The Accidental Tourist (Attraction)
Story Slim Smith | Photographs Carmen K. Sisson
There are a number of things that have transformed Williams Brothers General Store in Philadelphia, Miss., into something of a tourist attraction. Chief among them is that Williams Brothers has never aspired to be a tourist attraction in the first place.
For that reason, you will find no gift shop at Williams Brothers. There are no souvenir T-shirts or coffee mugs adorned with a Williams Brothers logo, mainly because nobody ever bothered to design a logo to begin with.
Although the store has been featured in magazines and newspapers throughout the South, there is no area of the building set aside to display the stories or the vintage photos that have been collected in the 105 years since the original Williams Brothers opened their store on this site on the western edge of town. The magazine clippings and old photos are scattered around the store, occupying whatever wall space might be available in the wonderfully cluttered old building.
Williams Brothers operates pretty much as it did when Amzie and Brown Williams opened the store in this building in 1907. Yet somewhere along the way — no one really knows when, exactly — the store evolved from being just a place where people came to look for something in particular into a place where people came to, well, just look.
This is particularly true on the weekends when Sid Williams — who has lived and worked here almost all of his 56 years — may not recognize a single customer. On Saturdays, tour buses fill up the dirt parking lot across the street where the Williams Brothers once operated their cotton gin.
“You know the tourists right away,” says Sid. “They are the ones who come in and look up at hams hanging from the ceiling and point. They are the ones who see us cutting the hoop cheese and just stand and watch like they’re seeing something they thought ended a long time ago.”
Williams and his first cousin, Jane Crosswhite, are the fourth generation to run the family enterprise. They are joined by Jane’s mother, Peggy Dees, who at 82, still makes her daily trip to the store. She usually arrives around 2 o’clock in the afternoon where she sits on a stool near the cash registers like a queen on her throne at a sawdust court.
Both Sid and Jane have worked in the old store on Road 375 near the railroad tracks since childhood. Neither planned to make the store their career, though. In their 20s, Sid was going to be a coach while Jane was going to work in medicine. Both returned to help out for “just a little while.’’ And, of course, like the old brick and mortar building, they are still here.
“I always say this place is like a second marriage,” Crosswhite says. “It’s every day, all day.”
SOME OF EVERYTHING
The appeal of Williams Brothers is that it has managed to blend the nostalgic and the new in a tasteful manner. Contrived? Not at all. Eclectic? Absolutely. It is likely the only store where you can buy both Big Smith Overalls and Seven jeans.
Surprisingly, given its otherwise no-frills approach, Williams Brothers carries many of the top clothing lines, a fact that can be attributed to Crosswhite, the store’s main buyer. When Walmart opened a super-center just down the road, it was Crosswhite’s insistence on carrying quality clothing that helped keep Williams Brothers viable.
“What we try to do is offer quality for a competitive price,’’ she says. “When Walmart first came in, we were worried about what it would mean for our business. Quality at a good price is a niche we’ve created for ourselves.’’
While Crosswhite keeps an eye out for the latest in clothing trends — she regularly makes buying trips to Dallas and Atlanta — Sid has become sort of the keeper of the flame. It is his job to make sure that the store continues to provide “a little of everything’’ as it did back when the store first opened. Entering the store, customers walk through a labyrinth of horse feed and fertilizer towers, past boxes stacked shoulder high with Vardaman-grown sweet potatoes, around a shopping cart filled with four-foot lengths of sugar cane ($1.19 each, says a hand-painted sign) and past a shelf stocked with “Broke T Honey,’’ harvested from hives in town.
Inside, visitors find a blend of the ordinary — groceries, cleaning supplies, etc. — and the fanciful. A shelf contains the mysterious concoction, “Yoder’s Good Health Recipe’’ packaged in a brown pint bottle that bears a suspicious resemblance to whiskey. If you are in need of 32-ounce jars of sorghum, peaches, mustard, eggs or Sweet Flame pickles, you can find a well-stocked supply.
Looking for that old hard candy sold in tin boxes? Naturally, Williams has it.
In fact, if there is a brand that you are pretty sure ceased to exist 30 or 40 years ago, you might check at Williams Brothers first.
That doesn’t mean that the store focuses on novelty products. Far from it. In every respect, Williams Brothers is true to its general store roots.
“We try to sell most everything somebody might need,’’ Sid says. “We sell a lot of blue jeans, shoes, boots, feed, tack, farm supplies, groceries. Just about everything.’’
THE BARONS OF BACON
Like most grocery stores, Williams Brothers has a butcher shop in the back of the store where they cut and package meat.
There is one nod to the tourist trade, however. Strategically located at the entrance of the store, is a bacon and cheese slicing station.
In fact, slicing bacon and cheese has become sort of a performance art at the store and the job of bacon/cheese slicer is a position of honor among the store’s 60 employees. By virtue of his status, Sid Williams is one of the two bacon slicers. He’s been slicing bacon at the store pretty much since he finished at Ole Miss in 1978. His partner in slicing is Terry Lee Kelly, who’s been slicing at Williams Brothers for going on 25 years now. The roster of bacon/cheese slicers is slim; positions are usually held by store owners and their most trusted employees. Their reign at the slicer tends to be long, so prestigious is the role.
And, boy, do they slice bacon — about two tons a month, roughly 48,000 pounds per year, all sliced to order and wrapped in butcher’s paper.
“I guess it all goes back to childhood memories,’’ Sid Williams says. “People come in here and they see things they haven’t seen since they were kids themselves. For them, it’s nostalgic, I guess.
“For us, it’s just doing what we’ve always done.’’