Imagine, for a moment, a street corner in New York. There might be stray garbage in the gutters, there might be a swarm of tourists, there might be a taxi veering just a bit too close to the curb. And there is a good chance that there’s a store you can walk into, at any hour of day or night, and satisfy a craving for coffee or a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich.
Stores open 24 hours are ubiquitous across America. Of the 152,794 shops listed by the National Association of Convenience Stores, 90 percent are round-the-clock operations. New York City alone houses upwards of 1,500 independently-run bodegas; it’s hard to imagine the five boroughs without them.
But there was a time, not too long ago, when city residents had to go from store to store to buy their eggs, ice, and cheap beer. Their midnight cravings were greeted with locked doors and dimmed lights. The convenience store, such as it is today, did not exist.
Jeff Lenard, the vice president of the NACS, credits the Southland Ice Company with the birth of the modern convenience store. In 1927, “Uncle Johnny” Jefferson Green ran the Southland Ice Dock in Oak Cliff, Dallas, where people would come to stock up on foot-long freezing blocks they carted home to refrigerate their food. Unlike the local grocery stores, the Ice Dock was already open 16 hours a day, seven days a week. “So [Green] thought, ‘why not sell milk and bread and eggs, too?’” Lenard says.
The Southland Ice Company saw potential in Uncle Johnny’s idea and merged operations at various locations under the extended schedule of 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. In 1946, these stores became called 7-Eleven.
It would take 36 years for the company to adopt the 24-hour model, and when it did, it was an accident: following a football game at the University of Texas, customers flooded the 7-Eleven in Austin. “It couldn’t close,” notes the company’s website. The store stayed open all night. So successful was the inadvertent model that always-open 7-Elevens began to crop up intentionally; the first all-night outpost, perhaps unsurprisingly, was in Las Vegas.
This is the path to all-night retail that is most clear-cut: a series of happy accidents, capitalized upon by one company. But more sordid 24-hour operations existed elsewhere before 7-Elevens touched down in Sin City.
In 1939, Rose Gold, a 67-year-old candy store owner in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn was arraigned for perjury and racketeering. The article on her arrest in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle described her store as “ordinary-looking.”
Her neighbors were surprised at her arrest, but when prompted, the owner of a nearby deli admitted: “Sure, they kept the place open all night”; no one would have witnessed anything suspect.
Across the country, the Hollywood Ranch Market also had round-the-clock hours and a reputation for seediness. Even prior to 1952, its sign proclaimed “We Never Close”; a Time magazine article from January of that year describes:
… [it] has thrown thrown the key away, employs three shifts to stay open 24 hours every day, including Sunday, finds its stores almost as crowded at 3 a.m. as at 3 p.m….
At night, the market doubled as a receptacle for Hollywood nightlife; Shanghai-born ticket-taker Geraldine Holt recounts in Hollywood Remembered: An Oral History of its Golden Age how:
If you weren’t working, you’d go there at two in the morning. Because Marlon Brando, Harry Belafonte, and other stars would take their wives or girlfriends shopping then, thinking they could avoid the crowd. But we were all there.
Cultural shifts occurring nationwide also bolstered the move toward 24-hour retailing in a way that the activity on the coasts could not sustain on its own. President Eisenhower signed the Federal Highway Act in 1956, authorizing the interstate highway system and 41,000 miles of new roads, all of which required round-the-clock fuel for both cars and their drivers. The Tonight Show with Steve Allen premiered in 1954, encouraging viewers to stay up past midnight. Americans were working later hours, too; Lenard says that early 24-hour stores tended to open by places like factories and hospitals, where shift work was becoming more common. And the same Time magazine article noted: “Speeding the trend is the fact that the defense program, drawing more & more wives into the labor force, makes it harder for women to shop during the day.”
There was no reversing this tide. A 1972 article in the Milwaukee Sentinel took note of the uptick, both in cities and suburbs. Nationwide, 4 percent of supermarkets with more than $500,000 in yearly business had switched to 24-hour schedules. “What kind of people shop at 3 a.m.?” the article asks.
Store owners said they get a cross section—people avoiding the late-afternoon jam in the store and on the highways, families with a car available only for shopping at night; women whose husbands are home from work taking care of their children; someone who needs milk or aspirin in an emergency; partygoers buying snacks sometimes several times during the night; men coming off late work shifts; families that want their whole day free for recreation; and even some insomniacs.
Barring, obviously, the dated gender dynamics, that list would look pretty much the same in 2016.