I forgot to pack lunch. My friends and I had driven out to a rural part of southern Virginia, and I severely underestimated the amount of time it would take to get back. Hungry and in need of an air-conditioned retreat, we stopped by a Wawa.
I was surprised by the amount of parking space in what seemed to be a coral reef along the fast-moving current of the parkway; people were not just here for gas, but stopped to buy food, let their dogs lap up some water, and chatted with other patrons as their gas tanks filled. With one hand, a shirtless man held up his baggy shorts; with the other, he balanced a bowl of soup, a foot-long hoagie and a gallon-sized drink concerningly colored like a unicorn mane. The car next to me brandished a Blue Lives Matter sticker. A swarm of motorcyclists, clad in leather vests and tattoos, revved up their engines. Tread lightly at a Wawa in the middle of nowhere.
However, upon entry, the scent of just-toasted hoagies and artificial vanilla coffee spellbound me with the familiarly unfamiliar. I stalled, marveling at the comfort foods: a hoagie station that looked like a mini Subway — a metaphor I know may offend — an unending counter of fountain drinks, coffees and slushies; soft and cheesy things wrapped in a parchment paper and snuggling under fluorescent warming lights; oily hot dogs tumbling on a roller. Why had I slept on this well-beloved chain of the Delaware Valley, despite spending the first 18 years of my life here? Now I finally understood the fandom: this place satisfied all your needs but moreover all your wants, a dreamland for the bored traveler or hungry local. I wanted to scroll through the infinite options on the touch-screen menu (Pita wraps? Spaghetti and meatballs? Burrito bowls?), but my friends seemed impatient if not a bit embarrassed by my newfound excitement. I left with a bacon ranch wrap, but I wanted to return for more.
Spending much of my time in transit this summer both nationally and internationally, I grew to depend on convenience stores as reliable stops for hydration, a bathroom, snacks and even meals. Ultimately, I came to a new understanding of the purpose and place of a convenience store. Despite their ubiquity, most convenience stores are not filled with placeless comforts and disappointments. Rather, these microcosms of regional culture are personalized and patronized by local communities.
Despite growing up in northern New Jersey, with a Quick Check a stone’s throw away from everyone’s house, I never understood the lure of convenience stores. Coming from an immigrant family for whom the concept of a superstore is foreign, the idea of a roadside convenience store where you can purchase anything from a pregnancy test to jelly donuts is even harder to comprehend. We couldn’t see its purpose beyond greasy road trip snacks and dark, dank single-stall bathrooms. Why bother going in when every convenience store contains the same, standard stuff? So we thought.
This narrow mindset was compounded by the ways that convenience stores exuded the beach-going white culture of the Jersey Shore and the broader Delmarva Peninsula. In middle school, I remember how the popular girls would visit their shorehouses and post Snapchat stories of themselves sneaking out to convenience stores in an act of youthful rebellion, buying everything that would please a prepubescent teen after 10 p.m. Maybe a “dirt cup”: a cup of chocolate pudding interspersed with layers of Oreo crumbles and topped with gummy worms. Or, magnanimous ICEEs from 7-Eleven whose flavors go by colors. Convenience stores seemed to encapsulate everything wrong with America: excess and exclusivity.
Yet, only at 20 years old have I discovered the whole side of the convenience store industry that celebrates regional quirks. For Texans, Buc-ee’s houses the famous Beaver Nuggets and Buc-ee’s-branded everything. For New Yorkers and Vermonters, Stewart’s serves up signature ice cream flavors like “Adirondack Bear Paw” and “Crumbs Along the Mohawk.” And there’s so much more I have yet to explore.
Still, however, the regionality of these spots did not completely erase their exclusivity. That is, until I experienced the 7-Elevens and FamilyMarts in Taiwan.
Upon emerging from the grotto of Taipei Main Station, dehydrated and under-rested from a 15-hour red eye flight, I spotted a store with a crowd swarming around it. It was a FamilyMart, a Japanese convenience store franchise. The store itself had very little foot space, but I tried to edge my way in to see what the bustle was all about. Expecting to find American derivatives of snacks and drinks, I instead was delighted to see a plethora of local foods. Tropical fruit nectars filled with aiyu jelly. Steamed egg. Sandwiches lathered with kewpie mayonnaise and stuffed with pork floss. There were food stands just like at Wawa, with roasted sweet potatoes instead of pastries, steamed buns instead of breakfast sandwiches and braised tea eggs instead of those cold boiled eggs with mysterious blue spots. People in work attire clawed to find the biggest steamed buns, shoveling it into plastic bags to munch on on the way to work. A mom holding hands with two young children, about to take them to school, gestured to the different steamed bun fillings. An old man, moving delicately, scooped up two tea eggs from the flavorful cauldron –– one for him and one for his wife. I watched something I thought was so American be taken up by my people as their own.
As I traveled across the city, FamilyMarts and 7-Elevens pushed against the American-ness of convenience stores and enabled me to learn about Taiwanese culture. I loved watching the customer demographics ebbed throughout the day. In the morning, I found people on their way to work and school. During the day, I joined dehydrated tourists in the relentless search for bottled water. Looking down through the hotel window at night, I observed the bachelor sitting on the bar stool and leaning on the skinny countertop, shoveling the microwaved ready-made bentos as he dazed out into the street. Amid the intractable city or a rural nowhere, these ever-present posts remind us of our common humanity.
Convenience stores are imperfect, filled with ironies. As much as they can reflect and serve their local communities, large national brands can also displace smaller businesses. Throughout American history specifically, gas station grocers have both played a crucial part in welcoming groups of color while also excluding others. But I find that the most intriguing irony is its rootedness to a place; despite seeming like a stop on your way to a destination, their personalities make them destinations in their own right.