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If you live in North Carolina along the I-40 or I-95 corridors, you don’t have to travel far for an eclectic, multicultural experience. If you want to meditate on our strange and coarse interconnectedness as human beings, consider taking a trip to JR Cigar; the towels, porcelain dolls, NASCAR memorabilia, factory reject blue jeans and array of tobacco products, all bizarrely curated in one place, touch every corner of the globe, every market and every aspect of our economy.
To quote from David Byrne’s 1986 film True Stories “Shopping is a feeling.” And, JR certainly gives you a feeling.
When you are within twenty miles of Burlington or Selma you’ll know you’re in JR territory because of the billboards. There must be one at least every mile and sometimes they follow one another in a rapid succession like a flip book. They say things like “OMG! U got 2 C this GR8 place” or “NASCAR — HAVE AT IT, BOYS” or “TOWELS — WE HAVE 10,000 OF THEM.” Then, “EXIT NOW.” Comical, yes, but also effective — the parking lot is always full.
That kind of advertising is everything for a place like JR, because in the age of the megastore, it might be easy to mistake JR for a store like Walmart, a place of similar scale where you could find many of the same products. What you won’t find at Walmart is JR’s feeling of Southern abundance, charm, and kitsch crossed with some of America’s favorite cultural icons like the Western frontier. Between the faux hand-painted signs that say things like “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere” and the old-fashioned candy displays, the Cowboy statues and Indian dolls, you can tell that this is a shopping experience for people who want some fun on the side and the "LOWEST PRICES ON EARTH!"
The ethos of JR is shaped in part by the size and scope of the physical space it inhabits. Both stores are located right next to a highway; the store in Selma is on I-95, and the Burlington store is on I-40, two of the most traveled roads in the country. The parking lots are gigantic and welcome RVs and buses. The exterior of the humongous roadside landmark, plastered with larger-than-life reminders to purchase DOLLS * FRAGRANCES * BOOKS * WESTERN WEAR * TOWELS, surprisingly belies the quasi-chaos of its interior.
Inside, the senses are happily overwhelmed. The store is packed with hundreds of highly discounted products. Their placing seems incongruous and random at times, and it can take a few minutes to collect bearings and navigate the store. The lights are bright, and there’s music—sometimes oldies, sometimes country, sometimes Top 40. There is always a sweet smell of unsmoked cigarettes in the air, permeating most sections of the store. Depending on where you walk, you may also notice the scent of a hundred different perfumes, an assortment of candles, or popcorn from the JR snack bar, “Junk Food Heaven.”
Also spotted are: professional and college sports memorabilia; rows and rows of books –– young adult novels, self-help books, and copies of the New Testament; blue jeans, boots, cowboy hats and western shirts; North Carolina jams, cured ham, and wine; towels and linens; china, fine or otherwise; garden gnomes; windchimes and whirligigs; baskets and kitchen supplies; and a few (hundred) other things.
People come to JR from all over and for any number of reasons. Their website has a “customer gallery” with photos and quips from customers. Most folks they say they come for the basement bargain priced tobacco and stay for everything else. Take George S. from Waxhaw, North Carolina who travels to JR “twice a month and spends over $200 ‘damn dollars’ every month!”
Despite its larger-than-life image, JR was born from humble beginnings. And this may come as a surprise, but JR isn’t exclusively a North Carolina store. According to cigar website Half Wheel, Lew Rothman opened the first store in New York City in 1971, focusing solely on cigars. Supposedly, the tiny store Rothman opened featured the same message seen on JR’s stores and billboards today: “World’s Largest Cigar Store.” Since then, outlets have opened in Michigan, Washington D.C., New Jersey, and North Carolina.
