Inside Memphis Business

by Richard J. Alley
Inside Memphis Business, October 2014
Buster’s is Watching the Ballot



The tolling of a bell on South Bellevue in 1954 could have meant only one thing: Romulus Morgan Hammond Jr. — “Buster,” as he was known — had just recorded his first sale of the day. That sale might have been a pint of whiskey or a liter of gin, but either way it meant another nickel in the cash drawer.
 
These days, Buster’s Liquors & Wines relies more on scanners to handle the droves of customers and their plastic that pass through its doors on a daily (save for Sunday, of course) basis.

Things have surely changed since those days on Bellevue, but then, Buster was no stranger to change. The liquor store was, in fact, one in a string of careers the entrepreneur and businessman would hold by the time he was in his mid-40s. Born in 1910, his first business was as a boy selling popcorn on the corner to moviegoers before the theatre owners realized the profits they were losing. On the opposite corner then, hustling as a friendly competitor, was Kemmons Wilson, who would go on to found the Holiday Inn franchise; the two remained lifelong friends.
 
“The Hammond household has always regretted Buster not taking Kemmons up on his offer to invest in Holiday Inn when he started it,” laughs Buster’s grandson, Josh Hammond, in the cramped back office he shares with brother Morgan, its walls filled with framed photos of family and media.
 
From the corner popcorn stand, he segued to Film Row along Second St. and Vance Ave., selling films to regional movie theatres for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
 
Buster later moved into the grocery business and, with partner Tom Kirk, owned three successful Hamkirk Groceries. The pair didn’t innovate the grocery business – that was Clarence Saunders and his Piggly Wiggly chain – but they were the first in Memphis to open on Sundays; even Saunders took notice of that, eventually unlocking the doors of his stores that day as well.

The partnership divided with the flip of a coin. Having come to a point of disagreeing on the running of the business, the answer of who got to keep the grocery business came down to heads or tails.
 
That toss did not come out in favor of Buster. The inveterate entrepreneur didn’t rest on his laurels for long and, with two investors and $12,000, he opened the liquor store on South Bellevue in 1954 as owner-operator. Annual sales were less than $50,000, and the first sale of each day was heralded with the ringing of that big bell that hung outside the door.
 
Born in 1910, his first business was as a boy selling popcorn on the corner to moviegoers before the theatre owners realized the profits they were losing.
In 1966, Buster’s son, Romulus Morgan “Rommy” Hammond III, at the age of 26, opened Sterick Liquors, named for the building it was in at Third St. and Madison Ave.
Following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, and the subsequent exodus of many businesses from downtown, the Bellevue and Sterick locations closed and father and son decided to combine their talents.
 
“My dad was having some success and was just as good with the gift of gab as Buster,” Josh says.
 
The new Hammond team took their interests east to the southwest corner of Poplar Ave. and Highland St. Just across the way was Poplar Plaza, one of the first suburban shopping centers in the country, at what had been the edge of the city. The city had grown out to meet it and the intersection was highly traveled, a fact that was not lost on other, larger concerns.
 
“The ink had not even dried (on the lease) before Exxon came knocking,” Josh says.
 
To make room for Exxon, the Hammonds were soon offered space in a center being built adjacent to the corner to house a new Malco movie theatre. They took it and have been in the same building, just behind the gas station, since 1970.
 
Over the years the city has expanded past that earlier limit and made the intersection its center. Buster’s has grown as well, through phases of enlargements and renovations, attested to by the patterns on the floor. Throughout the 10,000-square feet it now occupies, the flooring changes several times, a map to the past and where you might have found a one-time office, a storage room, or the front counter of long ago. Josh is happy to show a visitor where his father’s and grandfather’s recliners would have been as they sat awaiting customers.
 
The business itself has changed as well, and for the better. When they partnered, Buster was the icon while Rommy — young, eager, and energized by the industry — was ready to make some changes.
 
“One of the things that my dad did really well was to say to the wholesalers, ‘If you’ve got wine and you can get it to me, I can sell it,’” Josh says. “His ‘yes attitude’ towards new products and wine is really what’s helped us grow.”
 
Wine was not then a staple on the American dinner table and growth would happen one cork at a time. Rommy was instrumental in bringing wine, not just into Buster’s, but Memphis as a whole. “I like to think all of Tennessee, for that matter,” Josh adds.
 
From there, the premium spirits followed and Buster’s continues to be an industry leader in the newest, hottest offerings. Along with any boost in business comes the responsibility to educate the consumers and the staff, now 45 strong, on the inventory. To that end, there are in-store tastings and the Hammonds regularly send their employees to vineyards and distilleries, not merely relying on information a sales rep might bring into the store.
 
Rommy’s sons, Morgan and Josh, were pulled into the business at a young age, occasionally working in the stockroom, and then as adults — Morgan after a stint at the University of Memphis, and Josh after the University of Alabama — when it came time for the next generation to take over. Rommy, at 73, is the chairman and still involved in the big decisions, while Morgan acts as CEO and Josh president of the company.
 
The original Buster was an entrepreneur, salesman, and family man with a zest for life. Morgan says that, if you were to ask his grandfather what his first — and possibly favorite — career was of the several he had, he’d say it was fishing.
 
“He lived under the notion that every day you fish, you gain an extra day of life,” Josh adds, “and I guess when you live to 97, that’s not such a bad idea.”
 
These days, business is brisk, but change is once again in the air. As the ability to buy wine in grocery stores inches ever closer with the referendum now on the ballot this November, the Hammonds remain cautiously optimistic about what that means for Buster’s.
 
“There’s a lot more ‘shop local’ that goes on here,” Josh says, “and I think Memphians pride themselves on that, we don’t like to cater necessarily to large, out-of-state interests, we like to do things our own way and find the way we do it.”
 
Regardless of what happens, the Hammonds have already heard from their longtime customers, some several generations old, pledging their loyalty.
 
“We’ve been able to show our staying power and to continue doing what we do well,” Josh says. “Really, hopefully, the number one thing we do well is treat everybody with respect when they walk in that door, and say hello and greet them. That makes a world of difference, finding out what their needs are.” •
 



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