Growing Up With Tom Thumb

Growing up with Tom Thumb was like living in a festival that recurred every time a new store opened. Always there were things that were new-bakeries, flower departments, cosmetics. Always my dad, Charles Cullum, would show me through, stopping frequently to receive the congratulations of suppliers, city officials, friends, and aunts, uncles, cousins. Because this was a family business, and those who didn’t work for the company shopped there and certainly came to celebrate openings.

Those opening days were back-breaking work. First, there was the anxiety; Would the customers come? Then the pressure, when customers flooded into the front door, sweeping specials off the shelves, Each store would have to be restocked at night, and none was more of a killer than the one at Preston Royal. My dad was there until the early morning, and he looked up to find that there was only one employee left-a good friend of my cousin Dan Cullum, Together they finished preparing for the next onslaught, which, of course, was the answer to months of hard work and high dreaming.

Tom Thumb was usually run by a threesome: my father; my uncle, Bob Cullum; plus one other. First, it was J.R. Bost, a long time pro of food markets; then my aunt, Eloise Cullum, an accounting whiz; and finally Jack Evans, former mayor of Dallas, who helped the brothers build Tom Thumb into a national organization.

They also created stores that one might never associate with the grandsons of a Methodist minister-who, from the looks of him, didn’t believe in worldly pleasures. The Old Town Village location at Lovers Lane and Greenville became a haven for swinging singles. Open all day and all night, Marylyn Schwartz covered it in The Dallas Morning News as the hot spot to meet and more. My cousin, Houston Holmes III, was propositioned when he worked there as a teenager. A woman pleaded with him to go home with her to carry in the packages.

Then there was Simon David, another place where you dressed to shop. But whereas the Villagers took off their clothes before hitting the produce, those at Simon David were more comfortable if they added a little something, perhaps a designer scarf.

Still, the old traditions endured. One day, people in the office were startled to hear Bob, who had been ill, in his office with the door closed singing “Amazing Grace.” But he was not getting ready to meet his Maker. He was rehearsing for a civic luncheon where he, as always, would be the star, this time singing a duet with the Rev. LB. Loud, creating community with wit and good will.

When the company went public and began to grow. Bob, Charlie, and Jack still kept to their accustomed rounds, dropping into store after store to see firsthand how things were going. They never got up one morning and decided they were too important to check the quality of the meat. They knew they couldn’t hole up in the boardroom, reading their strategic plan. That plan wouldn’t be worth anything if the lettuce wasn’t fresh, every day.

The grocery business kept them in touch with the earth and the bounty of the seasons. It taught them their ultimate dependence on a provident nature. In Tom Thumb)-the little guy-the>’ found humility as well as success. In growing up with Tom Thumb, I got to watch some remarkable people in action. Time and again they staved off disaster and kept on building. In their hands, Tom Thumb became a giant of decency, style, and reliable wonder.

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