Circle K store. Tucson, 2012.

As a transplant from the San Francisco Bay Area, I spent my first decade in the suburbs of Tucson missing my neighborhood liquor store. It wasn’t just where I’d go to buy a pack of cigarettes, or the newspaper. It was central to the culture of the neighborhood. How could our local Circle K here compare, with its corporate branding, to the color and personality of my old corner shop?

But the more time I spent in Tucson, the more I came to appreciate the importance of convenience stores. Even if every Circle K looks the same from a distance, individual franchises develop their own special character. However regimented the displays inside, however much corporate dictates try to wipe out all traces of human touch, the people who work and shop at a particular location still leave their individual mark.

Surprisingly, that mark can be a lot deeper than places which are supposed to be more warm and wholesome. People who work at convenience stores often work alone, and the people who shop there tend to shop frequently, sometimes daily. When I was a student at Berkeley, I worked at two neighborhood liquor stores in my adopted home, the gritty Navy town of Vallejo. I know all too well that there’s a downside to this familiarity, the regulars you wish were not.

But lately I’ve been thinking about how important it is to have places like that in your neighborhood, places where you know something about the people you see. Lately, my local Circle Ks have been looking a lot better to me. Part of the reason is that they are under attack by another chain, QuikTrip, whose outlets have been taking over Tucson like some bacterial invasion.

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Actually, I should say “antiseptic invasion”, because QuikTrips are huge, sprawling, sterile, homogenous, vacuous stores whose tidiness, sameness and veneer of Friendly Cleanliness creeps me out. If Circle K appeared sanitized when compared to the liquor stores I knew back in California, it seems downright grimy — in a good way — when contrasted with QuikTrip.

When I first moved to Tucson, though, it seemed to have a case of Circle K pox, with its Red Circle And K marking nearly every intersection in town. At first, I bristled at having to go to the chain convenience store for on-the-fly needs, such as those dreadfully toxic energy drinks I was totally addicted to for a while. But Circle K is what is offered here for a neighborhood store, and I gradually the two Circle Ks nearest to my home “mine.” And now I’ve decided I really like them. I like them a lot.

For years, my daughter and I would stop at the little Circle K closest to us so that she could collect little silk roses that came with tiny fleecy teddy bears. She ended up with a vast collection of these bears. We have no idea what happened to the roses because we didn’t care about the roses. We bought them for the bears! I can’t tell you how devastated we were when Circle K stopped selling them.

So many times on my way home from work, I’d stop at this Circle K to see if they had a new color bear to surprise her. They stopped selling them years ago. To this day, though, she and I still check whenever we stop at Circle K, just in case the bears are coming back. Circle K still sells silk roses, but as my daughter says, “What good is a rose without a bear?”

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But there are plenty of other things to like about Circle K. I eventually got to know all the people who work at my neighborhood stores. My favorite was the conspiracy theorist who owns no TVs, no computers and no cell phones, who home schools his kids and reads constantly. Every time he was working the counter, we would talk about the books we were reading. He also draws, so we would talk about art, too. When I hadn’t been in for a while, he would tell me that he missed me. And I really think he meant it.

Once I told him that I wanted to write an article about my local Circle K and asked if I could take his photo. His eyes bulged in an expression of complete paranoia. Yes, it is against Circle K corporate policy for their employees or stores to be photographed. This guy’s reaction wasn’t just about policy, though. Seriously, what was I thinking? As if my friendly conspiracy theorist from Circle K would want his photo posted on the interwebs!

Then there was the overweight slacker with thick rimmed glasses who worked the night shift when the store was always empty. He’d surface from the back room where he was supposedly working, looking sleepy, and saunter over to the counter.

“How’s it going?” I’d always ask him. 
“Well, you know.” He would always say. 
“Yeah, I know,” I’d reply. Then we would nod to each other. 
“Cash back today?” 
“No thanks.” 
“Have a good one.” 
“You too.”
 I’d leave. And he would go back to his retreat to pick up where he’d left off.

Up at my other Circle K, there’s this woman who I see almost every morning on the way to work. She’s the kind of woman who looks eighty but could be twenty, the opposite of the conspiracy theorist who looks twenty but is actually fifty. I told her recently that I wanted to do an article on Circle K and QuikTrip because I thought that QuikTrip was an Evil Invader taking over the convenience store market.

