A Relaxed Pace
While most of Highway 280 has experienced out-of-control expansion, time has happily stood still at Perrin’s Grocery.
Across from Lloyd’s restaurant on Highway 280, amid the sprawling commercial development that has sprouted throughout the area in recent years, sits a stone façade bait shop and convenience store known as Perrin’s Grocery. Having occupied the same location for the past 51 years, the building stands in stark contrast to its surroundings. Inside, one finds a clientele different than the thousands of suburbanites who commute to jobs in the greater Birmingham area.A weekday afternoon visit finds the store bustling with customers, though only one is interested in bait (most of the store’s fishing business occurs on Saturdays). “We’re out of crickets, but they should be here in just a few minutes,” owner Jamie Perrin tells a disappointed fisherman. Most of Perrin’s patrons are shopping for the business’s real bread and butter: landscaping supplies courtesy of Perrin and Son.
The front door of Perrin’s is plastered with fliers. One seeks a home for a “Redbone hound dog” found wandering in the area; a business in Wilsonville, Alabama, asks the question “Got coyotes? Give us a call,” with a photo of several men brandishing rifles. Baskets of peaches and tomatoes sit outside the front door, along with jars of Amish Wedding–brand pear, blackberry, and muscadine jams. Meanwhile, a landscaper fills up his truck with gasoline, noting, “Jamie’s got the best gas prices around.” When asked if he has considered upgrading his old-fashioned pumps for newer models, Perrin shakes his head and replies, “Nah, these work just as well and they’re paid for.”
The store’s merchandise includes fishing gear, slingshots, and an impressive selection of knives. Jars of chow-chow relish and pickled okra are also available. Large, generic-looking bags with the brand name Redneck Charcoal are stacked near the beer section. Store shelves are sparsely stocked, as if the place is going out of business. Behind the cash register, a couple of fly strips with a dozen dead flies stuck to them hang from the ceiling. Like clockwork, the cricket dealer shows up, just as Perrin had promised his lone bait customer. Egg crates covered with chirping crickets are dumped into a two-foot-deep Plexiglas tub. Chunks of red-skin potatoes are scattered across the bottom of the cricket tub for the creatures to munch on. “They’ll clean that potato all the way down to the peel,” a customer adds. He then gestures toward the minnows, bragging on Perrin’s bait selection. If one prefers worms for fishing, there’s plenty of those for sale, too.
“My daddy ran around with Jamie’s daddy,” says Columbiana resident Donald “Tootie” Duke, one of the regulars who hangs around Perrin’s most afternoons eating boiled peanuts from a simmering kettle while joking with Perrin and Perrin’s wife, Dee, who operates the cash register. “Mr. Perrin used to let people buy on credit, or he’d trade instead of selling for cash.” Jamie says that boiled peanuts are a longtime store tradition begun by his father. “Boiled peanuts are one of our biggest sellers, been selling ‘em for 30 years. We boil ‘em for 14 hours,” he says, offering a sample. “We got roasted peanuts, too.”
Perrin’s father Jimmy, an imposing figure of a man with a flowing white beard who always wore coveralls, bought the store in 1958 at age 21 when Highway 280 was basically bordered by a forest. In 1969, construction began to widen 280 from two lanes to four. Perrin’s building sat several feet lower than the new highway’s elevation, so the store was demolished and rebuilt to bring it level with the roadway. Jimmy Perrin died in 2006, and his son carries on the family trade. Though the store was essentially conceived as a convenience store and bait shop, the elder Perrin learned that he would have to diversify to stay in business. “Dad saw the writing on the wall when the modern stores began being built [along 280] in the 1980s, so he started the landscaping supply business,” Jamie explains.
Jamie and Tootie laugh about the horse-drawn buggy that Perrin’s father often drove. “He had a little black dog that would ride with him,” Jamie says as he recalls the day a decade ago when the buggy became a runaway vehicle along Highway 280. “Dad stopped and got out to adjust one of the harnesses, and those two horses suddenly ran off down the highway, with just that little dog sitting up there like he was driving. They ran for about a mile down 280 before we finally got ‘em stopped. Caught ‘em over there at Lloyd’s [restaurant].”
Jamie Perrin says that the current recession has affected his business somewhat but “not extremely bad.” “Dad would never have sold the store, but we would if the price is right,” he admits. He says politics aren’t discussed very often by the store’s regulars, but he offers his opinion: “Obama inherited a mess, but he’s not gonna be able to straighten it out.” This prompts Dee to comment, “If they’re gonna give all that money away, those that get the money oughta be held accountable!” When asked about Michael Jackson’s death amid rumors of a drug overdose the previous day, Dee claims she heard that morphine was involved. She shakes her head and says, “He was a nice-looking guy at one point. I don’t know why he had to go and do all that stuff to his face.” Jamie is philosophical about the drug rumors. “I don’t know why they want to do an autopsy,” he says. “If it was drugs, it’s not going to change anything. It’s like Elvis. He’s still gone.” Perrin then addresses Farrah Fawcett’s death. “Do you remember those posters she had, in that bathing suit?’ he asks a nodding visitor. “I wish I had a few of those posters here at the store. Those things would be worth a lot of money now.”
An assortment of stuffed animals are mounted on the store’s walls and shelves: huge striped bass, wildcats, turkeys, squirrels, raccoons, and deer. “See that raccoon pelt up there? I gave Dad that one Christmas. That raccoon weighed 46 pounds.”
The store’s property includes six acres to accommodate the landscaping supply business, which includes huge mounds of pine mulch, sand, gravel, and top soil. Perrin’s teenage son, Trey, and a longtime employee named Curly are operating Bobcat front-end loaders, dumping materials into the beds of customers’ pickup trucks. Trey walks into the store for a soda. When asked how long he’s been driving a Bobcat, the teen replies, “I learned to drive one when I was four, but my dad wouldn’t let me load trucks ’til I was eight.” Jamie laughs as he recalls the horror on customers’ faces when they saw a child loading up their trucks.
“You need to meet Curly, he’s worked here for 25 year,” Jamie suddenly tells me. “Curly, I got a police officer here that wants to talk to you,” Perrin tells his employee via walkie-talkie, winking at me before whispering, “He might not come in here now.” Ten minutes later, Curly saunters into the store, eyeing me suspiciously. After being convinced that I’m not a cop, he begins sharing his opinion of the evolution of Highway 280. “I don’t like to see all this change,” he says, gesturing toward the strip mall across the street. “Used to be I couldn’t see anything out here except woods. That was what my kind of fun was, just sitting out in the woods around here, swimming and fishing, watching the sun set. People look at progress different than I do. All these places out here keep going out of business,” Curly says, shaking his head in disgust. “And I can’t eat asphalt and concrete.” &
Perrin’s is open Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Saturday from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Call 991-5026 if you need landscaping materials, which Jamie Perrin will be happy to deliver if you can’t stop by the store.