The Citgo Bi-Lo at the corner of Governor John Sevier Highway and Martin Mill Pike looks like it’s either a gas station becoming a grocery store or a grocery store becoming a gas station.
As various necessities—gas, food, potable water, personal protection from crazed shooters—become scarcer and more expensive, more and more stores are adding more and more stuff to their basic line. Even before the spike in the price of oil, supermarkets had begun installing gas pumps in front of their stores.
Though the tiny Bi-Lo carries most of the things these big stores do, its first reason for being is the gas pumps. It caters to motorists on a major highway, with fuel, treats, automotive supplies, a small but complete grocery, and a hot grill. It’s a convenience store.
But the Bi-Lo is no clone of Pilot (it has no connection with the BiLo supermarket chain, either). The Bi-Lo is a one-of-a kind experience, with its own unique sense of place. Pull off any exit on any freeway in America, from H1 in Honolulu to Interstate 95 in Florence, S.C., and you drive up at convenience stores that look like all the others. Pull into the Bi-Lo, and you know you’re at the corner of John Sevier and Martin Mill Pike in South Knox County.
As former County Commissioner Larry Clark put it in his 2007 deposition in the Open Meetings Act lawsuit, “This is the meeting place in South Knoxville. If you meet there, people know.”
Clark and Commissioner Paul Pinkston supposedly picked Clark’s South Knox successor, Tim Greene, in the Bi-Lo parking lot, though Pinkston later denied it. Whatever the truth in that case, it doesn’t take much time in the Bi-Lo to imagine such deals going down here.
What this place really is is a trading post. There are storage buildings for sale in the parking lot. I’ve seen used cars parked for sale on the corner curb, and high school kids washing cars. There are handwritten ads on the glass windows for babysitters, house sitters, puppy sitters, and The Mountain Monster Truck 2 rally.
At the Bi-Lo you can buy lottery tickets; milk; work gloves; vegetable oil; packaged bacon; bacon off the grill; pantyhose; canned beans, spinach, tomatoes, corn; plastic spoons, forks, knives; toilet paper; Dasani water; postage stamps; cornflakes; ice cream sandwiches; and, who knows, maybe politicians.
There is an ATM; there are no fresh meats or produce.
The interior is a jumble of display cases stuck seemingly wherever space could be found for them. A portable display case of cigars is rolled up against shelves full of Twinkies. A partition separates tables at the grill from the rest of the store, but there are more tables lined up along the plate-glass window at the back. All the juicy conversation, the give-and-take you would imagine went around the cracker barrel in a 19th-century country store, seems to go on at the tables at the grill.
This is guysville, but happy guysville. At 8 a.m. there is a steady stream of men in baseball hats, T-shirts, shorts with 12 pockets on them, and work boots coming in for gas and breakfast to go. The walls and ceiling are hung with NASCAR posters advertising beer and tobacco, and a big inflated beach toy Goodyear tire.
A young mother appears with her toddler, buys breakfast for both of them, and is joined by an older man, presumably the boy’s grandfather. He sits in the old man’s lap as he finishes his breakfast, and the men smile at the other tables.
Maybe dark deals are done at the Bi-Lo, but the place has the feel of the stagecoach depots in old John Wayne movies where the locals exchange news amicably and pilgrims of all sorts—weak and strong, rich and poor, good and bad—pass through and rub shoulders in relative good spirits.
The sign behind the counter reads, “Be nice or leave. Thank you.”