She laughed, “Oh yeah, for what, a blog or something?” I told her that I’m a “freelance journalist.” Unlike the much smaller location closest to my house, the Circle K where the woman who looks eighty but could be twenty works has always been booming with business. I mean that place is never dead. The parking lot is a battlefield. The Slurpee machine pours Icees like blue and red Niagra Falls. The older, smaller Circle K a mile away always had an air of stagnant resignation as if it were holding onto its last dying breath and last donut. And that turned out to be an accurate perception. The other day I stopped by to discover, horror of horrors, that it had been boarded up.

The big Circle K, by contrast, is a hotbed of smoking teenagers from the local high school, construction workers in trucks, office workers, retired people, Fed-Ex and UPS drivers, and me.
A young Native American guy works at the busy store. One day I asked him, “Why is this store always so busy and the one down the road always so dead?” He had an answer ready. “Because we sell booze and gas.” He pointed outside to the pumps and then behind the counter to the racks of liquor. Then he grabbed a fistful of shot size bottles. “People love these,” he said. I asked him, “Why would they buy those when you can get a pint so much cheaper?” He had an answer ready for that question, too. “Easier to drink and drive after you fill up your tank.”

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They sold neither gas nor booze at the Conspiracy Theory Circle K; however they did sell the Circle K constants like the infamous Circle K Pink Donut. Every Circle K sells the pink donut. If you’re lucky, you’ll find one with a gumball in the middle. Other Circle K constants include racks of low-end porn, tattoo and car magazines; air fresheners for your car; an array of disposable lighters; and of course the great wall of cigarettes. They also sell a variety of Circle K hot dogs, which are frankly frightening. Like the nacho cheese deep-fried hot dog: you need to be both drunk and stoned to eat one of those. Most Circle K’s still serve coffee that comes in actual pots. Yes, the people who work there have to brew it. Finally, there are the bags of bananas. For some reason, Circle Ks sell bags and bags of bananas. I swear by them things to get myself through blood sugar crashes. I frequently buy a bag of bananas on the way to work from the woman who looks eighty but could be twenty.

Then there are the people who shop at Circle K. I love watching them. Yes, they really do buy those shot bottles of liquor while filling their tanks with cheap gas. I’ve witnessed this. Many, many times. Then there are the Lotto junkies. Good lord, even I get sucked into the frenzy when I’m in Circle K and the line is a mile long with people buying Lotto tickets because the jackpot has reached astronomical proportions. “You can win fifty million dollars!” I can’t help myself. I get caught up in the fury and dream along with everyone else in line of becoming filthy rich. Or or even just winning twenty bucks. So I buy a damned Lotto ticket too. And I always lose.

A few months ago, I was at Circle K when this old guy in an automated wheelchair came in. This guy was a mess. He was emaciated, with a grizzled beard, yellow skin, and scabs, wearing dirty clothes and house slippers. “You want your usual?” The woman behind the counter asked. “Yeah, give me my usual.” So the woman put a bottle of vodka and ten cans of Skoal chewing tobacco on the counter. A bag of bananas was inside the basket on the man’s wheelchair. That’s Circle K for you: booze and bananas all in one stop.

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One particularly memorable exchange at Circle K involved the employees and the customers, myself included, talking about our kids’ fear of clowns and Santa. 

“Who the hell invented clowns anyway?” one woman asked. “All kids are scared of them. I tried to take my grandkids to the circus and they screamed, ‘Oh no grandma! Not the clowns!’”
 “My kids have no problems with clowns,” said the other woman. “It’s Santa who’s the problem.”
That’s when I piped in. “My kid was scared of Santa when she was little. We had this book that had a picture of his boots coming down the chimney that terrified her. The book had to be banished forever. I mean, who is this guy climbing down people’s chimneys at night?”
A guy in camouflage hunting gear piped in. “My boy is so scared of Santa he tried to shoot him with his BB gun!” 
That’s the kind of exchange I love having in Circle K. And the sort I’m not likely to have in a QuikTrip.

