Shopping on the Hit and Run
This Southside landmark isn’t in any tourist guide, but many people couldn’t live without it.
There’s no sign outside that identifies the convenience store by any name other than Chevron. It’s been that way for nearly 30 years, yet everybody knows the place is named Tom & Jerry’s. “We had a big Coca-Cola sign right there at the corner with ‘Tom & Jerry’s’ up top,” says store-owner Tommy Numnum, who opened the business in October 1981 with longtime friend Jerry Chambers. “The city made us take it down. They didn’t like it or something. We had it for two or three years and then the city said it was too high and didn’t meet with the historic district [standards] or whatever.”
For 31 years, Tom & Jerry’s Chevron on Highland Avenue (next to the fire station) has been a popular Southside landmark. “It’s a meeting place,” says Numnum with pride. “People say, ‘We’ll meet at Tom & Jerry’s.’ We see people all the time parked out there, and if they’re out there for an hour or so I’ll go ask them if they’re broke down or anything. And they’ll say, ‘Nah, we’re waiting on somebody.’”
Tommy Numnum is a gregarious fellow, saying hello and carrying on snippets of conversation with patrons while he goes about his daily chores. “My son Mark is in [the business] now; He’s taken over. He’s been a big part of the success. He’s here most of the time; I’m not,” 66-year old Numnum admits, laughing while sitting in his office on a November morning. “I’m just occasionally in and out—clean the bathrooms and pick up the parking lot—the things that nobody else does . . . I come in ’cause I don’t want to retire. I enjoy coming in. This has been a fun place. It hasn’t really been a hardcore work atmosphere. A lot of good customers I’ve become friends with. I play golf with them, drink coffee with them.”
There was a time no one was interested in the property. “At that time, this was an empty building and Chevron really tried to find people to go in here and they couldn’t find anybody,” says Tommy. “When I first got this place, nobody wanted it. They were scared of Western [Supermarket], scared of [operating] a convenience store. Nobody believed in convenience stores. Everybody still at that time was doing service station work.”
A former video game salesman and nightclub owner, including The Cabaret on First Avenue North in the 1970s, Numnum ventured into the quick-stop store business—but with a vision that differed from what Chevron had in mind. “Chevron wanted me to put a four-door cooler [at the back wall] and put groceries everywhere. They were new in the business, too. It was brand new for everybody,” he recalls. “I said, ‘Naw, let’s put the cooler down the side of the wall,’ where it’s at now. At that time we had some video games—Donkey Kong and a few other things. So I eliminated most of the groceries and they weren’t happy about that and said it’d never make it. Southside was just building up, UAB was still coming along, and at that time, I didn’t think that was the way to go. It worked out pretty good because I’ve added more cooler doors since then. I put up new canopies and new pumps and new lighting outside about three years ago. I believe in lights. I want this place lit up at night.”
Yellow Cab driver Rod Walker stops there regularly when pulling all-night shifts on weekends and appreciates the well-lit parking lot. “The cab drivers go there all the time. It seems to be one of the most popular stations in town,” says Walker. “You pull up in the parking lot no matter what time it is and it’s like day. So you don’t have to worry about getting mugged or anything like that.” He usually stops for junk food late night while driving. “Every now and then I’ll get something healthy like a banana or an apple,” he admits. “They have a little bit of fresh fruit in there, so that’s always good.” Walker adds that Tom & Jerry’s is unique because the bathrooms are spotless and there are usually two employees working the cash registers.
According to Numnum, Tom & Jerry’s was the first Chevron station in the nation to offer credit card readers where you could pay at the pump. “Chevron test marketed it here. They asked if they could put them in,” he says. “I was a little hesitant at that time because the word was that people were not going to come inside. They were just going to stick their card out there and pump their gas and leave. But it really increased the business. People would pump their gas outside and then come inside and buy something else.”
Tommy Numnum says it’s not unusual to see a vehicle drive off with the nozzle still in the gas tank. “I was at the register one day and this guy with a company truck came in. He had been coming in for a long time, I knew him,” says Tommy. “He was filling up and I saw him get in his truck (without removing the gas nozzle) . . . About that time, he took off and sure enough the whole dispenser came out of the ground. These days, you’ve got breakaways. If somebody drives off, just the hose will break off. He took off down Highland Avenue and that dispenser was behind his truck just a bumping up and down. You could see sparks coming out of that dispenser ’cause the hose still had a little gas in it. He told me when he got back that he was scared to death because all he saw was fire coming from behind his truck and he didn’t know what was going on. He said, ‘Man, I got your pump.’ And I said, ‘I know it, man, I saw it leaving.’”
Tom & Jerry’s has a booming hot dog business. “I’ve had popcorn, I’ve had nachos, several different things but we just stuck with the hot dogs. The hot dogs started back when my mother was working here,” says Tommy. “Everybody called her ‘Miss Jessie.’ She was getting a little too old to work the register and I tried to find her something to do, so we started the hot dogs. She’d go over there and just sit all day long and make the hot dogs and cook ‘em. She’d have burn spots all over her arm, trying to get those hot dogs. She was real short. And then it got to be a monster, we were selling so many. I would’ve probably never done it if it hadn’t been for her.”
His mother passed away in 2004 at age 82. Tommy’s son Mark Numnum, recalls his grandmother: “I remember her being feisty. She was always up there waiting on customers. Everybody in Southside knew who my grandmother was. She just kind of ran the place when I was a kid.” The store also sells lots of boiled peanuts, which include a Cajun spice mixture that Mark Numnum discovered at a country store on the way to the beach last summer year.
As one would expect, a 24-hour convenience store attracts its share of strange customers and surreal experiences, though no employees want to go on record about the weirdness they encounter working a graveyard shift. “I guess the craziest thing that’s happened was somebody ramming their car through the building,” Mark Numnum says, laughing hard. “I was just getting to work and there was a cop car here with somebody sitting in the back and I guess they indulged a little too much that morning and just slammed into the front of the store . . . There’s probably still an indention where the car hit, right behind the newspaper stands. The driver was wasted. (Laughs) I think it was about 6 o’clock in the morning. He was heading home and wanted to get him another beer or two and unfortunately he hit the gas instead of the brakes.”
On the walls of Tom & Jerry’s are large framed portraits of the Rat Pack, Elvis, and the Three Stooges. There’s even a painting of Jerry Garcia. “I didn’t want to be like a grocery store. I wanted to have something different and I think we do,” says Tommy. “I’ve got maybe one row of groceries. The rest of it is convenience items: Candy, beer, wine, cigarettes. The things that you would come in here for and not have to spend time in a grocery store. You know, hit and run.” &