persuasive. Sagan’s PBS series “Cosmos” was all the rage. Jim watched it religiously, taking mental notes and framing questions on nuclear war, space, and the Almighty. He returned to New York for more lunches, and kept up the correspondence until Sagan died in ’96.

“Carl and I developed a good friendship over the years. He surmised that I was his contact with the street, OK? He was concerned with the nuclear situation. He always said, ‘There’s got to be a safer way to boil water.’ One day I just asked him, ‘Carl, you believe in a Supreme Being?’ And I believe he gave the best answer I could ever imagine a scientist giving. He said, ‘Jim, I’ve never evidenced it scientifically, but if there is, we’ve sure underestimated him, haven’t we?’ And then he said, and it’s now a quote, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

I thought of those words in the mouth of Donald Rumsfeld, where they were later employed to explain away weapons of mass destruction—a timelier Big Bang theory. I left it at that.

In Jim’s home office adorned in paintings of wood ducks and WWII generals, there is a small stack of wooden picture frames that Jim monitors lest it get too low. All the frames contain the same printed message, short and sweet, from the great Sagan.

“Here,” Jim said, “give that to your boys.”

It now sits on their dresser, its invitation to discovery spelled out in 18-point italics.

* * *

Back in Ryan’s, fishing for a comment, I killed time in the aisles, recalling Jim’s statistic about 85 percent of C-store goods being consumed in the car. An informal inventory revealed baskets of jalapenos, limes and cilantro, slabs of beef brisket, cases of Corona. Perhaps this was the other 15 percent.

Of course, Ryan’s had long since stopped being a real convenience store, focusing not on the feeder traffic off the highway, but the foot traffic on the fringes of Park Plaza. Convenient to some, in other words. I called them “convenient stores” until I was one day corrected, but I still make the mistake, out of habit and diction. “Convenience store” is too inconvenient—you have to pause clumsily between the soft “c” and “s.” Anyway, now we have mercaditos and QT Kitchens.

Inside Ryan’s, I got a snack attack and bought a bag of chicharones, the chile-and-limon variety. The chili powder had me sweating in minutes. I pounded them back, in and out of north-bound Yale traffic. Pork skins need to be rendered, I am convinced—the blubber vaporized out of them, a flavor of pork floating on a crispy cloud. They flavor them like potato chips now: Salt and Vinegar, Sea Salt and Black Pepper, and other trendy combos.

I waited to park before reading the ingredients on my bag of chile-limon, which included no lime in spite of the packaging, only some citric acid and two “certified” yellow food colors, “Colorante FD&C Amarillo #5 y #6.” In the absence of any real lime, this read to me like incriminating evidence.