Forty-five years after leaving my hometown of Mobile for college, I’m still amazed I didn’t live there again. My big life plan was hampered by career (sports writing) and spouse (Yankee). I calm my longing for home by telling myself that the mobile I miss only exists between my ears. Time has a way of moving things.
I tell myself that, and yet on every return trip, I walk into the peanut shop and see where the weather has been told to take a hike.
The official name is the A&M Peanut Shop, but four generations of Mobilians have simply called the narrow Dauphin Street store “the peanut shop.” Since 1947, when the store opened as one of hundreds of Planters retail stores across the country, the Peanut Shop has sold nuts, chocolates, popcorn and soda. To my generation and our heirs, A&M also offers its most desirable product: a sense of place, preserved not in amber but in the heady scent of roasted peanuts. Most of the downtown peanut shops have closed, though a few down south, in Memphis; Nashville; Charleston, West Virginia; and my hometown store, long live.
Carol Hunter of the Downtown Mobile Alliance says visitors to the city typically ask three questions: “Where should we eat? What attractions should we visit? And where is the peanut shop? The peanut shop is the only specific place that people ask to find.”
Dauphin Street as a shopping district dried up and exploded in the 1970s. Dauphin Street as an entertainment district came alive in the 2000s. And yet, for seventy-five years, the peanut shop has thrived with almost no change. any. In fact, I removed the handwritten price signs from the three glass display cases and I dare you to tell me what year it is from. Just inside and to the right of the front door is the store’s original cast-iron roaster, featuring “Planters Nut & Chocolate Co.” cast in writing. On the counters are two old scales, needles instead of digital readouts showing the weight. A papier-mâché Mr. Peanut costume sits atop the self-service beverage cooler, and a Mr. Peanut penny scale sits in the corner. Neither of them is a store employee any longer, but they hang around like so many customers do. “It’s like a barbershop,” says the owner, Buzz Jordan, a local attorney.
“Our clients become friends and then family,” says Deborah Gibson DeGuire. Her parents, Alfred and Mary Gibson, have “A & M” in their names. Planters transferred Alfred to Mobile in 1949 to manage the store. Shortly after Planters went out of the retail business in 1961, Alfred bought the place and renamed it, running it until his death a couple of decades ago. DeGuire then ran it until she sold it to Jordan in 2018. She kept it because of her institutional knowledge and because she is an institution. The store has been her life.
“I was almost born here,” says DeGuire, chatting at a sidewalk picnic table in front of the store. “Mom was here and Dad put her in a taxi and sent her to the hospital.” DeGuire began serving customers when he was old enough to reach the counter. These days she comes to make peanut clusters, coconut haystacks, and other treats, sitting in her shirtsleeves in the cold storage area.
“There are a lot of people who love Debbie,” says Beth Morrissette, her friend and devoted customer.
I bring this up because after we talk, Morrissette texts me to say, “Next time you visit family, you should go buy some hot buttered cashews.”
But I’m sticking with the original: peanuts, roasted, and definitely salt-free. This preference is considered strange in my adopted Northeast, but I get it naturally. Among my earliest memories are Saturday mornings when our housekeeper would come to our house with a copy of the Sport News, then a weekly and a white bag with the blue and yellow Mr. Peanut badge on it, still warm to the touch. According to family tradition, that’s how I learned to read, sitting on Rosa Lee’s lap, eating peanuts.
Ask Mobilians of a certain age about the peanut shop. Her faces soften and her eyes gaze into a distant memory. It could be Mr. Peanut standing in front of the store, handing out samples. It might be going downtown to buy an Easter dress and hat, and a trip to the peanut shop depends on good behavior.
Councilman William Carroll, whose district includes downtown, remembers his father and grandfather sitting on the back porch, eating A&M peanuts. After college, Carroll and his fraternity brothers would get together every Friday night. “We had one person,” Carroll says, “whose job was to go to the peanut shop every Friday and buy three big bags to have at the Kappa house to have some peanuts with libations.”
Half a block from the peanut shop is Bienville Square, the unofficial hub of downtown. The plaza includes a gazebo, wrought-iron benches, about sixty oak trees, and squirrels that, like so many these days, come downtown for the kitchen. Generations of children and their adults have been buying peanuts at A&M and walking to the plaza to feed residents. “Rotund” is a description of the squirrels. “Too many” is another. Overcrowding has caused city officials to fear for the health of the oaks, which suffered significant damage from Hurricane Sally in 2020. Earlier this year, the city contracted with a wildlife service to trap twenty-five squirrels and relocate them. in rural Mobile County.
A few years ago, the dilemma inspired the local arts council to create Mystic Squirrels of Bienville as an informal Mardi Gras fundraiser. The Mystic SOBs, as they call themselves, march in the Joe Cain procession, also known as “the town parade,” on the Sunday before Mardi Gras. The Mystic SOBs wear chipmunk costumes, carry signs with chipmunk puns (I LIKE BIG NUTS AND I CAN’T LIE), and toss out little brown paper bags of A&M peanuts. The store does 20 percent of its annual business during the two-and-a-half-week show schedule. “Mardi Gras is our Christmas,” says DeGuire.
The downtown Dauphin Street I see when I return to Mobile is still in transition. Here is the trademark script for the Thom McAn shoe company, still on the doorstep of an empty store. There’s Southern National, which the New York Times named one of the top fifty restaurants in the nation. Between the two, by mailing address and otherwise, A&M is very much alive. Coca-Colas these days can come in twenty-ounce plastic instead of six-and-a-half-ounce cups, and customers ask for almonds, cashews and Brazil nuts as a health food. But I walk into the peanut shop and go back to my cell phone, the one I’ve carried in my heart for forty-five years. The one where my Uncle Herman, a gourmet of some renown, arrived from Chicago and asked for a ride from the airport to the peanut shop. Where he could eat a pound of roasted peanuts and consider it a snack. I can confirm that part of my mobile is gone. On my last trip to the peanut store, I ate a half pound of roasted peanuts and was full for hours. But I finished them before I got back to the car. What can I tell you? The bag was hot.