Since moving to Montgomery, Alabama, eighteen years ago, I’ve made the three-hour drive to tiny Quitman, Mississippi, countless times. Perpetually ten minutes late, I’m usually in a hurry, knowing my granddad will wait on me for lunch. Most of my trip is via Highway 80, a pasture-edged stretch that cuts a swath through West Alabama’s fertile Black Belt region. I buzz past cotton fields and quail plantations before hitting Selma. Then it’s liquid squares of catfish farms followed by boarded-up shops in Uniontown. When I hit Demopolis, I’m finally nearing the interstate, where I can pick up real speed.
When I reach my granddad’s beige brick ranch, time stops. I get lost listening to his stories, and by the time I’m headed home in the afternoon, I’m making a mad dash again. One such winter afternoon, I discovered the Simmons-Wright Company general store in Kewanee, Mississippi. Deep in a daydream, I saw an exit sign for 80 East. Not realizing my usual exit was still a few miles away, I took the turn and found myself on an unfamiliar stretch of country road. I flew past a weathered redbrick building with a sign proclaiming PORK SKINS! and drove a mile more, arguing with myself about whether I had time to check it out. I didn’t, but I turned around anyway.
I opened a rickety screen door, then a heftier wooden one, bumping two little bells whose hollow clank bounced around a cavernous interior packed to its wood-paneled ceiling with forgotten things from a thousand yesterdays: a tangled jumble of old farm tools; old-timey remedies (with a scribbled warning sign, FOR SALE, NOT FOR USE!); a potbellied stove; well-used cast-iron skillets and Dutch ovens on shelves topped with silo-like stacks of hoop cheese boxes.
I sensed a hazy but powerful connection, as if I’d stepped back into the world my granddad had just been reminiscing about. Time slowed again, a brief lull that erased thoughts of to-do lists and unanswered e-mails.
So even though they cost me precious minutes, a glass-bottle Coke and a fried pie (peach if they have ’em) at Simmons-Wright became a ritual. Turns out I’m not the only one drawn to this place. A spiral notebook by the door records guests from Texas, Australia, South Africa, Great Britain.
Founded in 1884 by E. A. Simmons and his brother-in-law Tom Wright, Simmons-Wright is on the National Register of Historic Places, and some sources list it as the oldest continually operating general store in Mississippi. It’s still in the same family, too. Gary and Janice Pickett started running it in 1996, after Gary’s great-aunt Jewell Bernice Simmons retired at age ninety-three. For most of the store’s existence, it was much more than a repository of nostalgia. Originally flanked by a train depot and a post office, it was the lifeblood of the community. “You could get anything here,” Gary says, “and if we didn’t have it, we called Selma and could get it here by train in two days.”
Only about two hundred people now call Kewanee home, but the store still stocks basic groceries and hardware as well as a myriad of antiques and Mississippi-made gifts like soaps and Janice’s chowchow. Janice opened the store’s 1884 Café in 2011, and regulars now share area news over catfish, fried chicken, or Gary’s pecan-smoked pulled pork.
My granddad passed away in July. And at the fellowship hall lunch that followed his funeral, a hundred memories were shared. Some I’d never heard before. Between bites of pineapple-cheese casserole, I thought about telling of my stops at Simmons-Wright, and then realized that most likely, no one would care. The store itself has no ties to him. The moments I stole
there from my otherwise hectic pace were solely mine. What does an unadorned storefront at a lonely crossroads in Mississippi matter?
On the drive back to Montgomery, I stopped there once again. I got my Coke, walked back into the stifling heat, and paused. I thought about death but also about the hundred-and-thirty-plus years of life that this place has supported, and reaffirmed the conclusion I came to on my first visit: that Simmons-Wright matters more than I can say.