The historical origins of the rolling store—a miniature version of a grocery store that had been set on wheels—are as obscure and colorful as the enterprising men who drove them. The stores and their pilots roamed the rural countryside, principally in the South, in the early part of the twentieth century, bringing goods to farm families who tended to come into town only on Saturday, the day they traditionally took off from their labors, to seek the pleasures of community and friends. But when a family was caught by surprise at mid-week without coffee or sugar, they could have their needs resupplied in their own kitchens without having to make what could be a long and inconvenient trek back to town.
More often than not, the rolling stores were the product of ambitious local grocers who recognized in them an opportunity to expand their market. Some were the satellites of established chains, like Piggly Wiggly or A & P. Sometimes they were owner-driven, a grand personal investment in hope. The “stores” themselves were usually an improvisation on existing vehicles that were ingeniously retrofitted with shelves and drawers, scales and bins, contraptions that held the goods they took into the countryside. Some were as big as a Greyhound bus, but most were medium-sized pickups that possessed suspension systems sufficient for drivers to navigate uncertain and sporadically maintained rural roads. The rolling stores’ inventories, though consisting chiefly of staples, weren’t limited to that. They included impulse items, too, which made the arrival of the rolling store a vertiginous experience for all.
The men who drove rolling stores were a hardy lot. Their peregrine days were a combination of hardship and feast. The road could be lonely, but when one pulled up at a farmhouse, it was always cause for rejoicing. It was as though they brought a piece of town with them to the solitude of the country, a break in the harsh tedium of a farm family’s unending toil. They brought candy for the children, colorful thread for the wife. They risked breakdown when they ventured too far into isolated areas, having to resort to their own mechanical skills, not always the best, to extricate themselves from emergencies brought on by an overheated engine or a flat tire. The elements weren’t always their friend, either. The heat in summer could be punishing, the cold could make their vehicles feel like iceboxes, and heavy rain could turn the roads into quagmires. There was also the not unrealistic fear of robbery, since the transactions with rolling stores were made in cash, the cash usually secreted somewhere on the person of the driver.
There was a mystique about these men, the adventurous men who drove rolling stores. Some were neighbors to the customers they served, a friend. But some seemed like rootless loners who dwelled wholly in neither town nor country. Where they did live was a matter of speculation, a great mystery. Some were thought to spend day and night in their trucks, self-sufficient and self-enclosed as tortoises, men who emerged at dawn and disappeared at the coming of dusk. Sometimes they were unmarried men who found lonely farmwives a welcome possibility for diversion. Others were family men who relished day’s end and the consolations it brought of wife and children. They lived in houses set on a firm foundation, looking forward to an aromatic supper cooked from scratch, and that animated time of day in which tales from the road could be told around a groaning table.
My grandfather was one of those family men who drove a rolling store. He had been born in 1895 in Berrien County, Georgia, and given the rather grandiloquent name of Marquis de Lafayette Mathis. His parents were apparently readers of history who wanted to honor the French aristocrat who came to America’s aid in the Revolutionary War. What they didn’t know was that Marquis is a title and not a name. So in due time, Marquis was anglicized into Marcus, and he was ever after called Mark by his wife and friends. He had descended from a long line of yeoman farmers, but found few pleasures in that occupation himself, though he’d tried. He regarded the unrelenting demands of farming as drudgery of the worst sort. For him, there was no romance in living close to nature, in time with the rhythms of the seasons, as today’s back-to-the-landers describe it. He longed to be employed in a job in which he wore a clean white shirt every day and never had to dirty his hands.
In his world, the only men who had those privileges, except for the small professional class that lived there, were the men who worked in the retail stores in town. A job like that, he thought, was attainable. He set his sights on a local grocery and soon discovered that the owner wanted to launch a rolling store, the first in the area. My grandfather didn’t know what a rolling store was, but he succeeded in persuading the store owner to hire him on the spot.
There was one problem, though. My grandfather didn’t know how to drive.
But he wasn’t going to let the opportunity pass. He’d seen others drive and believed he’d picked up the rudiments of the art well enough to bring off the act himself. Once inside the cockpit of the rolling store, he played with the pedals and gearshift until he knew what each would do when they were manipulated. After a few false starts, he was off, off on a lifetime as a grocer, a man who wore white shirts every day with the cuffs rolled twice, a man who owned grocery stores in small towns all over south Georgia. He was still at it when I was a boy. I was always excited when on Sunday afternoons he would chauffer the family on excursions down country roads he still knew like the back of his hand. He was a careful, conscientious driver. He tended to favor Chevrolets, the kind that had large trunks in the back.