“Mom and pop” is a casual expression describing small, family-owned, independent businesses — rare treasures in modern society where the convenience of large supermarkets hog the market share.
These general catch-all stores gained prominence in newly-colonized U.S. in the 1700s and remained a staple of some communities throughout the better part of the 20th century.
They sold anything and everything — from cigarettes to freshly-butchered meat, laundry detergent, fabric, tools, toys, bologna by the tube, wash tubs, and kerosene.
As cars became a fundamental utility in more middle-income households in the 1950s, larger chain stores with parking spaces began popping up around the country and in the Wiregrass, like Piggly Wiggly and IGA.
General stores were still common in poorer neighborhoods, however, as many households didn’t have cars to drive to sparsely scattered supermarkets and had to rely on shops within walking distance.
In Dothan’s inner city neighborhoods, there was a “mom and pop” store every five or six blocks with different goods and services to attract customers. Many still stand today, deserted.
Today, walk-up neighborhood stores are getting a second look as the city of Dothan weighs the possibility of reversing zoning ordinances that have negatively impacted their existence.
Titus E. Pittman, often called “Tite” by the people in his community due to his penny-pinching tendencies, opened Pittman’s Food Store on East Burdeshaw Street just past the railroad tracks near Dothan’s downtown in 1957.
His son, Larry Pittman, now 77, remembers fondly how his dad ran his store much like he lived his life — alongside his family, with pride and prudence.
“Daddy’s store was a little unique in the neighborhood,” Larry said. “He was actually a small supermarket… Daddy’s was bigger than the other ones because he carried some of everything.”
Though the mini-mart may seem small by today’s standards, Pittman’s store was considered a “superette” because of its variety of groceries. Unlike many of the other shops in the area at the time, customers could push around small shopping carts inside the store.
Pittman made his own link sausage in the store’s meat market, a large one compared to standards in that time.
Sides of beef and hogs hung on the hooks of a walk-in cooler where Pittman and the store’s full-time butcher would slice, chop, and grind different kinds of meat to sell by the pound: sirloins, T-bones, hamburger meat, pork, and pigs’ feet — a top-selling item.
“We cut whatever a customer wanted, weighed it and priced it as they watched,” Larry said.
Ezell, the store’s fulltime butcher was an interesting character, Larry remembered.
“Ezell was a big part of the business,” he said. “One time I told Dad that Ezell was stealing Winston cigarettes from him. Without a pause, Dad said, ‘Larry, if you didn’t make any more than Ezell, you’d steal too.’
Larry said Ezell would end up in jail many Saturday nights and his dad would go down to the police station and pick him up.
“He loved to drink brown water as he called it — most of the time, too much, and invariably would get in a fight,” he said. “Dad knew the police chief, Chief (Kater) Williams, well then and the police wouldn’t book him. They’d put Ezell in a cell and when dad got there, they’d let dad take him home. There were times when I was in high school Dad would delegate that job to me. Ezell was a great guy and I always enjoyed working with him.”
Larry and his mom Leona, who worked at Rose Hill School as a lunchroom manager, helped in the store alongside his dad and Ezell. In his younger years, Larry would walk to and from school and go back to the store. He did just about every job there was at the store, although he noted his dad wouldn’t let him get near the band saw used to cut meat. He did, however, use large cheese hoops to slice cheese for customers.
A quart of kerosene
Kerosene was a big seller, especially in the winter months, as most homes in the neighborhood were heated with a kerosene stove. A tank sat in front of the store and customers could buy it by the quart, gallon, or half-gallon.
“That was one of my ‘special tasks’ my dad gave me, probably because it was a nasty job and most sales were when it was cold outside,” Larry said.
On the other side of the store, there usually sat a display of fresh collards, turnips, mustard, sweet potatoes, and other vegetables. Another one of Larry’s jobs was to keep crushed ice on the greens to keep them fresh.
Pittman’s was a walk-up store with no off-street parking. It served a mostly Black community where cars were scarce and customers would sometimes have their groceries delivered — that was Larry’s favorite task.
“It got me out of the store,” Larry said. “I got to meet the whole family then. I got to go in the homes.”
Pittman’s family wasn’t just a one-stop shop for groceries and household items, but a place where members of the community would often gather for fellowship.
“So, I guess you could say the “mom and pop” stores were more than just a place to get some groceries,” Larry said. “Sometimes mother would say they were counselors, psychologists, bankers, and merchants lastly. Mom and dad knew every customer by name as well as where they worked and how many children they had and each of their names.
“Their ‘mom and pop’ store was one you would hang around in to learn what was going on in the community. If you came in to have a coke and just talk you’d never have to pay for your drink. They would say, ‘It’s on the house.’”
When a customer passed away, Titus would have someone load up a truck with groceries, which always included a ham, and he or Leona would personally take it to the family’s house and visit with them awhile.
Fixture in community
Pittman’s was woven into the community in many ways, and would often adapt its services to fit rising needs.
Larry remembered his dad learning that there were few pencil sharpeners at Carver High School, where Black students went to school before Dothan’s high schools were fully integrated in 1969. In contract, Dothan’s white high school, had pencil sharpeners in every classroom.
