The Mystery of Winn Dixie

Somewhere around 1979, a new shop opened its doors on London Road. It occupied the space recently vacated by Rockbottom (who moved a door down; you could still hear the sounds of bedroom guitarists mangling their way through Van Halen’s Eruption through the walls) and although it kept the trademark orange tiles of the block, it had a bold and shiny name and logo: Winn Dixie.

The reality didn’t quite live up to the promise. Any dreams of vast swathes of Americana were instantly dashed by the sight of tables groaning with pastel bath salts and china hearts stuffed with pot-pourri. Further in though, you would find shelves of Ronco products which, despite being “Only available on TV!” were there, large as life, available for purchase.

This, then, was Winn Dixie’s USP: the opportunity to buy products that were only normally available through magazine and television offers. That, and a healthy smattering of cheap tat. That’s not to say it was a waste of time, though. Who hadn’t wanted to see for themselves the Ronco glass froster or the device that scrambled eggs inside their shells (and if anyone can come up with a valid reason for why such a thing needed to exist, I would love to hear it).

And there were some real gems too. Nearer to Christmas a range of toys started to appear, the most memorable of  which was the Big Ear – a cross between a blue and red plastic rifle with a parabolic antenna on one end and a cheapo pair of Walkman headphones at the other. This miraculous device promised (at least on the adverts) the ability to eavesdrop on conversations a mile away with crystal clarity. I can’t vouch for whether or not it actually worked but even the mere existence of this toy has been hotly debated on the TV Cream website, amongst others.

Sadly, the combination of closeout goods, uneven floors and nicotine silhouettes of Gibson Les Pauls on the wall did not a sustainable business model make, and it closed down after about a year. And there the story would have ended.

Except…

Except that a few years ago, I had cause to visit Miami. One of the first things that I saw was a Winn Dixie, large as life, just sitting there in a retail park. It transpires that this is a huge chain, popular through the Southern USA, with its origins in Jacksonville many years ago. How had it got to Croydon? Actually, that’s not so unlikely – Croydon has always been a favourite testing ground for market researchers, partly because it allegedly represents a good cross-section of the tastes of the nation, but mostly because that’s where they all lived.

I recently emailed Winn Dixie’s PR department, asking if they had any records of their incursion into UK territory. The response was a form letter with a two-line history of the firm and an assertion that they had never opened a branch in the UK.

But… it was there. Could it have just been a one-off shop opened by an ex-pat Floridian? Or someone who just liked the name? This seems unlikely. I have since heard from people who worked there and from one gentleman who still owns a Winn Dixie-branded suit. This seems like an unlikely level of detail for a tribute act.

I am going to email them again and try and track down their archivist. This is one mystery that needs solving.