Sumlin keeps pistol in hand on way home

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 28, 2002

If he let himself stop and think about it when he opened up for business each day, Frank Sumlin would probably just lock the door and walk away. He knows that would be the smart thing to do.

But he keeps coming back each day anyway, and he prays that the next person to walk through the door isn’t carrying a gun. “I can’t afford to be afraid,” he says simply.

Sumlin owns and operates Frank’s Cougar Oil at the corner of Washington Street and Jeff Davis Avenue. In the 16 years he’s been in business at that location he’s been broken into more times than he can count. In the past six months alone he has been broken into four times.

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“They did more damage than anything,” he shrugs. “They took mostly cigarettes.”

He recently installed iron bars on the doors and windows in an attempt to thwart the break-ins. But he doesn’t really expect that to stop the people who threaten his livelihood. If Sumlin has learned anything about thieves over the last 16 years, it is that they are a determined bunch.

“If they worked half as hard at a job as they do at stealing,” he grumbles, “they could make a good living.”

Responding to one recent break-in at the store, for example, police found the suspect still hiding in the air-conditioning vent he used to gain entry to the store. Even a medium-sized man would have had a difficult time wriggling through the narrow vent.

Another time, a thief knocked the glass out of the front door and reached in and scooped up a handful of bills off the counter – while a clerk was still counting the money. “He must have had a 53-inch reach on him to be able to reach that far,” Sumlin says.

Sumlin has insurance, but most break-ins never exceed his $500 deductible – and he says he can’t afford a lower deductible. Installing iron bars cost $800. He also has a burglar alarm. “It costs a fortune for a small business, especially, to try and protect itself,” he says. “This little business, you’ve got to get by the best you can.”

As if to add insult to injury, three weeks ago thieves broke into his house. Asked how that makes him feel, Sumlin reflects for a moment and then answers in a single word, “Unprotected.”

“I go home every night with my pistol in my hand, afraid somebody’s gonna be n my house,” he says. “I know the police can’t be everywhere at once, but this is too much. I’m 67 years old. Won’t nobody hire me, ’cause they don’t want you if you’re over 45. I had to come down here and buy this job. I’m just trying to make a living. Is it too much to ask for a little police protection?”

Sumlin says that each year the crime seems to get a little worse, the potential for violence a little greater. “They get you in broad daylight now. It don’t have to be nighttime anymore,” he says. “When I first moved to Selma, it wasn’t like this.”

He remembers when the police still walked a beat, and wonders if it might not be time to go back to that system. “I remember they shined their flashlights in all the dark alleys and asked anybody who looked suspicious what their business was. But I guess you can’t do that anymore.”

Still, Sumlin knows that he will probably open up again tomorrow, just as he has for the past 16 years. He’ll trust that his luck holds out one more day. “I think the convenience store business is a little worse even than being a policeman,” he says. “Because you don’t never know who’s going to walk through that door.”