Anyone who’s passed through the Keathley University Center on MTSU’s campus is likely to have noticed a little store on the second floor with a sign that reads “Dwight’s Mini Mart.”
The Mini Mart is run by Dwight Johnson, a 70-year-old businessman who lost his vision after a car accident when he was 12.
Since June of 1994, Dwight and his business have slowly become known as a nostalgic feature of campus for many alumni.
“There’s a lot of people that work at MTSU that have been coming for many, many years. And a lot of them who used to come stopped coming because they retired,” said Dwight.
He’s worked in the building long enough that his daughter has grown from a tiny, four-year-old feature in the store to an employed worker in the Mart in 2013.
“I actually taught her to use the cash register when she was seven,” Dwight recalled. But even before learning the register she’d helped by reading things out or telling him where certain items were located.
The two have always been very close, but then, Dwight is an easy person to love.
He has a very good sense of humor about the surprise that some students experience who’ve never met him before.
“One thing that gets me over the years, and has happened many, many times, is I wait on people and they don’t realize that I’m blind, and then when they do, they say, ‘Are you blind?’ I say, ‘Yeah, but don’t tell anybody.’”
There’s a misconception that being blind would limit Dwight’s ability to run a store like any other business owner. But in addition to the help provided by his daughter and other employees, there are great technological devices to help him out.
He has a bill reader that tells him what type of bill he’s been handed. When he takes cash, he can tell coins apart by their size and the smoothness (or roughness) of their edges. And credit or debit cards are easily run in the usual way. In fact, chip technology has made card transactions easier than ever before.
He also has a computer, a calculator, and a register that talks to him, as well as a bar code scanner that identifies items for him, if he needs.
Dwight said that there are occasional theft attempts by people who want to take advantage of what they perceive to be an easy target. “But that happens everywhere,” he said.
Anyone who might think to pull such a stunt would be wise to think again, however.
“I caught a girl one time trying to steal… and I caught her, pushed her into the storeroom, and held the door closed until I got security here to take her in,” he recounted. She wound up pleading guilty in court and had to pay a fine for her actions. But that’s certainly an outlier, not a representative, of his usual customer interactions.
Over the years, Dwight and Miranda have developed relationships with their customers that range from formal to familiar.
Once, Miranda said, a man came in, frantic and sleep-deprived, and she’d discovered it was because he’d just become a father. They bonded over pictures of his newborn. Each time since that day when he comes in, she’s been excited to receive the newest update. As of their last encounter, he’d had a second daughter.
“I feel like part of his life in a weird way,” she said.
The two also get to hear about their distributors’ kids and families from time to time.
“There’s special relationships with different people,” Miranda said.
Those connections reinforce Dwight’s feelings that he’s undeniably a part of campus life and culture. However, he clarified that he’s not officially a University employee. Officially, he’s a subcontractor for a company/program called Tennessee Business Enterprises.
“It’s run through the Department of Human Services, and only blind people are admitted into it,” Dwight explained.
Tennessee Business Enterprises owns several locations throughout the state that it will subcontract to interested parties. However, it only accepts bids from certified members.
“My first place was in Bordeaux Hospital in Nashville. I was there for two years. And then I moved; a place came open at Columbia State Community College, and so I bid on that and got it, and I stayed there three years.”
But history was written when MTSU’s availability opened up 26 years ago. Dwight made a bid for it, that bid was accepted, and he’s been here ever since. He said that of all the places he’s worked, MTSU is his favorite.
He’s developed other favorite things about his job.
“My favorite product would be Coca-Cola products because you can’t get those anywhere else on campus,” Dwight said.
“Yeah, good pick,” Miranda agreed. “Mine would be Red Bull because I drink a lot of caffeine to make it through grad school. And because you can’t get that anywhere else on campus either.”
Because the store is owned by Tennessee Business Enterprises, not MTSU, it receives products from six or seven vendors that aren’t the same as the University’s contracted distributor, Aramark.
This means that some products for purchase at the Mart aren’t available anywhere else at MTSU, but it also means that the store doesn’t take Flexbucks as payment.
The Mini Mart has done very well over the years, owing to its warm management and unique products, but lately the pandemic has caused some significant disturbance in sales numbers.
