The gas-station quick shop is the engine of the urban economy, a streamlined machine that consumes as much energy as it dispenses. It feeds our cravings: fruit pies and Life Savers, Funyuns and Fanta. They glow like beacons along the boulevard, each a variation on the platonic quickie-mart ideal. To achieve perfection, it must strike that delicate balance of necessity and impulse. One brand of tampon, but a dozen different varieties of Doritos. Cheap deodorant, but eight Now & Later flavors. Advil packets and beef jerky. The things we buy when we only have a few crumpled ones in our pocket.
Here, at the corner of Arsenal and Lemp in Benton Park, right across from Gus's Pretzels and in the shadow of Anheuser Busch, is the greatest quick shop in St. Louis Joel's Shell Food Mart. Maybe that's because it's closest to our home. When we're bummed, Joel dishes us Ben and Jerry's pistachio. When we've got the munchies, he offers us many varieties of Bugles. When we hate our job, he sells us Powerball tickets; when we love our job, he sells us Hustler.
Who, exactly, are you, Joel? Is your mart our Valhalla? None of the clerks sport your nametag when they wear your polyester smocks. Do you exist, Joel? And who orders the beer here? (Read Kelly Link's fantastical short story "The Hortlak," from her collection of last year, Magic for Beginners. It's set in a quick shop that has a strong zombie clientele.) In the heat of the summer, bats orbit the Shell sign like comets through a fast-forward galaxy. On cloudless mornings you can watch the sun rise from Joel's parking lot. As it struggles to lift, the sun makes the brewery glow orange and electric. They're making beer over there. You can just tell.
But they're not making Warsteiner, which is loathed by as many beer connoisseurs as loved. It's brewed in Warstein, Germany between Düsseldorf and Berlin. It's clean and light, with a touch more amber in its hue than Budweiser. The haters say Warsteiner's akin to Heineken, but it's much closer to Czechvar, a sturdy, no-bullshit pilsner that's light on the intake but solid going down the throat. Joel sells Warsteiner, but that stands to reason. The shop has a shockingly good beer selection for its size: Sierra Nevada pale; Schlafly coffee stout; Boulevard wheat; Bass ale; Newcastle Brown. And, of course, all the Anheuser-Busch products. You can also buy wrestling tickets here.
At night, Joel's inhales and exhales customers like it's hyperventilating, and many exit with a six pack or a couple 24-ounce cans in tow. There's never a rush here, per se, but there's always a line, which moves toward the register like bubbles in a beer bottle. Somehow, the customers pace themselves. Or maybe they're fated (by Joel?) to arrive when they do, each craving precisely timed against the master plan.