Langland’s Grocery by Dempsey Miles
It looked from the outside like a small house or maybe a barn. The wood plank walls were even colored that garish barn house red like you see in Pennsylvania Dutch country. There was certainly no chance of you missing it sitting on Whitfield Street. It was the first store that I remember being allowed to walk to. It sat less than a block out side of Curtis Quarters and the foot traffic from my neighborhood had to be what kept the gaudy colored place in business.
I don’t know if it was coincidence or genius on Mr. Langland’s part that caused him to place his store in that location. Langland’s was the true corner store way before Stop & Go Mart or Seven Eleven discovered Starkville. Mr. Langland’s store hours were 7 am to 8 pm Monday through Saturday. The store was closed on Sundays and every government or religious holiday. I mean we were in the deep south after all. Mr. Langland and his wife were the first white people I can recall meeting. Mr. Langland was a tall man who was starting to get that hump in his shoulders that old men seem to get if they lived long enough. His hair was shiny black like Kiwi brand liquid shoe polish and styled exactly like Bob’s big boy. In the insane humidity of Mississippi summers I never saw that man with a hair out of place. Mr. Langland’s dress usually consisted of long sleeve, buttoned shirt, white with stripes of daily varying widths, pleated trousers sometimes with an unadorned black belt or daring red suspenders with little gold colored clasps, and black wing tipped shoes. I always got the impression he was quite the natty dresser in his young man days. Mrs. Langland wasn’t as put together as her stylish spouse. She could usually be found behind the cash register wearing simple powder blue or beige dresses; the kind with the short sleeves and little plastic zipper running the length of the back. Mrs. Langland was known to wear grayish-blond beehive wigs. My six years old mind wondered who picks a gray wig to wear? Mrs. Langland continuously fanned her self with a card board Outlaw & Carter Funeral Home fan. I assumed she got the fan for free since the funeral home was black owned and the Langland’s were as liver-spotted milky white as you could get.
As diametrically opposed as their fashion choices were, it was obvious they loved each other and could be seen fussily doting on each other in the way that truly loving couples who have been together forever do. Whenever she spoke of him or asked him a store related question she would call him Mr. Langland and he would call her Miss. Langland when the scene was reversed. I liked the Langlands’ a lot.
The store they owned was as much a personality as the Langlands’. The store definitely had a soul of its own. The door leading into the store could not have been more than five feet from Whitfield Street. It had a porch no more than a foot high and two wooden steps to the left of the porch for those who cared to use them. Upon entering the store it was apparent that the Langland’s intent was to have everything that you even though you may need. In all my times going into the little red store on countless recovery missions for my mother or one of the neighbor ladies did I ever not find exactly what I was sent for. It was as if the sheer need of the item caused it to materialize on one of the many crowded shelves in the crowded aisles. Being the shrewd business man he was, Mr. Langland made sure he kept the candy right inside the doorway at kid eye level. To the chagrin of my dentist, it was here I fell in love with such delights as Boston Baked Beans, Red Hots, Ike & Mike’s, Now-a-Laters, Jolly Ranchers, Sugar Daddies, Baby Ruth’s and other sugary confections. To the right was a red and white Coke- a- Cola Cooler with a lift up lid. The beautiful metal chest contained endless amounts of Nehi sodas of every flavor: grape, peach, orange, strawberry and even root beer. Once I had found my treat or errand item I would go to the counter where his ancient cash register sat. The cash register was a pale olive green with a glass pane in the front that would loudly crank up the chalk white dollar and cents as Mr. Langland pushed the flat circular buttons with deft fingers moving in a blur, his lips silently mouthing each total. The counter was always adorned with standing racks of Tom’s salted peanuts, or small grab bags of Golden Flakes pork skins, hot or plain flavored. Sometimes I had to buy lunchmeat that Mr. Langland sliced right there behind the far end of the counter: Country thick slices of red ring bologna, liver cheese, hog’s head souse or Virginia ham. Mrs. Langland would always chime in, “Mr. Langland put an extra slice in there for the chillen.” to which he would always reply, “I was Miss. Langland.” Did I say I liked the Langlands’ a lot?
A lot of bad stuff happened around that little red wooden grocery store. There were knife fights, shootings, and drunken fist fights among the normal weekly activities. But no one ever disrespected Langland’s Grocery. No one ever stole from them, not one piece of penny candy, not one bag of plain skins, not ever. The Langlands’ were as much a part of our neighborhood as the families that lived in it. And even though no one knew of their life outside of the store or where they went when they locked the single wooden front door; they were our family too. Extending credit until you got paid on Friday or when your pension check was late. Never judging when you had the colorful book of food stamps as payment. Never following you around the aisles to make sure you weren’t pilfering. I believed if you really needed an item they would have given it to you with a smile and a,” Just pay us when you have it next time.” I miss the dapper Mr. Langland and the sweet, bee-hived, fanning, Mrs. Langland. I really liked the Langlands’ a lot.