Here’s a simple test to find out if your friends and acquaintances are telling you the truth about where they’re from. Ask them to name the small neighborhood or roadside business where you can buy a few staple foodstuffs, beer, cigarettes, disposable lighters, and gimme caps. The person who was born in Dallas or Austin or, God forbid, out of state will tell you that the place you’re describing is a 7-Eleven or, if he is more conceptually minded, a convenience store. The dyed-in-the-wool San Antonian and the old-time Houston resident will respond that what you are talking about is an icehouse.
This linguistic curiosity reflects more than just regionalism; it reveals something about the history of running out for a loaf of bread. Up until the forties, refrigerators were outnumbered by iceboxes in rural Texas. An icebox needs ice, and small communities in Texas had places where people could go pick it up. Now, imagine that you own one of those little ice stores. A significant part of your establishment is nice and cold all the time. What if you bought some beer from the wholesaler in San Antonio and kept it on ice? Well, then your ice customers just might want to buy a cold beer when they stop in. And if you could get the creamery to drop off a case or two of milk each morning, maybe some butter too, then your customers wouldn’t have to go all the way down to the highway for those things. Before you know it, the route driver from the bakery up in Austin gives you a wire rack for bread and cakes and starts delivering twice a week. There you have it. When the network of rural electric cooperatives sprang up in the forties and people bought Frigidaires, the guy who had been selling mostly ice in his store starting selling mostly groceries. Going over to the icehouse for a stick of oleo was more convenient than driving all the way into town.
When I was a kid growing up in the fifties, icehouses pretty much showed their origins. The floor was concrete, the fixtures were brought in by suppliers, the counter was usually secondhand, as was the cash register, and the place was bare of any decoration save some promotional signs supplied by Coca-Cola and Chesterfield Kings. The guy running the store looked semiretired, as if he’d just as soon close up shop for the day and go hunting. During that era, his merchandise included soap, batteries, a little hardware, a spinning rack of cheap toys, paperback books, and aspirin. Depending on local leisure activities, the proprietor also sold live bait or ammo, votive candles, cushions for high school stadium bleachers, or even a small selection of tack. More than likely, he kept a couple of jars on the counter, one filled with beef jerky and the other with hard-boiled eggs. Every available square inch of the place had something on it for sale. Lots of teenage boys and grown men hung out there, the boys horsing around, the men sucking drafts of beer or soda water and playing dominoes with the proprietor.
Along the way, some very smart businessmen figured out that they were selling not groceries but convenience: ease of access and something the customer already possessed and was willing to pay a premium to keep—time. They could open identical icehouses all over town, and a customer could walk in and buy without hesitation, no matter what neighborhood he found himself in. These entrepreneurs flourished to such a degree that today, from vast corporate headquarters in Dallas and Houston, they run thousands of convenience stores; the industry’s sales are measured in the tens of billions of dollars. They seem obsessed with cleanliness and uniformity and insist on the entry of the corporate term “convenience store” into the parlance of people who know an icehouse when they see one. Recently, though, a convenience store opened on a sparsely populated stretch of road north of San Antonio. It is outfitted like stores in the monolithic retail chains, but it defiantly proclaims in big block letters over its portals, “ ICEHOUSE.”