So, Titus installed a row of pencil sharpeners at the front of his store.
“Word got out quickly and the students would line up before and after school to sharpen their pencils,” Larry remembered.
Titus also started giving people loans — a common, though not entirely legal practice, of small stores in the day. Growing up in the Great Depression era, Titus didn’t trust banks and usually kept large amounts of cash on him at all times. His loan wallet was chained to his belt.
“It was unreal how much money he carried in that thing,” Larry said. “It would scare momma to death — all of us. He would loan that money out and he could remember every person he loaned it to and every amount.”
Larry remembered vividly one occasion when his dad, tired from working a long day at the store, put his wallet into a brown paper bag and put it in the oven instead of its usual hiding place in the attic before going to bed. His mom was up unusually early the next morning and turned on the oven to make biscuits, catching the bag on fire. Luckily, Titus woke up in time, retrieved the burning bag from the oven and stomped it out, narrowly saving his money.
Titus dropped out of school in the 9th grade, but he was incredibly “street smart” and picked up on profitable business strategies with practice and a keen eye.
He would pit grocery wholesalers against each other to get the best price and let customers think they could steal a bag of rice from him, although he would add it on their tab later.
Quite the merchant
It wasn’t until Larry went to a four-year university and took retail and marketing courses did he realize how intelligent his father was at his trade.
“I found out he was quite the merchant,” Larry said.
He remembered as a kid questioning his dad about the low sale price on lemons — three for 10 cents, which was at cost. His dad pointed to the oranges on one side and grapefruits on the other to show him that they were marked up more. He explained that customers don’t buy many lemons at one time, but buy more oranges and grapefruits.
Years later, Larry learned at Auburn University that the strategy was called merchandising with loss leaders and is widely practiced even today.
Titus came up with rules and policies as needed to fit the situation. When he caught someone shoplifting, he didn’t call the police, but had his own way of dealing with it, Larry said.
“When a kid would steal, he would wait until they came back in and as they walked by him he’d tell them what he witnessed when they were in last time,” Larry said. “He’d tell them to keep it just between the two of them and if he wouldn’t do it again they both would be out of trouble. Many times I’d hear dad say sometimes shaming someone is the best punishment.”
In 1968, someone set the store on fire shortly after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.
“It was suspected that since it was in the middle of a Black community that it was a Black person who did it,” Larry said. “A number of the people in the Black community helped daddy rebuild… they really helped put it together. Daddy swore that nobody in that community would set his store on fire.”
Larry said two or three weeks later police caught three white boys in a pickup truck on their way to set another grocery store on fire. The boys confessed to the crime.
Pittman’s Food Store was a fixture in the community even when big-box retailers started opening in Northside Mall in 1970 and in Porter’s Square in 1974. Convenience stores primarily selling gas, tobacco products, and alcohol also started becoming popular around that time, but generally catered to a different market.
Pittman’s was the place people would go to hang a poster announcing an event at school, church, or other organizations. It’s down-home, community feel and flexible offerings — like Pittman’s penny bags of sugar and coffee grinds he would buy at the old train depot — couldn’t be replicated by grocery chains.
“I think one of unique things that made them successful was not the groceries, but the mom and pop,” Larry said smiling, adding he considered himself lucky to work alongside his parents, although he was rarely paid.
Titus sold the food store in 1985 at age 71 due to declining health; it was the same time that Wiregrass Commons Mall was being built. Larry said he was disappointed his dad didn’t pass the store on to him.
The next business that went up in the building was not successful, much like many other stores and laundromats in the area and closed down.
Over time, stores like Pittman’s were forgotten as new zoning ordinances were shaped around the modern shopping experience. Today’s zoning laws require businesses to have a certain number of parking spaces to accommodate employees and potential customers.
Though the building has been passed around by numerous owners over the last several decades, no one has been able to revive it because of the inability to provide off-street parking. The building stands now in derelict condition with lasting remnants of another time.
With Dothan’s economic growth in recent years, however, interest among city leaders has grown to reverse the laws that have zoned walk-up neighborhood stores out of existence.
They believe there is still a present need for neighborhood shops to serve those communities, where many still don’t have vehicles.
Dothan’s city commission could vote as early as the first Tuesday of August on an amendment to the zoning ordinance that would create special principal use standards for an overlay district inside Dothan’s Ross Clark Circle. The Neighborhood Commercial Establishment district allows certain type of businesses to open directly next to residential properties in existing commercial buildings.
The amendments establish several nonresidential uses permitted within the designated boundary — art galleries and studios, offices, personal service establishments such as dry cleaning and hair salons, restaurants, and retail goods. They preclude drive-thru facilities, outside storage or display and freestanding signs.
Though Larry is interested to see his dad’s old store cleaned up, he is concerned about the ability to be successful in today’s market.
“It was a tough business then, and it’s a tough business now,” he said. “That was daddy’s life. He loved getting up and going to work every morning.”
Seven days a week, 12-hour days and few prospects for vacations or time-off, Titus invested his life into his store.
Larry averted his eyes for a moment to think, before smiling and adding, “If my dad had that store today, I think he could make it work.”