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The Convenience Stores of Future Past

Greg de la Cruz works in the tech industry and is the author of two published titles on Amazon.

A 'Closed' sign hangs from a glass window. Your favorite places, which may include convenience stores, have their own time and place. It's important to appreciate them while you can.

A 'Closed' sign hangs from a glass window. Your favorite places, which may include convenience stores, have their own time and place. It's important to appreciate them while you can.

When I was a child, I didn’t know that a convenience store didn't last forever. I operated under the assumption that once the store owner put up its sign and stocked its shelves, it would stay there for good. That it had made its stake over that plot of land until further notice—and that you could count on the store to open its doors and welcome you whenever you needed anything.

But most stores don’t live for very long. Some stores last half a lifetime, many don’t even make it for half a year, while others fail to ever hang the Open sign. I’ve had the pleasure of buying from my favorite stores during their lifetime, and retrospect only makes me appreciate them more. These stores once took up a finite portion of space and time in the universe—then vanished.

There was that stopover on the way home that my dad always took a sharp left to while driving on the highway. I’ve long forgotten the store’s name, so for memory’s sake, I’ll call it S-Mart. And there was one of the better gas station marts in our small city—the Caltex with the ice candies. And finally, there was the convenience store our family owned which was better known as a bread shop, propped right beneath our home.

Only mental images remain of these three convenience stores, as time did its thing and wiped them off the face of the planet. But a careful wipe to clean off the fog from my mind’s rearview mirror should help me share with you what it was like to live in their respective eras.

Our Favorite Stopover on a Strip

My dad, in his lifetime, worked in a government office. His desk was only a three-minute walk from my mom’s—and the two minutes I accounted for, because running into gregarious people was inevitable. He was a high-ranking official, so it was normal for him to finish work two hours beyond what was considered a regular shift. But on the special occasion where he finished early, he would meet my mom by the parking lot with some daylight to spare, and together they’d fetch me from school.

Instead of beating the night traffic on the narrow highway of the provincial landscape that was Negros, we had at least half an hour to spend before it went dark. Knowing this, dad took the opportunity to buy us pre-dinner snacks (which my mom was not a fan of) and drove us to S-Mart, a roadside store in Sibulan just 5-10 minutes from Dumaguete’s border.

By today’s standards, S-Mart was by no means a remarkable store. But in its heyday, it was ambitious enough to line its shelves with treats you could only find by the delicacy aisle at the supermarket. And somehow, they sold hardware too, before the 7-Elevens of today made it commonplace. Our usual haul included some barquillos (wafer rolls with no filling), rosquillos (cookies with holes at the center as if a flat, tiny donut), and dad’s favorite, masareal (exceedingly sweet bars of ground peanuts). Each of these snacks were packed in transparent plastic printed with the producer’s name, usually suffixed by an ita or ing’s.

S-Mart didn’t seem to get to a decade of being in business, though. By the time I was in college, there was no sign of there being a convenience store in the strip by the roadside where it used to be. The absence of parked cars fronting the building gave that fact away easily. Our weekday snack stopovers had its time and place, and today, the plot of land where S-Mart once was isn’t even a landmark. A quick glance while traveling along the Negros Oriental highway will tell you that it’s now just some abandoned concrete cube of commercial space near Polymedic hospital.

A gas station with a convenience store for stopovers.

A gas station with a convenience store for stopovers.

Gas Station Ice Candies

Caltex in the Philippines rings a bell for selling gas to consumers. It’s after all a brand name of Chevron Corporation used in more than twenty countries across Asia. Gas stations in the Philippines also aren’t known for being one-stop-shops or quick stops where you can find a diner and a wide parking space. Filipino truckers can grab breakfast, lunch, and dinner through the nearest carinderia (small food stalls by the roadside) and can buy a cigarette, candy, or any essentials from sari-sari stores. These truckers also don't mind parking on the side of the highway, so who needs parking lots?

There was one Caltex station that stood out, lying along the Dumaguete main road. Before some rural developer decided to demolish the whole thing, including the convenience store that was the heart of it, it was the one Caltex whom everyone could count on selling the best ice candies in the entire city.

Here’s a little background on what ice candies mean for the average Filipino. You go through primary school with a modest daily allowance (if you even have any) from your parents. As the school bell rings for lunch period, you eat lunch fast so you can run outside to one of the street vendors whom your school only allows to sell beyond its gates. It’s high noon on a humid day in a tropical country. The ice candy, insulated by a polystyrene box is a perfect contrast, as one bite’s enough to tell you why Filipino kids never really got into popsicles. These ice candies, made from a simple, single-flavored juice, cost so little that any student whether raised in the paddy fields or by the very people who lord over those same fields, could afford them. They were easy to make, and sales would go through the roof during summer.

The Caltex that I’m remembering here took the ice candy to another level. That convenience store sold it in cookies-and-cream flavor, mango float, chocolate, ube, and even fruit salad. It was no longer just a glorified popsicle—it became a legitimate dessert. When I was working for a government agency just a minute’s walk from that store, I went almost every single day. The highlight was the ice candy of course, but you couldn’t ignore the fact that this Caltex convenience store had more to offer. Aside from the generously-stocked refrigerators of Gatorade, Powerade, and all the other ades—beer, sparkling water, canned sodas, imported alcoholic beverages—it had an honorable candy bar aisle with both Filipino and American brands of chocolate wafers.

