Another trip on the Way Back Machine, aka my high school web site, put me in touch with Tracy Nichols Lyle, who grew up next door to me in East Tupelo. Tracy is 10 years my junior, but she had older brothers that I remember well.
She mentioned that one of her brothers was the meat market manager at Palmer’s Big Star and I was surprised how many memories the thought of the little grocery store stirred.
Unlike other parts of the city, East Tupelo had its own identity, mainly because it had its only little pocket of commerce along a two-block stretch of Main Street.
Old man Post operated a barber shop on the south side of Main St. Although he cut hair for more than 40 years at that location, he only performed one haircut, as best I can tell, a tightly cropped buzz cut that every boy sported. Look at any old photos of the boys who grew up in East Tupelo and you’ll see that “style.’’
When we got into our teen years and were deemed old enough to make our own choices, we would take our business out of East Tupelo to the downtown Central Barber Shop, where the young barbers bet on football games and had back issues of Playboy Magazine you could look at. Being able to go to Central Barber Shop, where the buzz cut was never performed and you could look at pictures of naked women was considered a rite of passage among teenage boys.
Post’s Barber Shop was located right next to Johnny’s Drive-in, which was a main gathering place for breakfast and lunch. The tiny little diner only had seating for about 20. Most patrons chose to eat in their car. As soon as you pulled up, the diner’s car-hops would wait to see if you were going to get out. If you didn’t, they would approach and take your order and bring your food out to you.
Johnny’s is still in operation, I’m happy to report and there is still a Barber Shop at the same location, although Mr. Post has long since passed on. A block further south was Lawhon Elementary School, its property flanked by East Heights Baptist Church, the biggest church in East Tupelo, to the east and the Freewill Baptist Church to the West.
On the opposite side of the street, there was the post office and a People’s Bank branch.
And there was Palmer’s Big Star.
As I reflect, Palmer’s Big Star was the focal point of the community. If you lived in East Tupelo, you may or may not have done your banking at the People’s Bank. You may or may not have worshipped at East Heights Baptist Church. You may have treated yourself to breakfast at lunch at Johnny’s Drive-In from time to time, although eating out was considered quite the luxury for a lot of folks in this working class community. You may have had Mr. Post buzz your head or have had your mom cut your hair instead.
But everybody bought groceries. And while another small grocery store, Lackey’s, operated just “up the hill’’ to the east, almost everyone in East Tupelo shopped at the Big Star.
These days, it would be hard to imagine that a grocery store could be the central meeting place for a community. But that is precisely the role the Big Star performed.
J.K. Palmer and his wife, Lorene, opened the store in the late 1950s. I remember Mr. Palmer well. A very kind, gentle man, he often let hard-pressed customers pay for their groceries at the end of the month. More than once, he would simply tell a customer to “pay me when you can.’’
Try that at your local Wal-Mart SuperCenter.
Mr. Palmer had two sons who grew up in the business, Romie and Buddy. I knew Buddy pretty well, mainly because he was about the same age as one of my older brothers. Also, Buddy was one of the more interesting characters in town . In the ultra-conservative little town, Buddy was an island of eccentricity, flamboyant in his appearance, exuberant in his manner, full of odd ideas and varied interests. You never ran into Buddy Palmer without finding him captivated by some new and unexpected enterprise.
After college at Mississippi State, he returned to run the Big Star with his wife, Cecilia. A few years back, he turned the store over to his two sons, so the Big Star is being operated by the third generation of the Palmer family.
It is funny what sticks in our memories. Important things, we sometimes forget. The trivial live on, for no apparent reason. In my next blog, I’ll share a few of the memories of Palmer’s Big Star that have persisted over the years, including such important matters as Quality Stamps, Let’s Go To The Races, the Mynah bird and Elvis’s kinfolk.