The Little Store Gets Fancy: A Memoir of Jitney 14

Many thanks to neighbor Susan McNease for passing along this October 2, 1988 article from The Clarion-Ledger by Leslie Myers about the extensive remodeling of the old Jitney 14. Given the recent changes to the store, it makes for a timely read, and many neighbors past and present are mentioned. I hope you all enjoy reading it as much as I have.

The Little Store Gets Fancy: But loyal Jitney 14 customers hope the neighborhood personality remains cozy

Jitney-Jungle 14 has recovered from its face lift and the surrounding Belhaven neighborhood is abuzz with the news. For reasons nobody can quite explain, Jitney’s store No. 14 has never been a typical grocery store. Since its 1929 opening at Fortification and Jefferson Streets, it has been a friendly meeting place, a lifeline for its loyal customers. Regulars say they keep in touch with their neighbors there, renew old acquaintances and even get an emotional lift from a Jitney trip. The dress code is: come as you are. For some, that means pajamas. It’s homey. Shoppers plan to keep it that way.

“I’ve always loved the Jitney,” said writer Eudora Welty. Welty, who grew up to become the store’s most famous customer, said its magic began on Day 1—as Jackson’s first self-service grocery store.

“I’ve been shopping there since it opened,” Welty, 79, said. “Then it was like a maze. That was part of the charm—that was the jungle part, turning corners all the time. Then they had bottled milk with cream on top in the refrigerator box—not homogenized. Real milk. You bought the one with the highest cream on top.”

Throngs of such loyal customers, along with past and present employees, will gather Monday morning at 8 to celebrate Jitney 14’s “Grand Reopening” (although it never has closed). Jackson Mayor Dale Danks will cut a ceremonial ribbon. This year-long renovation is the store’s first face lift since 1941. It includes a 10,000-square-foot expansion. Many culinary delights and services have also been added to its former meat-and-potatoes fare. Now there’s a fresh seafood counter with live lobsters instead of a freezer with fish sticks. Anchovy paste and fancy pasta? No problem.

For many customers, the change is a source of both joy and angst. Shoppers have been anxious for the store to stock some non-traditional foods . . . but they wonder if it really was necessary to level out the crooked floors and paint the walls.

“Professionally I’ve been going to the Jitney for 22 or 23 years,” said Cleta Ellington, a school teacher. “However, my grandmother used to shop there, so I would go with her, which puts it up to about 40 years. What I liked about the old Jitney was it was not all slicked up. That’s one of the dangers of the Jitney 14 getting all slicked up—its personality. It’s like when you have a friend that’s gray-headed and kind of fat and she loses weight and dyes her hair. You’re not sure you know her anymore.”

“I’m not sure about this new place,” Ellington, 44, said, the reconsidered. “Well, there is a man there who will decorate a cake for you on the spot if you’re desperate. It’s the new Jitney 14 that has this instant cake decorator. That’s a plus.”

Jackson City Councilman (sic) Margaret Barrett, a Jitney 14 shopper since childhood, said she already misses the sagging floors.

“Now, when you let go of your buggy, it doesn’t roll down three aisles,” Barrett, 43, said. “Before, down by the ice cream case, if you ever let go of your buggy it would never stop rolling—just like in the parking lot.

“When you go to the Jitney, you find out what’s happening with your friends,” Barrett said. It’s the community meeting place. If you’re ever feeling out of touch, you only need to go for one shopping trip.”

She is pleased that the Old English style and décor of the original store has been retained. “I know it was a decision that Jitney-Jungle made, to try to preserve the English village style,” she said. “I know that was costly for them. But I think that’s very much appreciated by people in the neighborhood. The Jitney has been a good neighbor.”

“It’s just real personal,” said florist Susan Milan, a 13-year customer. “Frankly I like all the people who work there, the bag boys and all the people at the checkout. You can go in and, if you need time and the lines are real long, you can tell them, ‘I’ll bring the money tomorrow.’ They trust their clientele, when they finally know you real well.”

But she worries about the ritzy signs on the new shelves. “When CANNED SOUP is written in Old English, it makes me nervous,” she said. “Maybe it’s getting too fancy. But well, now it’s cleaner.”

At least two other sleepers are wiping the sleep from their eyes.

Pat Cothren, a florist, and Patti Carr Black, Mississippi State Historical Museum director, have gone to the Jitney in their pajamas. Both have had Jitney as a “second home” for 20 years.

“One morning,” Cothren, 41 recalled, “I had nothing for breakfast to feed my family. So I ran to the Jitney in a night shirt. The Jitney is the Jitney,” she said, defending her attire. “It didn’t bother me, so I figured it wouldn’t bother them . . . it was a pretty decent night shirt. But I don’t know if I’d do it now, now that the Jitney is so fancy.”

Black emphasized with Cothren’s rush-hour plight. “I have been to Jitney a few times in my nightgown, with a long coat over it, early in the mornings,” Black, 54, said. “that was the way we used to go to breakfast at the ‘W,’” said the Mississippi University for Women alumna.

“The Jitney’s plurality is what makes it nice,” Ellington said. “There’s just all kinds of people in there. It cuts along class (and fashion) lines.”

Barrett said, “The employees also are people you know very well by first name. You’re very interested in their lives, and they’re very interested in yours.”

Two favorite employees mentioned repeatedly by Jitney 14 fans were store manager Sam Holley and veteran cashier Johanna Wade. Wade said she will never forget some of the customers.

“Three or four years ago, I was going to Holland to see my parents,” Wade, 53, recalled. “Margaret Barret, Karen Gilfoy, Cleta Ellington, Penny Hutcherson, Sis Hicks, Pat Cothren, Susan Milam and some others came up in here one afternoon. They gave me an envelope with all this money in it—almost $400—and said, “Go to Holland, spent it and have a good time.’”

“Karen (a judge) had some kind of declaration make up saying I could come back into the country as a joke. I had no idea they would do that,” Wade said. “I was shocked. It was so sweet, what they’d done. It’s just something we’ve got here in this store,” she said. “We’re close. It’s always been that way here.” Holley said the real magic of Jitney 14 mystified him, too.

Ellington said that the Jitney feeling probably is best described by Charlotte Capers, a seasoned shopper who likes to say, “I belong to the Episcopal Church and the Jitney 14.”

 

3 Replies to “The Little Store Gets Fancy: A Memoir of Jitney 14”

  1. In the early 60’s the Jitney added a “grill” where you could get a great hamburger cooked to order. I used to go there after school

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