“I closed up in March, I came back the middle of August, and since I’ve been back, sales have been down 75% from what they were this time last year,” said Dwight.
The store has changed its hours due to a lower volume of customers and has implemented COVID-preventative safety measures. Hand sanitizer is used after every transaction, a plexiglass barrier separates customers from cashiers, and every employee wears a mask all day.
These changes are unlike any before, but the Mart has endured many kinds of transformation in its time.
For the first eight years’ operation in the KUC, Dwight’s Mini Mart was on the third floor, where Counseling Services is now. Originally, his space included a game room with air hockey, pool, ping pong and a selection of arcade-style machines.
When the internet erupted in the late 90s, people could play games online for free, and so the appeal of the game room waned. Then, when MTSU wanted to shift the Mart down to the second floor, the games were left behind entirely.
Dwight said that he’d been more than happy to accept the change, however. He’d expected more foot traffic would come of it, and he was right. Business doubled.
Within the last five years, the store has received another big change, courtesy of Associate Professor Noel Lorson of MTSU’s Department of Art and Design.
“She came in with different students and used it as an art project for their class,” said Dwight.
“It used to be, like, a very abrasive blue,” said Miranda. “And now it’s a lovely shade of teal, and there’s a sunshiny yellow and a nice burnt orange, and they put decals all over.”
Lorson and her students also updated the Mini Mart’s logo from a standard Helvetica sign to a delightful 50s-inspired design.
The store paid for some of the materials and a few students’ lunches, but the whole redesign was essentially free.
The Mini Mart’s welcome new aesthetics have updated the place, but it still feels like the same, familiar store. It’s still recognizable as his. And recognizable has become a bit of a theme in Dwight’s life.
After 26 years of business on MTSU’s campus, Dwight’s become something of a local celebrity.
“All over town, you know, in different stores, restaurants or whatever, people recognize me and say they used to be a student here and they remember coming into my store and buying this and that. And of course, I probably can’t remember the name because there’s just too many, but a lot of times I do remember the voice. And sometimes I can even remember what they bought,” Dwight said.
“Yeah before COVID, you couldn’t take him anywhere without being recognized. And they’d be like ‘Are you Dwight?’ And it’d be like ‘Yes, this is the famous Dwight,’” added Miranda. “I grew up rightfully believing he was like a local celebrity and so… on the first day of class you always have to say something about yourself. And so, I think every single time my one fact has been ‘I’m Dwight’s daughter.’ Because it’s the thing that I love most.”
As time has passed, students have come and gone. Professors graduate from regulars to retirees. There have been many changes in the constitution of his customers, but if someone has a distinctive voice or a regular purchase, Dwight said he will sometimes remember them for a very long time.
“There was one guy I remember from even when we were upstairs. He came in and got a Mountain Dew every day, and that’s all he ever got. And then we moved down here… he was still coming,” Dwight said.
“And then, a couple of years ago, this guy came in and he wanted to buy a Mountain Dew, and it had been probably 10 years since I had talked to him. And I said, ‘You used to be a student here.’ He said ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘I remember you.’”
Dwight’s Mini Mart has been around long enough to see several generations of MTSU attendants, in fact.
“There have been other people who have come in and said they were students here and now they’re bringing their children here to be students on CUSTOMS,” said Dwight.
Despite all of the changes, many things remain constant.
“I think they, the students, are basically the same,” he said. “When they come in, a lot of them don’t know what they’re doing or why they’re here, but then if I get to know them over a four-year period they really change. And usually by the time they graduate they know where they’re going and why.”
Dwight said that he has no specific plans for retirement, only that he plans to continue to operate his business for as long as he’s healthy.
When he does decide to close up shop, Tennessee Business Enterprises will put the location back up for bids to any eligible blind person, and the chain of ownership will transfer in that way.
Until then, the Johnsons said they hope to see many more people come in to visit and get their candy fixes through this pandemic.
“We’re still here,” they said.
Author Darby McCarthy is currently an undergraduate student at MTSU, majoring in Journalism in the College of Media and Entertainment. The views and opinions expressed above are her own.