Hot Coffee is Better Than So-So

The sign reads, “R.J. Knight–General Merchandise.” The business cards passed out by the proprietors add that it’s “The best place in town to trade.” They fail to mention it’s the only place in town to trade. In fact, it’s the only place in town to do anything. Their store is the only building in beautiful downtown Hot Coffee, Mississippi.

My job had taken me to Laurel, Mississippi. When I found myself with a day off I decided to go sightseeing. I’d passed two signs on my way into Laurel that had left me curious. With time on my hands, I decided to go wherever my curiosity led me.

My first stop was in a little town called Soso. The town was, well, so-so. It was your average American small town. The only outstanding feature of Soso was the Stuff Store. Honestly, that was the name of the establishment! Unfortunately it was closed. So I couldn’t learn what sort of stuff they sold in the Stuff Store in Soso, Mississippi. It could’ve been new stuff or old stuff, but I’ve a feeling that no matter what kind of stuff it was, it was no more than so-so.

I asked a couple of people how Soso got its name. The best answer I got was interesting, but difficult to believe. It seems, so the story goes, that whenever anyone from the area was asked how he or she was doing, the answer was, “So-so.” No one could come up with a better explanation, so I guess we’ll go with that.

When I left Soso I was disappointed, but I was optimistic that Hot Coffee would be more interesting. Maybe it was wishful thinking, but I was ready for a cup of hot coffee and believed that I should be able to find a decent cup in a town with that name.

I soon came to the sign marking the city limits. Within a tenth of a mile I saw a sign welcoming me to downtown Hot Coffee. Knight’s General Store was on the left as I drove by. I wanted to see what else was in this town. As I passed Knight’s, I noticed another sign just beyond the store. It was on the other side of the road and facing the other way. I glanced in my side-view mirror and read it. “Welcome to Downtown Hot Coffee” it said. Within another tenth of a mile I read another sign in my mirror. I had just left Hot Coffee.

I turned around and drove back to the general store. That was it. Downtown Hot Coffee spread from one side of the store to the other, which couldn’t have been more than fifty feet. I parked the car and went in.

In many ways it was like walking into the past. The floor was made of wooden planks and most of the display cases were also make of wood. The meat counter was a white porcelain refrigerated display case. The scale and meat slicer atop the counter were of the same vintage as the case, but didn’t appear to get much use.

The store offered a variety of canned goods and other nonperishable food items as well as ice cream and soft drinks. One of the refrigerated cases contained sandwiches and prepackaged meats. The microwave oven next to the case allowed customers to heat up their hot dogs and hamburgers. That microwave and a small television set were the only things that kept me from thinking I’d stepped into a time warp.

The store also carried a small assortment of clothing and various hardware items. But the most interesting features of the place were the various displays of antiques… and the folks sitting behind the counter. Herbert and Judy Harper, the owners, not only told me about the origin of the store and its antiques, they also explained how the town got its name.

Hot Coffee is about halfway between Jackson and Hattiesburg–a two-day trip on horseback. Travelers would gather at that midway point to spend the night. As a result, there were plenty of campfires and lots of hot coffee. As people made the trek, they looked forward to the rest stop and a cup of hot coffee. Since the place had no official name, people just thought of it as Hot Coffee.

Personally I think this is a much better explanation than the one I heard in Soso. I can easily imagine two weary travelers riding over the hills of Mississippi. One looks at the other and asks, “Where do you reckon we are?” and the other answers, “I’d say we’re about a mile or two away from Hot Coffee.” It works for me!

R.J. Knight, Judy Harper’s great-grandfather, opened the store in the early 1800’s. In the early 1920’s it burned to the ground. Undaunted, Judy’s grandfather rebuilt the structure. This time, instead of using wood, he used bricks… three layers of them. Not only would the building withstand a fire, it would also resist hurricane-force winds, and maybe even stop a Sherman tank.

As Judy told me about the various antiques–which included everything from sewing supplies, dyes, soap boxes, and a coffin to the ledger books used by her ancestors and a giant stuffed sturgeon that had been caught in a nearby river–Herbert said his wife was turning the place into the Hot Coffee Museum and Mall.

After giving me a tour of the emporium, Judy returned to her place behind the counter. The rest of our conversation took place with me sitting in a chair on the customers’ side while they sat in their chairs on the proprietor’s side. Judy and Herbert each had an adding machine and a money drawer although Herbert did most of the adding and money changing while Judy bagged the customers’ purchases.

A number of customers came on while I was visiting, but none of them bought more than a few dollars worth of merchandise. One man–believe it or not–arrived on horseback. He bought cigarettes, but no coffee.

The mixing of the past and present was made even more evident by the Harpers themselves. Judy is definitely the old-fashioned one. When she was telling me about her grandfather’s ledgers, she confided that while going through the old papers she’d found a number of deeds for saloons. Evidently, her grandfather had taken them as payment for some sort of debts. But in true southern belle tradition, Judy whispered the word saloon and looked embarrassed about mentioning it.

Herbert, on the other hand, has come to grips with the present. He wears a holstered gun. He told me a good friend had been murdered a few miles away. The motive was robbery and the police had yet to make an arrest. That was almost four years prior to my visit. Herbert had been openly wearing the gun ever since that time.

We all agreed it’s a pity he has to take such extreme measures. Herbert said his father-in-law used to leave the store unlocked when he walked to his home across the road to eat lunch. Nobody would’ve thought of going into the store when they knew the owner was out to lunch, but if they needed something immediately, they’d take what they needed… only after leaving a note by the money drawer. In modern times, the Harpers have had to install a burglar alarm.

When it came time for me to leave I hated to go. In such a short time I’d learned so much about the town and its people. The Harpers were most cordial hosts and insisted I stop by to see them if I’m ever in the area again. I assured them I would.

I left with my “Hot Coffee, Mississippi” coffee mug and a store calendar. Hot Coffee had been a much better experience than Soso. And yes, I did have a cup of hot coffee while I was there and it was delicious.

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