When I first noticed QuikTrips popping up all over Tucson at a startling rate, I decided that they were the Antichrist of convenience stores. But there were times when I stopped there because, yes, it was more convenient to do so. Every time I walked in, the employees would greet me like little smiling Stepford Clerks: “Hi! How are you?” Some of my replies included: 1) “Do you really want to know?” 2) “Fine, where’s the bathroom?” 3) “Tired” 4) “Wonderful. Life is beautiful. Isn’t it so lovely, almost as lovely as QuikTrip!?”

That is the disturbing thing about QuikTrips. They all feel exactly the same. Sure, Circle Ks all look like Circle Ks, to a degree, but come in different shapes and sizes. QuikTrips rise out of vacant lots with their bright pillars, many gas pumps and comparatively massive mini-marts. Instead of fitting into their neighborhood, they come off as an alternative to it, a strange, autonomous zone of anonymous consumption.

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Circle Ks may all have the big red K, but individual stores have character. Especially the tawdry ones that I prefer to frequent. There is nothing tawdry about QuikTrip. Their outer architecture is like a totalitarian mission statement. Inside, the displays of refreshments and snacks are so neat, orderly and sterile that I’d be surprised if anything in the store actually had any flavor. The same goes for the employees, who look like interchangeable fascist soldiers. Maybe I’d learned to appreciate Circle K since coming to Tucson, realizing that its locations were more like the neighborhood liquor stores I’d known in California than I initially imagined. But it seemed impossible that my opinion of QuikTrip would undergo a similar evolution.

So I decided to do some field research. My first stop was the little Circle K by my house where, thankfully, my Conspiracy Theorist friend was working. I told him what I was doing. I said, “Excuse me if this is offensive to you, but I think that QuikTrip is the Antichrist of convenient stores. They really creep me out, and I think they’re trying to push Circle K out of town.” Needless to say his eyes lit up. “You know why that is?” he asked. Of course, I was dying to know. “They’re all Mormon. They move in all their district managers from big Mormon churches in the Midwest. Then they train the employees in their Mormon doctrine. That’s why they all act that way.”

I said, “You mean the way they pop up and say ‘Hi’ like robots?”

“Exactly. It’s the Mormons. That’s why there’s no porn and no booze.”
 I turned my head to survey the porn options on the small magazine rack at my local store. The things you can learn in a Circle K conversation!

My next stop was the busy Circle K down the road, the one with the gas and booze. I shot some photos of the grounds and then went into the store, doubtful that I would be able to take any pictures inside. The woman who looks eighty but could be twenty was working there. She saw my camera. “Doing that story for your blog?” she asked. 

“Sure am.” I then told her about my whole idea about QuikTrip and Circle K. I explained that I’d just been informed that QuikTrip is owned by Mormons. A hardened post-lesbian convenience store Lifer was also working the counter that day. She scowled. “Mormons don’t own QuikTrip! It’s owned by Kroger, the same company that owns Fry’s.” She then gave me a summary of convenience store ownership.

According to the post-lesbian Lifer: “Circle K is owned by French Canadians. 7-Eleven is owned by the Japanese. QuikTrip is the only American owned convenience store chain.” It seemed she had been doing her homework.
But then the woman who looks eighty but could be twenty came out from behind the counter. She leaned over and whispered in my ear, “Don’t listen to her. She thinks she knows everything.” I lifted my camera to take a photo of a donut when my whispering comrade gave me the nod of approval. She even let me photograph the liquor! I was pretty sure that she was allowing me to photograph the booze and donuts to spite her know-it-all fellow employment. That made the experience all the more exciting.

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I needed to get to work, but decided that it would be a shame to sacrifice my momentum. So I rushed up to the brand new QuikTrip that had recently opened across the street from my office. I entered it with fear and trepidation. I was sure I would be accosted by the QuikTrip Surveillance Squad, get expelled from the premises and have my camera confiscated. So I was careful at first, only shooting photos of the garbage can and gas pumps. That seemed relatively safe. Then, I entered the store. It opened up before me in a maw of sterility, snack cakes, soda pop. Never had Hostess cupcakes looked so plastic!

I took particular note of the wall of coffee machines offering many varieties of flavored coffees, dispensed from machines that were as symmetrical and austere as the pillars at the gas pumps. I realized that in this case the massive scale of the QuikTrip market worked in my favor. The employees were way across the other side of the store, what seemed like a half mile away, when they popped up with their smiling heads to say, “Hi! How are you?” “Just using the restroom!” I hollered back, while quickly snapping photos before they could see what I was doing.