Like during S-mart’s time, this was well before 7-Elevens and Mini-Stops spread all over the country. Now, that Caltex is no more, and I’m not sure what has become of the land it used to occupy. But that plot of land continues to be prime real estate since it’s near Dumaguete downtown and by a state-sponsored hospital—no doubt, another useful commercial establishment will soon rise. But will it ever be another Caltex convenience store, the Caltex store with the best ice candy? I doubt it.

The Convenience Store We Once Owned

The fact that my family ran its very own convenience store long before I was born may have had something to do with my affinity towards other small stores. Ours wasn’t patterned after the open-aisle model which, while welcoming in its free-for-all layout, was also prone to shoplifting. We managed an outfit that followed the more typical sari-sari­ where at least one person took your order, and a wood or concrete barrier separated buyer from seller. The other person on the seller’s side was a dedicated cashier, who made sure every transaction was tracked and all inventory inspected.

But the more common staffing setup in the Filipino countryside is just the one person acting as both cashier and order-taker. You see these stores everywhere, especially when you’re on the road.

My dad managed our family’s store’s operations. While it was typical of him to take stocks of Coca-Cola bottles to drink in his home office just a floor up, he also did all of the purchasing for the store himself. Aside from the long hours he spent on his government-sponsored desk at the City Hall, he also spent an extra hour after work at least once a week making orders inside a wholesaler in Dumaguete. My mother and I would sit and wait by our black Ford pickup truck, which, the more I think about it now was purposed for the store than for what I assumed was our family car.

The store my dad ran held much significance for me and my childhood. While it was my grandmother (my dad’s aunt) who worked as the store’s cashier, I never liked to get things for free. I paid for my own purchases of salted corn nuts sold in 1-peso packs—I saved up whatever spare change I could find, and bought from our convenience store. And I took those snacks with me upstairs for an afternoon’s cartoon binge.

We sold a lot of bread (we had a huge bakery out back), hygiene essentials, cold beverages, canned goods, even toys. We were what you would expect from any Filipino roadside store, just bigger in size. Like S-Mart and Caltex, our convenience store—Beecoy’s Store­—had its own time and place. Along with our home which rested on top of it, it went down in flames in 2003.

A roadside 7-Eleven in the Philippine countryside.

A roadside 7-Eleven in the Philippine countryside.

The Rise of 7-Elevens

7-Elevens and Mini-Stops have spread far and wide, into suburbs and barrios whose existence we hardly ever think about. When I was studying for my engineering license, I had my first soft ice cream inside a 7-Eleven, and here was a convenience store that crammed everything inside it including a kiosk where you could pay for your electricity bill. This was a store that took all the core elements of both a sari-sari store and an open-aisle, and somehow fit everything you needed in such limited, premium commercial lease space. This new type of store was like a smartphone, but for retail.

Back then, 7-Elevens and Mini-Stops were concentrated in metropolises. And the towns and lower-class cities where I and most of my classmates were born into didn’t have any of these franchised chain stores operating. In Cebu City, however, 7-Elevens were on every street I passed—sometimes I encountered two or three during a casual stroll on a straight path.

There were two particular 7-Elevens we frequented, both of which were walking distance from our lodging house. One sat right in front of a hotel that used to be a big deal—until international hotel chains flooded the city with their brands and made homegrown operators look outdated. You could tell that this eight-story hotel was grand during its prime. The owners made much investment paying for a big sign in cursive, but only half of the letters remain lighted.

We enjoyed our overlooking view drinking paper-cup coffee inside the store, as instead of being flat with the street below, we were propped up by a thick concrete foundation that held up this 7-Eleven.

The other 7-Eleven we frequented was one in the tourist-popular Mango Avenue. This street in Cebu, with its winding slope was known for all its pubs, bars, and clubs lined up on either side of the long asphalt strip. The 7-Eleven was located beside a gas station before all of the night life establishments began. Thankfully, we were at least a hundred meters away from all the light and noise.

Sipping our reasonably-priced cinnamon cappuccinos inside, we thought so much about the future. Would we be able to enjoy hot ones on simple, contemplative nights like the ones we had? We also knew we weren’t going to be reviewees forever. Our coffee nights on those two 7-Elevens also had their own time and place.

Rural Mom-and-Pops Refuse to Die

Some would perhaps look at these 7-Elevens, Mini Stops, Quikstops, MerryMarts, FamilyMarts—franchised locations owned by a big corporation, usually a conglomerate—and look at them with ire and disgust for grabbing a huge chunk of the market which should have belonged to small mom-and-pops. But from what I’ve learned through all the convenience stores I’ve bought from and loved during their own time and place, there is a time and place for both dad-owned and corporate-owned convenience stores. There's enough room in the world.

Big brands may have all the capital to claim more land and spread their relevance, but small timers also have their own priceless stories to tell. These stories don’t emanate from some company headquarters in a high-rise somewhere—instead, they come from the mom or dad who had the guts to pay for a big sign out front. And they poured money into making that sign knowing that their store wouldn't last forever.

© 2022 Greg de la Cruz