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South Cape convenience store closes after nearly four decades
Don Caldwell has had a gun waved in his face and watched as the trigger was pulled. He mostly worked midnights, despite the fact that he owned the place. And, until recent years, he had to call the cops on a regular basis -- once even to clear his store.
Still, on Saturday, as the Don of Don's Store 24 closed the business he has owned since 1973, he admitted he was more than a little sentimental.
"Yeah, it was a hard decision," Caldwell said. "One of my customers brought in a goodbye cake that morning. When I opened the door, there was a card in there from the Cape Girardeau Police Department that said goodbye and good luck.
"I'm going to miss the place."
But Caldwell is 70 years old and only a few years removed from open-heart surgery. Over the past six or seven years, he'd considered selling the South Sprigg Street store every year.
"I'd always say 'next year,'" he said. "Next year finally came."
He bought the store as a Shell in 1973, the year of gas shortages and long lines. It was strictly a service station then, but he immediately added food, drinks and other grocery items.
Later, he started selling an odd food concoction that would become popular with the college crowd -- the slinger, a mashed-up mix of biscuits, tater tots, scrambled eggs, gravy, chili and nacho cheese.
"It had to be El Paso cheese," he said. "If it wasn't, it didn't work."
He ate the first one he made. He doesn't think his wife ever had one.
But it caught on, he said, with dozens of people coming into the store during its overnight hours, mostly on the weekends, to get their fix.
"We're known from states away for our slingers," he said.
The South Cape store hasn't always been easy to manage. It has been robbed three times, once when Caldwell was behind the counter. He remembers vividly the night a man came in and pointed a gun at him and demanded the cash in the register.
Caldwell didn't believe it was a real gun, so he declined. The robber pulled the trigger three times with the gun aimed directly at Caldwell. The first two times it didn't go off. The third time it did, and the bullet went into the ceiling. He gave the man the money.
Caldwell said he wasn't afraid.
"I'm too crazy to be scared," he said. "That's a fact. I was kind of mad, really."
Over the years, the store's address has made regular appearances on the police reports for shootings, stealing and fights in the parking lot. Caldwell was calling the cops constantly.
Cape Girardeau police chief Carl Kinnison said he wouldn't necessarily call it a high-crime area, though he agreed there was always activity there.
Those complaints were mostly in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Kinnison said. Some officers chose to wait inside Don's store as the bars started to close to help deter would-be troublemakers, Kinnison said.
"Several of our officers got to be pretty good friends with Don," Kinnison said.
Caldwell was always cooperative with efforts to keep his store -- and the neighborhood -- crime-free, Kinnison said. He volunteered at one point to close from 1:15 to 2 a.m. so the after-bar crowd would go straight home instead of to his store.
"Any time we were trying to identify a potential solution, he was always very willing to help," Kinnison said.
Things had mostly settled down over the past several years, Caldwell said, and he can't remember the last time he's had to call police. He credits the police department for that.
Now that he's retired, he's not sure what the future holds. He may move back to his family farm. He may find some other kind of work.
But whatever he does, Caldwell said, it won't involve a rocking chair.
"I'll stay busy doing something," he said. "I know that."
241 S. Sprigg St., Cape Girardeau, MO