Old Fashioned Market

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NPR News and Classical Music for North Central Alabama

Magic City Market

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90.3 WBHM | Birmingham Green — It’s lunchtime, and automobile traffic is heavy along 20th Street North, the center of Birmingham’s business district. The sidewalks bake in the June sunshine, and the humidity is high. But there’s a certain storefront here, where you can step through a doorway and go back in time.

The small shop is cool and dimly lit. The ceiling is corrugated tin, and the dark walls are rough lumber hung with burlap. There’s a wooden barrel full of roasted peanuts, and an open-top ice cream freezer with eight different flavors, ready to be dipped by hand. Tending the counter is a young boy with sandy brown hair who looks like he could have stepped from a Norman Rockwell painting…except for his Tommy Hilfiger sports jersey and Nike running shoes.cashier

“I’m Chandler Drake, 11 years old, and I go to Clay-Chalkville Middle School. I get to run the cash register.”

The Magic City Market is a contradiction in terms…part museum and part corner grocery, an old-time country store at the center of the state’s biggest city. How it got that way is a tale in itself. Up until last summer, this space was occupied by JoeJoe’s, a lunch counter serving hamburgers and hotdogs to the noontime crowd. But as the competition for downtown fast-food became intense, their business took a nose-dive, and co-owner Joe Drake Jr., Chandler’s dad, decided to reincarnate the place as a grocery store. But, what kind? Joe had always had a soft spot in his heart for the Chicago-style markets seen in the old TV gangster show, ‘The Untouchables’…

“I used to love to see the guy out there with the hat on, sweeping, and all the fruit out front. And I thought, ‘This would be different…’ “

But Joe’s oldest son, Christopher, had a better idea.

“He goes, ‘Dad, let’s go back even further. Let’s go back to the 1800s.’ And I started thinking of Pop Walton’s little store on ‘The Waltons,’ how it had all that wood, and it was dark. So we just started gathering up as much old stuff as we could…the tin ceilings off of barns, in the Clay-Chalkville area; the tongue-and-groove wooden walls came out of some old buildings downtown.”

In the search for old-time building materials, the Drakes kept coming across memorabilia from Birmingham’s past, which is now on display in the store…among the keepsakes are window frames and sashes from the old Peerless Saloon, which opened in the late 1800s and closed during Prohibition. And there’s an antique parking meter. No date on it, but here’s a hint: it doesn’t take quarters, it takes pennies.

shelvesSo much for the ‘something old.’ The ‘something new’ is the Magic City Market’s target clientele: their hours and selection are geared toward the new residents of old downtown buildings that have been converted to loft apartments…there are some 400 people already living downtown, and the number is growing. Joe and his family passed out fliers, asking the loft dwellers to e-mail what they’d like to see on the store shelves.

“And it seemed like the list got bigger and bigger and bigger. That’s why we have many, many items, just not a lot of each one.”

Joe’s parents…Joe Sr., and Jane…are also co-owners and they keep a guest book for visitors. Lately, a growing number of out-of-towners are finding their way to the market. The hometowns scribbled in the guest book are surprisingly wide-ranging…from Columbus, Ohio, to Huron, South Dakota, and from New York City to Singapore. Jane Drake…

“We had a lady come through from Belfast, Northern Ireland. She caught the bus and rode to Southside, then she walked up to Vulcan and came back down and stopped by our shop on the way back. She loved it.”

But some of the Market’s most loyal customers are office workers from the surrounding buildings…

hanging out“Captain Billy Shirley. I’m an old country boy. I’ve been knowing Joe and the whole family for 6 or 7 years. I think it’s a real good thing that we have ‘em downtown.”

“Faye Huey. I’ve worked on the corner next to Magic City Market ever since it opened. Most of all, I love their hospitality. And it’s a great thrill to go over in the afternoon and get the vanilla milkshake they make, too…”

As for the future, Joe Jr. says he hopes word-of-mouth about the Market will keep spreading and keep the cash register ringing. One way to do that is to offer old-time services that modern supermarkets don’t. Customers can e-mail or phone their orders in, and pick them up via curb service without getting out of their cars. Plus, Joe delivers. As for his delivery area, let’s just say it’s…flexible.

“I have a saying…I’ll go to the moon, if they’ve got the money.”

~Dale Short, with photography assistance from David Knight, July 26, 2004