Repurposing Circle Ks Is a Phoenix Specialty

I got into a lot of trouble in seventh grade for describing Phoenix, in a school newspaper article, as "pavement and cactus and Circle Ks." But I stand by my long-ago description of our town, which — at least regarding its bleak topography — hasn't changed a whole lot since I was in junior high.

If anything has changed, it's the location of the Circle Ks. There are just as many of them — in fact, there may be more — but more of them sell gasoline, and a whole lot of them have moved across the street from themselves.

I'm getting ahead of myself. But that comment about the endless rows of Circle Ks was more than just pre-teen hubris. I grew up in Phoenix, and in the '70s, these tiny convenience stores were the desert city equivalent of a mom-and-pop neighborhood store — albeit one where a carton of eggs cost three times what A.J. Bayless was charging. There was a Circle K every half-mile or so, and their exteriors all looked alike: low-slung and glass-fronted, with sloping, gravel-studded roofs.

The chain originated with a trio of Kay's Food Stores in El Paso, Texas. That town's mayor, Fred Hervey, bought the stores in 1951 and expanded the company into New Mexico and Arizona, which became the company's home base. By 1975, the year I wrote my bitchy commentary about Phoenix, there were more than a thousand Circle K stores across the country. In the late 1980s, a new corporate plan called for the relocation of hundreds of the stores onto busier corner lots; in many cases, the new Ks were moved only a few hundred yards away from where they'd been before.

But the old buildings where the Circle Ks resided remained and, long before "repurposing" became an enviro-architectural conceit, were turned into other things. Less obvious than the sky-scraping A-frame of a renovated Der Wienerschnitzel, but easier to spot than some of the revamped former Taco Bells, those angled-roofed boxes morphed into all kinds of wacky businesses. When the Circle K at Seventh Avenue and McDowell moved, the old location became an appliance store, locked in a stare-down with the newer, shinier version of itself directly across the street. One of the many Ks on Rural Road in Tempe became Club Tattoo, "the world-renowned tattoo and piercing studio." One I used to pass often on Cave Creek became Brigett's Last Laugh ("the neighborhood bar you've been looking for!") while the K at Third Street and Camelback is now a tux rental place.

I used to think I was the only one who cared about or even noticed all these revamped convenience marts until I discovered "Re-Inhabited Circle Ks," a series of about 40 photographs created between 1998 and 2004 by artist Paho Mann. His archival inkjet prints (some of which were recently shown at the University of Arizona in Tucson and in a show at New York's Jen Bekman Gallery) celebrate the altered and often garish façades of dozens of once-and-former one-stop shops.

"Documenting these buildings started out as a kind of visual experiment," says Mann, who lived in Phoenix while attending grad school at ASU a few years ago. During that time — and earlier, when he was living in Albuquerque — Mann began noticing that no matter which way he drove, he'd pass a reconfigured Circle K. "After a while I started to see Circle K as a commentary on suburban America. About how we used to be able to just go off and build our own little shops at the edge of the city, and now we have to re-use everything, because we're running out of room."

Like me, Mann remembers how we all had our "own" Circle K — the one that resided in our neighborhood, into which Mom could dash for a carton of milk or where we kids could loiter over comic books and bubblegum card displays.

I stopped by "my" Circle K this morning, the one at 43rd Avenue and Dunlap. I bought my first issue of Tiger Beat there, in 1971 ("Bobby Sherman's Love Secrets!" "Meet Donny's Sister, Marie!"); my first pack of cigarettes a few years later. You could spend an hour there on a hot summer morning, thumbing through magazines and contemplating a little shoplifting. Tony, the man who worked the counter when I was little, had very long hair and a tattoo of a mermaid on his forearm. Tony's boss didn't approve, so Tony had to wear a short-hair wig and long sleeves when he worked. I was captivated: a grown man who wore a wig — and he was a hippie, too!

Today, that Circle K is a quickie mart called N.J. Liquor, and they don't carry teen magazines. I know, because I asked. The guy behind the counter (whose hair was neither very long nor especially short) frowned at me. "No Tiger Beat," he sneered. "Liquor. Cigarettes. Lottery tickets."

He didn't even have a tattoo.

 
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