I left the store with my legs shaking, relieved that I had avoided capture. But then I had a moment of self-doubt. What exactly was QuikTrip, and why did strike me as so evil? I decided it was time to fact-check the conflicting stories I’d been told and found that aesthetics and reality are two different things.

 I loved Circle K because it’s gritty, tawdry, and “real.” I loathed QuikTrip and assumed it had bad intentions because of its austere and creepy architecture, its sterility, sameness, and plastic friendliness. The truth of the matter, though, was that QuikTrip was not at all what it had first seemed to me.

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As it turns out, QuikTrip is not the Antichrist, nor is it Mormon, or owned by Kroeger. QuikTrip was founded in 1958 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and it is indeed an American business. Its founder is Catholic, not Mormon, though that would also explain the absence of porn. But here is the interesting thing: QuikTrip is actually one of the better employers in the country. Their store managers make nearly double that of their equivalents at 7-11 and Circle K. They offer excellent benefits to their employees and, for the record, are reputed to sell some of the highest quality gasoline around. This helps explain why QuikTrip is ranked in the top 20 of the Best 100 Companies to Work For in the United States.

The lesson? Smaller isn’t always more beautiful, at least from a labor perspective. Costco and Starbucks are some of the best employers in the country. People like to criticize Starbucks, but ask most of their employees, and they will tell you how good the company is to them. Starbucks pays comparatively well, provides medical benefits and stock options to both full and part-time employees — a rarity in the United States — and subsidizes employee education. Apparently QuikTrip is the Starbucks of the convenience store world, a discovery that had me feeling ashamed. As the daughter of a union ironworker, I should know better than to pass judgment on a company without knowing how they treat their employees.

As far as the other two convenience store chains in Tucson go, both 7-11 and Circle K were originally American companies. But the lesbian Lifer was basically right about them. Circle K was established in El Paso Texas in 1951, but went bankrupt in 2010 — during the vast, protracted economic collapse of the 21st century — and was bought by a Canadian convenience store conglomerate. 7-Eleven was founded in 1927 in Dallas, Texas and was an economic casualty of a previous crisis before being taken over by a Japanese company.

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All three convenience stores have ties to oil companies, which explains their southwestern origins. They came from Oklahoma and Texas as a result of their relationship to the oil industry. So, regardless of their labor practices, they are bound to a sector of the economy that is hard to feel good about, unless you are an executive or shareholder for a firm in the petroleum business.

Maybe that’s why even people who work in that sector, the employees I talked with, seem so eager to find convenient explanations for what goes on there. Conspiracy theories help make sense of a world that’s too complicated to comprehend. As far as I’m concerned, researching the convenience store industry has given me a reason to remain loyal to Circle K, despite what I learned about QuikTrip. Because no degree of cleanliness or cheerfulness on the part of QuikTrip is going to wash that kind of dirt off. Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, the convenience we seek in places like QuikTrip is impossible disentangle from our car-centered culture. So I’d rather spend my time and money at a place that doesn’t try so hard to hide its unseemly side, where the conversation isn’t scripted so far in advance.

When I discovered that the little Circle K nearest to our house had closed, I felt a deep sense of lost. Because even though I can drive a mile down the highway to get my pink donut fix, I have lost the relationships I had developed with the shuttered location’s employees. It makes me sad to think that I may never get to talk to that Conspiracy Theory guy again or any of the store’s other memorable characters.

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It’s worth asking whether the absence of dirt must go hand in hand with the absence of individuality. I am still wedded to my local Circle K because it gives me a sense of community that I used to feel at neighborhood liquor stores back in California. Booze, porn, tobacco, conspiracy theories, bags of bananas and greasy pink donuts appeal to me much more than shiny new everything on shiny new shelves with shiny new employees with shiny new smiles.

I can say this, however. At least now I can step inside a QuikTrip without feeling quite so filthy. Of course, I can also step inside a Circle K without feeling that way. But I like the dirt that comes with Circle K. It’s aesthetically appealing dirt. At the end of the day, I like the people who work at my local store, the people who visit it, and the stories that I hear because the culture there isn’t completely sanitized. Maybe one day, I’ll bite the bullet and eat one of those deep fried nacho cheese hot dogs. . . or not!

 

Photographs courtesy of the author