Ask McGehee: Is it true a Delchamps was located on Conti Street in midtown Mobile?

Old Delchamps grocery store exterior
Few would recognize this unique Midtown building as having been built to house an early Delchamps grocery store. It adjoins the former residence of founder Alfred Delchamps. Photo courtesy Tom McGehee

The much-lamented chain of grocery stores traced its beginnings to a small building at the intersection of Texas and Bayou streets. Alfred Delchamps had previously worked in the Chickasaw shipyards during World War I and, with less than $1,000, started the business in 1921. Alfred’s younger brother, Ollie, soon joined him, and they moved into larger quarters at 450 Canal Street, followed by a second location at the intersection of Broad Street and Springhill Avenue.

The grocery business was rapidly changing in 1920s America. For generations, customers entered a market and stepped up to a counter where an order was given to a clerk. The customer would stand there until the items had been retrieved, and then the clerk would wait on the next customer in line.

On Fridays after the weekly paychecks had been cashed, it was not unusual for a line to stretch out the market’s door as late as 11 p.m. as each customer requested the items they needed as well as five cents of this or 10 cents worth of that. As cities grew following World War I, this process had to change. The result was the revolutionary idea of the self-serve grocery store.

A Pair of Firsts

In 1928, the Delchamps brothers opened the first supermarket in Alabama at 660 St. Louis Street at Washington Avenue. It was fully self-service with the exception of the meat counter. By the following year, there were six Delchamps locations around town, stretching from Canal Street to Upham Street, back when the city limits were at Florida Street.

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The Midtown building on Conti Street (not to be confused with the Downtown street of the same name) opened its doors in 1931 and had the distinction of being the first air-conditioned super-market in Mobile. Unlike the St. Louis Street location, which was constructed of brown brick and had no architectural ornament, the Conti Street location was finished in a tan-colored brick with classical detailing around the entrance and roofline.

Another reason for this building’s unique appearance may stem from the fact that Alfred and his siblings lived together on nearby Hannon Avenue at the time. Within two years, Alfred had married, and he and his wife, Lucille, built the Colonial Revival home at 101 Houston Street, which backed up to the grocery store on Conti Street. Both are constructed of the same brick.

Expansion and Bust

By 1941, Delchamps promoted the concept of having “a modern, well-equipped store in almost every neighborhood in Mobile.” They had two locations in the booming new town of Prichard, as well as 10 stores around Mobile and another in Pensacola. Alfred and Lucille’s residency on Houston Street was a short one. By this time, they had moved next door to brother Ollie in a subdivision still synonymous with the Delchamps name: Delwood.

Mobile burst at the seams during the Second World War, and by 1953, the chain had vacated the Conti Street location for a new store on Government Street at the Loop. Looking back, the 1931 store does not appear to have had a parking lot, and this may well have added to the decision. Ralph’s Grocery operated briefly in this location before a dental supply company moved into the building.

Since 1988, the former grocery store at 1755 Conti Street has been home to Soundworks, Inc., an audio productions studio catering to advertising agencies and film companies. That firm has preserved the character of an unusual Midtown building with an interesting history.  

The hugely successful Delchamps chain of grocery stores expanded over the years to include 118 locations. It lasted until 1997 when it was sold to Jitney Jungle and was a casualty of that firm’s subsequent bankruptcy.

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