In the tragically out-of-print The Last American City: An Intrepid Walker’s Guide to Houston, magazine writer and editor and Rice German professor Douglas Milburn took a break from his bipedal tours of Montrose, the Galleria, downtown and the Med Center to share his hard-won, footsore knowledge of Houston’s finest convenience stores, circa 1979.
It was a propitious moment for the convenience store concept; gas stations had yet to erode their share of the quick and easy food and drinks market, so Milburn had plenty to choose from, not least, from among dozens of U-Tote’Ms.
Guided by Leroy Melcher, U-Tote’M was arguably Houston’s most beloved homegrown convenience store chain, albeit one bearing a name and totem pole imagery that would be considered wildly offensive by today’s standards.
A Tulsa U-Tote-M made a cameo in The Outsiders:
Milburn found that U-Tote-Ms offered the coldest drinks, while 7-11s were the cleanest. Stop-N-Gos had the best “ambience.”
And here is his best of the best, along with what stands on their sites today, 35 years later:
U-Tote-m #1, 7706 Park Place Blvd. Then: The World’s First U-Tote’M
Now: This retail landmark still stands, unsung by the bards of convenience, but beloved of southeast Houston tipplers, as it’s now a bar that nods to its noble C-store past with its name: the Stop N Stay Club.
The World’s Second U-Tote’M, at 3501 S. Shepherd, and in 1979 the “only store in town where the help sometimes plays classical music,” is now a Title Max.
7-11, 303 Bayland Ave. Then: Milburn believed that this 7-11 managed to transcend “the awful burden of lookalike franchisedom” to become a “genuine neighborhood institution” and earn the title of Houston’s best all-around convenience store.
Now: It’s no longer part of a large conglomerate, but as the 1 Stop Food Store (pictured at the top of this story), it’s hanging in there.
U-Tote-M #191, 2101 Dunlavy St. Then: Deemed “worth a visit, because it is located in what is probably the best small shopping center in town (Little Palm Washateria; Little Palm Beauty Shop; and Mrs. Me’s Cafe.)” (For many Houstonians, Mrs. Me’s was their first exposure to Vietnamese food.)
Now: The Little Palm Washateria survives in the tiny center best known today as the home of La Guadalupana bakery and restaurant. The former U-Tote-M is now known as Time Food Mart.
Stop-N-Go #261, 503 Westheimer Rd. Then: “(A)dds new dimensions to the term ‘hard core’.”
Now: Address is now the site of The Bar Method dance studio.
U-Tote-M #3, 1126 W. Alabama St. Then: Another early U-Tote’M, one that “radiates a kind of intense sexual bohemianism, what with the Max Hutchinson Gallery on one side and the Studz Newsstand on the other.
Now: Demolished and plowed under; part of Annunciation Orthodox School’s athletic complex.
Baby Giant #2, 202 Westheimer Rd. Then: Milburn viewed this Baby Giant much as Ignatius Reilly viewed Baton Rouge, as a sort of vortex of despair that “cannot be equaled for its consistent level of dementia praecox and paranoid tendencies.”
Now: Baby Giant #2 eventually evolved into Hollywood Food & Cigars #3, which shared a mini-strip with Tejas Boots and was closed by April of last year. Milburn avowed that Baby Giants were “in a class by themselves;” much the same could be said for Hollywoods.
U-Tote-M #199, 18603 W. Montgomery Rd. Then: Said to enjoyed an unrivaled amount of piney woods flavor of far suburbia.
Now: There’s a taco truck standing adjacent to a covered picnic area, both fronting a tiny beige building where W. Montgomery empties on to the now-busy Tomball Pkwy. Looks like the U-Tote-M structure is gone, as is much of the “piney woods flavor.”
Stop-N-Go #243, 3258 Westheimer Rd. Then:“Half a block from River Oaks Blvd, John Connally, Frank Sharp, et al., contains a live butcher shop, which probably says as much about the metaphysics of the rich as it does about their diet.”
Now: Homes occupy this site, just east of Lamar-River Oaks shopping center and across the street from Lamar HS.
- Previously on Swamplot: Houston’s Last Best Tour Guide; A Change Afoot at Old Tejas Boots Home on Westheimer