What's shaking in the C-store worldSteve Hammer

I don't spend every single minute of my day thinking about movie starlets and complaining about the president. What ties us together as Americans is not our common heritage or our moral or political beliefs. It's the fact that everyone, on occasion, stops in a convenience store for a soft drink or pack of Twizzlers as well as $10 in gas.

A lot of time in between shows and Pacers games is spent reading whatever magazines for which I've wrangled free subscriptions. I especially love trade magazines because they're so singularly focused and passionate.

The best of the ones I receive is Convenience Store News, a monthly publication devoted to the bastard child of the grocery store, the places where you can get beef jerky and smokes 24/7/365.

Having worked at one during college, I can attest that convenience stores (C-stores, as they're known in the business) are among the most democratic of places. Rich people and poor people each use them. There's not a single demographic unrepresented at C-stores.

What ties us together as Americans is not our common heritage, or our moral or political beliefs. It's the fact that everyone, on occasion, stops in a convenience store for a soft drink or pack of Twizzlers as well as $10 in gas.

And CSN covers the waterfront, so to speak, when it comes to anything and everything related to C-stores.

It's such an entertaining read because their headlines are priceless. One breaking story this month is "Stressed Americans Turn to Their Favorite Vices."

Researchers at the University of Michigan have found that Americans are consuming more comfort food and tobacco these days, presumably to relieve stress. Also, CSN reports, "American consumers expressed less satisfaction with a wide range of products, including pet food, clothes, cleaning products and athletic shoes."

However, Hershey Foods Corp. and Mars Inc. products have a higher satisfaction level than before and, interestingly, the article says, "Satisfaction with tobacco products is at its highest level in four years."

What's better about smokes now than in 2001? What makes them better now, other than the fact that people have to smoke up a storm to cope with the news these days?

Another article brings out the fact that 1.2 billion cartons of cigarettes were sold in 2004, along with a great quote from some convenience store exec: "When a guy buys smokes, it's because he's down to his last one. A woman will buy a carton and stick it up in the cabinet."

Apparently, there's been a big boom in the roll-your-own tobacco business, because there's an entire page devoted to new innovations in the field. The people behind Juicy Jay's flavored rolling papers have introduced the "Brown Sugar" line of papers, featuring an illustration of a bootylicious African-American woman in a bikini, sporting a seductive look and a huge, Pam Grier-style Afro.

"Sweetness from fingertips to lips," the ad for Brown Sugar papers says. They're available in Cherry Bonbon, Island Blend and Chocolate Mint. Another innovation from the same people, HBI Tobacco, offers a 5-meter roll of uncut rolling paper, allowing, in theory at least, the creation of a 5-meter long joint. That's something envisioned by Cheech and Chong in the '70s but is only now a reality.

In fact, the hip-hop nation seems to be taking over the C-stores these days. There's Sweet Cred candy and a new bottled water from rapper 50 Cent.

The coolest, though, is the Pimp Cup Air Freshener, which allows motorists to decorate their cars with slogans such as the inspiring "Dirty South Livin! Keep It Pimpin'!" The CSN story notes, with a straight face, that the Pimp Cups are available in a variety of scents: Gangsta Lean, Ghetto Fabulous, Hot Boys, Pimps Up and Thug Passion, which apparently smells like green apple.

A promising new offering from the Phillies Blunt people are banana, mango and coconut flavored cigars. What's next? Lobster flavored? Champagne cigars?

Of course, candy is one of the primary items at any convenience store. There's a great advertisement for the "2005 All Candy Expo," which will take place in June. "Amazing innovations! Groundbreaking research!"

One of those innovations is the Peeps Milk Chocolate Egg, which is a 3-ounce hollow chocolate egg with a singular Peep inside.

Because the C-store industry never stops, and they sell everything from sanitary napkins to DVDs, there are an unlimited amount of goods for sale in the pages of CSN. Need an ATM for under $3,000? The classified ads there will hook you up. How about a machine that makes six-packs of beer out of loose cans? Check.

You can tell one thing about the C-store industry: It doesn't trust its employees. Half the articles in a given month are about how to slow or stop "shrink," or employee theft.

And the magazine mentions the surprising fact that fully one-third of all Americans have no relationship with a bank. C-stores are looking to get into that market by offering check-cashing services and debit cards.

It might seem arcane to some, but the story of C-stores is the story of today's America: overworked, overstressed people willing to pay a price for a little bit of convenience and people willing to fill that need.

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