Despite the fact that only the Burlington and Selma locations carry “household items,” tobacco still reigns supreme: cigarettes, cigars, dip, chew and snuff. They’ve also cashed in whole hog on the e-cigarette craze –– an entire square kiosk in the middle of the Burlington store shows off the vaporizers that look like handheld televisions. All the prices are cut-rate, and you have to wonder if they are selling under cost. If paid in cash, a carton of American Spirits, 200 cigarettes, is $42 dollars. That’s $4.20 a pack, as much as $3 less than you’ll find anywhere else. When I asked an employee how they are able to price so low, he only responded, “This is North Carolina, you know.” Tobacco still commands a great deal of attention around here, both in the economy and the cultural imagination.
Among the tobacco products, revered as they all are, the cigars hold center stage. There is an enormous walk-in humidor with middle-aged men ambling and poking around, or smoking cigars in the leather chairs in the back. There are cheap gas station cigars and some that cost fifty dollars a pop, and every kind of gadget a cigar nerd would need and probably more than a few they don’t. JR even puts on an event called “Smokin’ in the Carolinas,” that features over 25 cigar vendors, wine tastings from NC vineyards, unlimited beer from Railhouse Brewery in Aberdeen, all you can eat barbecue, and, presumably, a strong sense of camaraderie amongst cigar enthusiasts. It is after all self-proclaimed as the “biggest cigar bash in NC.” Tickets are $135 dollars each.
In this era of the megastore, perhaps it doesn’t seem so strange to see a wall of cigarette cartons and a massive display of kitchenware side by side. After all, isn’t that the height of efficiency and convenience? Why waste time driving from place to place when everything you could ever need (or not need) is right there?
It’s not only the size and scope of JR that is awe-inspiring. We sometimes need to be reminded that all of this stuff had to come from somewhere, that somebody had to make it, ship it, stock it. And then there’s the marvel that it all ended up in one place, at least for a little while. JR isn’t just a store–it’s a node, an intersection.
In every pair of boots, every knick-knack that says “Jesus Loves You,” and every pack of cigarettes, there are stories that cross cultures and economies, borders real and imaginary. JR is a cultural hub because its stuff comes from everywhere. The sum and its parts are equally as eclectic and diverse.
Take Wrangler Jeans, for instance. Wrangler is owned by VF Corporation in Greensboro, just a few miles down the road from JR’s Burlington store. In 1897, C.C. Hudson left Tennessee for North Carolina’s textile mills, and when the mill in which he was making overalls shut down, he and others purchased the sewing machines. After a few years and a couple of name changes, Hudson purchased the Wrangler brand. Today, VF is the parent company to over 30 brands including Wrangler, The North Face, Vans, Reef, Timberland, and Nautica.
The image Wrangler projects is straight out of Lonesome Dove, but they still advertise to those who aren’t punching cattle and mending fences. Its cowboy imagery is associated more with the Wild West than North Carolina, but it also panders to the everyman from Anywheresville, USA. Countless rodeo stars and country musicians like George Strait have signed on as endorsees, but so has Dale Earnhardt. The website features pictures and stories both of families in places like Texas and Oklahoma, raising happy little Wrangler families, and of Drew Brees taking throwing practice in blue jeans.
VF’s world headquarters is in Greensboro, but they don’t make jeans there. Of course, they’re not alone — almost nobody makes textiles in the U.S. anymore. The labels on VF brands represent all corners of globe from Turkey to Egypt to Nicaragua. This carries the same irony as an American flag with a label that says, “Made in China.”
JR is a North Carolina landmark, and it is, first and foremost, a place to buy stuff. But if you listen closely and read between the lines, you’ll also find a lot of stories at JR — stories with roots to the South, about everywhere else, and all the jagged seams that keep us attached to the rest of the world.
Throughout the United States and in the South, we often tell ourselves that we are exceptional and at times fall prey to believing we are our own world. Sometimes it even feels that way. While we are distinct in many ways, we know we aren’t our own isolated world. Our economy and culture has always intermingled and depended on global markets and migration. We’ve always been diverse, but sometimes fail to recognize and celebrate our interdependence and connection with other people, places, and cultures. A closer read of JR as a whole and its products--like Wrangler jeans--help reveal those connections.
JR is worth the trip, if not for the food for thought then at least for enough discount socks for your next ten years of holiday gifts.