Food and Culture in the South:
Friday Night at Sam’s Quik Shop
“A lot of people drive by, think this place is just a ratty hole. Then they come in, they see they’ve struck gold,” says Nate Tanner, employee of Sam’s Quik Shop in Durham. Tanner stands behind the beer tap on an early Friday evening, telling me how much nicer Sam’s is since North Carolina opened up to craft beer.
Sam’s is an Exxon station and a car wash as well as the best beer store in town. Over one thousand different beers are packed into its coolers and stacked in towers along the floors. You can’t swing your purse here without knocking over a six-pack of some microbrewer’s seasonal, limited-edition dream.
And yet it could be mistaken for a ratty hole. From the road, you see a homely brick building with confusing signage: The Blue Light lettering remains from the building’s pre-1975 days as a restaurant. It sits in a crook on a major road between the university and the hospital, hemmed in by the Durham Freeway and a railroad overpass. Two outdoor picnic tables sit outside—one in the front where you can watch kudzu tendrils bounce in the traffic wind of the freeway, and one out back beside a plastic-wrapped refrigerator and some old toys.
Photos by Michael Mavretic.
Part of Sam’s charm is that you can sit with a beer outside or walk around the store with a pint to ease your decision fatigue. The kegs change constantly; some of the weirdest and newest beers in the state make an appearance on draft. On tap tonight there’s Highland’s Kashmir IPA infused with hops, pink peppercorn, and cardamom for five dollars a glass. There’s no dishwashing at Sam’s; the glass is yours to keep.
A local chef named Sara orders a pint of Terrapin Monk’s Revenge. It’s early in the evening and she has to work tomorrow, so she’s just drinking one pint and getting something to take home. She says she comes here about every other night.
Sara remembers the days when she thought Heineken was a good beer; then she tasted New Belgium’s Fat Tire, which remained her favorite for a while. Then came Pop the Cap, a 2005 initiative that lifted the statewide ban on beer with alcohol percentages of over six percent. This opened the door for new possibilities in flavor: the bite of a double IPA, the syrupy strength of a barleywine. In 2012 we are still learning these things as a state.
Tanner, who has worked at Sam’s since he was nineteen years old and will celebrate his thirtieth anniversary as a Sam’s employee this November, was present for the controversy surrounding Pop the Cap. (“Not everyone was a fan,” he says.) In the years since, he’s witnessed some major changes in the culture of beer.
“It’s incredible how the microbrews are becoming local now. You know they grow their own hops. We have these tastings, food trucks come out and people share ideas,” Tanner says. “The beer flows like water, there’s no end.”
Sam’s is a major access point to the new world of beer, but that’s only recent history. The same family has owned Sam’s through many versions of selling food and drink, and through a long tradition of selling beer to Duke students. The Blue Light restaurant opened as a drive-in in the late 1940s, and at some point opened Durham’s first electronic drive-through. In 1975 the place became a convenience store, specializing in cheap beer and a vast array of magazines, including pornographic ones.
Employee Nolan Brodalski takes me down to the basement to show me the lower layers. It’s a poor air quality, everything coated in a layer of brown dust kind of place. There’s a popcorn machine, two wheelchairs, a Kiss poster, a leftover magazine that Brodalski asked me not to write about. A General Electric high compression steam cooker, a disco ball, a big old sign with hand-painted lettering:
Car Service Drive In
Featuring Electronic Ordering System
Back upstairs, employee Michael Mavretic points out the other side of Sam’s beer operation: the one concerned not with quality but with volume. He shows me a walk-in cooler filled with eighteen and twenty-four packs of macrobrews, which Sam’s keeps well stocked while Duke is in session. Every Sam’s employee I spoke to referred to Duke students as “the kids” and talked about two distinct seasons: summer, and when the kids are here.
“There are kids who buy nine cases six nights per week,” Mavretic says. He’s referring to the legal limit on the number of cases of beer (nine) that can be bought and loaded into a single car in North Carolina. When this happens, Sam’s helps the buyer stack the cases onto a hand truck and wheel them out to the car. Tanner remembers a time when kegs were allowed on Duke’s campus and they would help kids load as many as they could fit in the back of a truck.
The later it gets at Sam’s, the fewer the incidence of people who have to work tomorrow and the greater the incidence of people who are mid-party. More and more folks come in with the eyes and the body movements of the already drunk.
A group of graduate students come in. I know they are graduate students because I see them a minute later in the parking lot, talking with my partner, Rod, who has just ridden his bike over after his work shift. They say they are celebrating a double PhD party, and one of them, a drunk young woman, is impressed with the light on the front of Rod’s bike. It’s one of those that you power by pedaling. The woman says she wants it. “I want a light so I can light.”
The students say goodbye and the woman mounts her bicycle—a cruiser with a basket on front. We watch as she swerves wide into the intersection of Main and Erwin. No cars are coming.
Back inside, the fluorescent lighting of the gas station feels less congruent with Friday night at this hour. Tanner, Mavretic, and Brodalski, too, are beginning to look incongruent with their sober work faces.
A woman comes in wearing hospital wear—patient, not professional. Paper shirt and pants, flip flops. She is smoking a cigarette indoors. “Give me two packs of Newport Shorts and a stem rose,” she says to Brodalski, who is ringing up another customer. When he gets his attention to her, she repeats her order.
“Are you smoking?” Brodalski asks. She takes another lungful of her cigarette and puts it out on the sidewalk outside. She comes back in and asks again about the stem rose, “Do you sell those?”
“Hell no!” Brodalski answers. He rings up her two packs of cigarettes and she leaves, gets into the passenger seat of a waiting car.
Brodalski bristles behind the counter. He checks in with Tanner and Mavretic to confirm how ridiculous the woman’s request was: Stem roses are little glass pipes for smoking crack.
The next customer in line chimes in: “That’s how you know you’re in Durham.” It sounds like a comment from ten years ago, when it seemed like all the stories about Durham were about crime. I feel defensive. My instinct is to talk shit about Chapel Hill, but I can’t think of anything to say.
Brodalski finishes ringing up beer in this new mood of solidarity with people in the store who reject crack. All around him are the party accessories a person can buy at Sam’s without comment: ping pong balls, Clear Eyes, blunt wrappers, rolling papers, copies of The Slammer. A handwritten sign is taped behind the register where Brodalski stands. It reads:
KEEP IT REAL