Fannie Flagg Shares The Lessons She Learned In A Sleepy Alabama Beach Town

Memories from a pioneering malt shop in Gulf Shores.

 During the second World War, my father served in the Air Force and happened to be stationed in California—and he loved it. So when he came back to Birmingham, he tried his best to get my mother to move out West and start a brand-new life there. 

I was a baby at the time and had no say in the matter, but I will be forever grateful to my mother for refusing to move so far away. I loved growing up in the South. 

Of course, my childhood may have been a little different from most. I can still remember the first time I went to New York City, trying to become a writer and an actress. The moment people found out where I was from, they would often say, “Alabama! Oh, then you must have been raised on a farm.” 

“No,” I replied, “I was actually raised in the back of a malt shop at the beach on the Gulf of Mexico.”  

Which was true. It was the direct result of my father playing cards with a man who owned that establishment in a place called Gulf Shores, Alabama. And according to my father, he won the place from the man fair and square in a poker game. Daddy was excited. He said one day Gulf Shores would be as big as Miami Beach and emphasized how lucky we were to be getting in on the ground floor. 

To Mother’s horror, the very next day, Daddy quit his job as a motion picture-machine operator and sold our little house. Within a week, we were on the road in our Crosley car. We were headed down to the Gulf with dreams of becoming millionaires dancing in our heads. Well, at least Daddy and I were. My mother was still worried that daddy had bet our entire future on a sight unseen business located in some godforsaken place she had never heard of. 

The year was 1952. I remember it was a very long drive, with me and my dog, Lassie, in the back seat with four suitcases and no air-conditioning. But having never been out of Birmingham, I was excited to see all the different sights along the way, including farms with cows. 

I will never forget the moment when we finally arrived. As we drove to the very end of State 59 where Daddy said the shop was located, suddenly everything turned blinding white and there was nothing but miles and miles of powdery sand as far as the eye could see. To my shock, no more than 200 yards from the malt shop was the vast, crystal clear green Gulf of Mexico gleaming and sparkling in the sun. Wow! The sight was so beautiful, Lassie and I immediately got out of the car and ran up and down the beach. However, my mother was more focused on the malt shop. It was not as Daddy had described it. 

It turned out to be a tiny, deserted green building covered in about 2 feet of sand, with thousands of little white crabs running all around it. Inside was a counter, about six wooden booths, and a kitchen with a grill. What was to be our living quarters was one minuscule bedroom with a bathroom, a single closet, and a small sleeping porch for me. 

It took us about a week to get all the sand off the floor—a backbreaking job to say the least. And because it was the off-season, the entire town was mostly vacated except for an Italian family named Romeo who owned cottages to rent up the road. Mr. Romeo was a friendly fellow who welcomed us and explained that not too many people came in the summer due to a turnoff on the road that bypassed Gulf Shores and went straight to Florida. You should have seen the look Mother gave Daddy when she heard that. Here we were in the middle of nowhere with a few boarded-up summer beach houses and nothing but miles of sand dunes in between. How could we ever make a living here? 

But Daddy was not one to be discouraged and got the place ready to open in June. He was the short-order cook, Mother worked the cash register, and I was the merchandise consultant. We ordered all sorts of water floats, suntan lotion, sunglasses, and souvenirs. My favorite ones were the seashells set in pink plaster with decals that read “Gulf Shores, Alabama” on the side with little women in shell dresses or plastic crosses in the middle. Daddy was very artistic and painted signs on the two bathroom doors. One said “Buoys,” and the other said “Gulls.” 

Soon a huge Wurlitzer jukebox with pink-and-blue lights was delivered with a great collection of fifties hits by Nat King Cole, Patti Page, The Four Freshmen, and (my favorites) Doris Day and Rosemary Clooney. A large neon sign was put up that read “Neal’s Malt Shop” and could be seen for miles. Daddy hired two waiters, and soon, the big screened front doors were opened. We were in business. By the middle of June, we were swamped with customers and busy all day long. What a life for any 10 year old. I would wake up every day, walk into the malt shop, order breakfast, and then later have a cheeseburger with fries and a chocolate malt for lunch. I would also get to read all the comic books from the stack at the door. For free! How lucky can you get? 

As the summer progressed and more people started coming to the beach, Daddy rented out the space on the side of the shop to a Mr. Bill Little, who was the reigning archery champion and set up a range. For a quarter, you could aim at balloons, and if you hit one, you’d win a free hamburger. Mr. Little was great; he let me be his assistant for the summer. One of his ways to stir up business was shooting balloons out of my mouth. This was a big success until the day my mother looked out the window, saw me, and dropped an entire plate of fried shrimp on a paying customer. Sadly my archery days were over. But as luck would have it, across the street from the shop, a small carnival opened up. The entire thing was run by a family from the North who lived in a school bus. 

The carnival had a Ferris wheel, and a penny arcade, and sold candy apples and cotton candy. They also had a booth where you could have your photo made. What fun! Then, before we knew it ,summer was over, and the entire beach was empty again.

At the time, there were only about 12 people who lived there in the winter, so I had to go to school a little more than 10 miles away in a town called Foley. There were only three of us who caught the school bus every day: Michael Micelli (Mr. Romeo’s grandson), a little blonde girl named Martha Jean, and I. That first winter was long and lonely. Mother and Daddy had not made as much money as they had hoped, so that year we ate a lot of Spanish mackerel they’d caught deep-sea fishing. I was awfully glad when warm weather came around again. But as hard as my parents worked every summer, we always wound up losing money. And so years later, when our shop burned down, Daddy finally gave up his dream and we wound up moving back to Birmingham.

My father never lived to see the huge building boom that took place in Gulf Shores in the late seventies and early eighties. What he had predicted so many years before had finally come true and in such a spectacular way. 

Who would have believed the little beach town that we knew would become a thriving city full of activity, with schools, high-rises, restaurants, and shopping. When I go back now, I can hardly recognize it. 

Still, I am proud to have been one of the pioneer families in the early history of Gulf Shores. I wouldn’t have missed those magical years for the world. They were so wonderful—I even wrote a book about them. 

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