The Corner Store: Want vs. Need
The thing that my people say about the church is that if you go on the right day, or at the right time, you can get a little bit of everything you need. You can get fed, you can get saved, you can get a dance that sits in your bones and shakes its way out slowly over the course of a few hours, or a beat that forces your palms together in praise or prayer. The church in my neighborhood was the Barnett Road Baptist Church, and sometimes, on Sunday mornings, you could hear the people praising inside. It was never so loud that it was annoying, but just loud enough to understand that there were people inside, chasing after some small freedom.
A little farther down Barnett Road was Livingston Avenue, and if you turned right there, you would happen upon several things: a sprawling flea market, a beauty shop with pictures of black women with high-picked afros, a few apartment complexes (some with boards on their windows), and finally, a corner convenience store. Depending on the year, the surroundings might change. The flea market, for example, is now a furniture warehouse, something distant from the place where my brother and I would go to buy and trade basketball cards in our youth. The apartment complexes might be either more welcoming or less, but they would always have people inside — people with needs who could always return to the corner store.
That particular corner store — resting at the corner of Livingston and Courtright Avenues — has remained the same. Owned by the same people for decades. I would like to insist upon the corner store as something not like a church but also kind of like a church. It represents a place where everyone with a need can have that need met. The corner stores in neighborhoods like the one I grew up in — neighborhoods of lower-middle-class people who work hard and value convenience and fairness above much else — are all things. Sometimes equal parts bank, grocery store, therapy center, movie store, pharmacist, and fortune teller. If one needs a quick meal and doesn’t want to get in a car? Surely the corner store will have the boxed mac and cheese and the precooked meats and perhaps even a fruit or a vegetable of questionable firmness — something meant to be taken and eagerly prepared. If you find yourself unable to move after a night of revelry? Surely there is someone who can drag themselves a block away to get you the medicine you need, even if that medicine isn’t medicine. If you find yourself unprepared for the night of revelry itself, the corner store can, in a pinch, also be an adequate liquor cabinet.
There is a great art about this. I say “my people” at the opening here, and clearly I am speaking of a people who find their way to making something out of nothing. The people who make a meal out of leftovers and a night out of whatever change they have rattling around in their cars. My people are the people of corner stores. I love the corner store for how it sits in the hood, sometimes the hood that has no other accessible space for food. I would prefer a grocery store to a food desert, of course. But what I appreciate about the all-purpose corner store is how it is just that: a thing serving all purposes for an underserved community. Sometimes my people don’t have vehicles, and sometimes my people don’t have money but still need to eat, and sometimes my people are college students, and sometimes my people are single parents, and sometimes my people are grinding well beyond any reasonable grind, and all of my people still deserve having the doors to some small mecca thrown open to greet them and their needs, even if they just want to get by on a pack of hot dogs and a bag of chips. Even if they just want to go to a place that has always been the place they know and never anything else.
When people come to Columbus, Ohio, I often take them to get ice cream. In Columbus, this isn’t too difficult — there are several ice cream options available, many of them local and specific to the area. Most notably, there is Jeni’s, a delicious gourmet ice cream establishment, which I live mere steps from. When people come to Columbus and ice cream is mentioned, that is where they ask to be taken.
But I tend to take people to United Dairy Farmers. United Dairy Farmers is a gas station. But it is also a corner store. But it is also a newsstand. But it is also, most important, an ice cream parlor. There was a United Dairy Farmers at the corner of Barnett Road and Livingston Avenue when I was growing up, and if I had enough change left over from mowing a lawn or mopping a floor, I would go to United Dairy Farmers and get a small shake. The thing about UDF is that it is maybe the ultimate corner store — the corner store that has mutated into what the final form of a corner store could be. The UDF is a very geographically particular phenomenon — all of them in Ohio, most of them Columbus and south. In Columbus, they are littered along major roads, in every corner of the city. They are in the hood, they are in the suburbs, they line Ohio State’s campus. Almost all are open 24 hours—some more entertaining in the a.m. hours than others, depending on which location you find yourself in. On campus in the fall, for example, a post-midnight trip to UDF will likely result in seeing the residue of a party, spilled out from some campus house and into the store. A post-midnight trip to one of the suburban UDF locations will result in someone dozing off behind the counter, sparked to life by your entrance.
United Dairy Farmers serves ice cream mere steps away from the cigarettes and Swisher Sweets and tabloid magazines. It is all so impossible and brilliant. My favorite thing is to take someone inside and watch their face as they take it all in. The corner store is sometimes a cramped experience, with everything kind of shoved together haphazardly to make sure there’s room for all the items. United Dairy Farmers is spread out — spacious for a corner store, but not nearly spacious enough to be a grocery store. There are unnumbered aisles, several with no rhyme or reason. The deodorant might be placed next to the bread, which might be placed next to some random pens or markers. It is the kind of place that will have exactly one type of everything you might need.
But the ice cream! I must say that what I like most about United Dairy Farmers is that you are at the mercy of your ice cream scooper in a way that you might not be at another place. Some places have at least some scoop-size guideline that they follow so the scoops don’t overflow or so your cone doesn’t look overwhelming in size when compared to other cones in the store. At UDF, particularly if one arrives during an hour after midnight, the scoops are hearty, likely uneven, and scooped by someone who is excited to do it — a break from the mundane register work. The shakes are often blended for several minutes at a time due to the heavy-handedness of the overeager scooper, who shovels scoop after scoop into a bulging cup before walking it over to the blender.
United Dairy Farmers is what I imagine every corner store should be: a place where there is joy that can be had at any hour. A place where the lights are always on, even in neighborhoods where everyone is sleeping. Sometimes it’s a walk down the street and sometimes it’s a car pulled off a highway in the middle of the night. I am invested in that which serves as many purposes as possible, I guess. I’m interested in that which gives my people the things they need, but I am also interested in that which — from time to time — gives my people the things they want.