Forty-five years after leaving my hometown of Mobile for college, I still find it amazing that I never lived there again. My big life plan was ruined by my career (sports writing) and my spouse (Yankee). I doze off my desire to be at home by telling myself that the Mobile that I miss only exists between my ears. Time has a way of getting things done.
I tell myself that, and yet with every round trip, I walk into the peanut shop and see where it’s time for a hike.
The official name is A&M Peanut Shop, but four generations of Mobilians have simply called the narrow Dauphin Street storefront “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 soft drinks. For my generation and our heirs, A&M also offers its most desirable product – a sense of place, preserved not in amber but in the intoxicating aroma of roasted peanuts. Most downtown peanut shops have closed, though a few down south — in Memphis; Nashville; Charleston, West Virginia; and my hometown store, live on.
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’s the peanut shop? The Peanut Shop is the only specific place people ask to find.
Dauphin Street as a shopping district dried up and blew in the 1970s. Dauphin Street as an entertainment district came alive in the 2000s. And through it all, for seventy-five years, the store of Peanuts thrived without changing much. In fact, remove the handwritten price tags from the three glass display cases, and I dare you to tell me what year it is. Just inside and to the right of the front door is the store’s original cast iron coffee roaster, along with “Planters Nut & Chocolate Co.” cast in script. On the counters are two antique scales, needles instead of digital displays displaying the weight. A papier-mâché costume of Mr. Peanut rests on the self-serve beverage fridge, and in the corner is a scale of Mr. Peanut. Neither are employed by the store anymore, but they hang around like so many customers do. “It’s like a hair salon,” says owner Buzz Jordan, a local lawyer.
“Our clients become friends and then family,” says Deborah Gibson DeGuire. His parents, Alfred and Mary Gibson, are the “A&Ms” of the name. Planters moved Alfred to Mobile in 1949 to run the store. Shortly after Planters retired from retail in 1961, Alfred bought the place and renamed it, running it until his death a few decades ago. Then DeGuire ran it until it was sold to Jordan in 2018. He kept it for his institutional knowledge and because it’s an institution. The store was his life.
“I was almost born here,” DeGuire says, chatting at a picnic table on the sidewalk outside the store. “Mom was there and dad put her in a taxi and sent her to the hospital.” DeGuire began serving customers when she was old enough to reach the counter. These days, she comes to make peanut clusters, coconut haystacks and other confections, sitting in her shirt sleeves in the refrigerated storage area.
“There are a lot of people who love Debbie,” says Beth Morrissette, her friend and dedicated customer.
I mention this because after our conversation, Morrissette texts me saying, “Next time you visit family, you need to go buy some hot buttered cashews.
But I’m sticking with the original – peanuts, roasted and definitely unsalted. This preference is considered strange in my adopted Northeast, but I naturally accept it. Among my earliest memories are of Saturday mornings when our governess would arrive at our house with a copy of the Sports News, then a weekly newspaper, and a white bag with Mr. Peanut’s blue and yellow badge, 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 older Mobilians about the peanut shop. Their faces soften and their eyes turn to a distant memory. It could be Mr. Peanut in front of the store, handing out samples. This might include going downtown to buy a dress and an Easter hat, with a visit to the Peanut Shop being contingent 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 met every Friday night. “We had one person,” says Carroll, “whose job was to drop by the peanut shop every Friday and buy three big bags from the Kappa house so we could have some peanuts with libations.”
Half a block from the Peanut Shop is Bienville Square, the unofficial center of downtown. The plaza features a gazebo, wrought iron benches, around 60 oak trees and squirrels which, like so many others these days, come to town for the cooking. Generations of children and their adults have bought peanuts from A&M and traveled to the plaza to hand-feed residents. “Rotund” is a description of squirrels. “Too much” is another. The overcrowding caused city officials to fear for the health of the oak trees, which suffered significant damage from Hurricane Sally in 2020. Earlier this year, the city hired a wildlife department to trap twenty- five squirrels and move them to rural Mobile County.
A few years ago, the dilemma inspired the local arts council to create the Mystic Squirrels of Bienville as an informal fundraiser for Mardi Gras. The Mystic SOBs, as they call themselves, march in the Joe Cain Procession, also known as the “People’s Parade”, on the Sunday before Mardi Gras. The Mystic SOBs wear squirrel costumes, carry squirrel pun signs (I LOVE BIG NUTS AND I CAN’T LIE), and throw small brown paper bags of A&M peanuts. The store does 20% of its annual business during the two-and-a-half-week parade schedule. “Mardi Gras is our Christmas,” DeGuire says.
Downtown Dauphin Street that I see when I return to Mobile remains in transition. Here is the trademark script of shoe company Thom McAn, still in the entrance of a vacant storefront. There’s Southern National, which the New York Times named one of the fifty best restaurants in the country. In between, by address and in other ways, A&M is alive and well. These days, Cokes can come in twenty-ounce plastic instead of a six-and-a-half-ounce glass, and customers order almonds, cashews, and Brazil nuts as health foods. But I walk into the peanut shop and step back towards my Mobile, the one I’ve carried in my heart for forty-five years. The one where my uncle Herman, a famous foodie, arrived from Chicago and asked to be driven from the airport to the peanut shop. The one where I could plow through a pound of roasted peanuts and consider it a snack. I can confirm that part of my mobile has disappeared. On my last trip to the peanut shop, I ate half a pound of roast and was satiated for hours. But I finished them before going back to the car. What can I tell you? The bag was hot.