Milwaukee Black-owned bait shop has been doling out rods, reels and plenty of advice for 54 years
Summer is upon us. For many in Wisconsin, that means heading out to a lake or river and going fishing. Some people are getting their baits, lures and other supplies, along with a healthy dose of advice, at a Black-owned Milwaukee bait shop. It’s A&C Live Bait near the edge of the Harambee and Riverwest neighborhoods — and its story spans generations.
Next to the register, a fan whirls as water cascades into the minnow tanks. On the walls dangle all the fishing products you could possibly need. There are shiny hooks, sparkly lures, fluorescent baits. Colorful rods hang overhead. Owner Tommie White explains why he packs so much into a small space.
“I read an article years ago that said, ‘Do not move out of your location to expand until you've used every inch of the building that you own in the building that you have.’ And I think I only got a few more inches to go,” he observes. “Once it's filled, then it'll be time for us to move. But we'll always be here. We'll always have this location because this is where it all started.”
A&C will always be at that location because it’s a legacy spot, with a storied history. It was started 54 years ago by White’s parents, Acie and Carrie White. They were sharecroppers’ kids who migrated to Wisconsin from Mississippi.
In Mississippi they couldn’t vote, and people were being killed for voting. “They weren't allowed to go to school because they needed them in the fields,” White shares. “Spring, they needed ‘em to plant the seeds. Summer, they needed ‘em to work the crops. Fall they needed them to harvest the food. So, they never really got to go to school beyond the third grade.”
Nonetheless, Acie and Carrie White, who have both passed on, constructed a wonderful life for Tommie and his siblings. Because in Mississippi, despite all the racist restrictions and limitations, one of the things that they did was fish.
“I can remember my dad telling me stories about when he was growing up that the sheriff in the county that they lived in, he would come down to his father, and he would tell his father, ‘Johnny, I need a fish,” recalls White. “So, what that meant to my father was that the sheriff was having a fish fry in his house. So, they would load up go down to the water, and they would go fishing.”
Acie White, Tommie’s father, would even engage in a sport called “noodling,” by grabbing catfish from tree trunks, despite the presence of water moccasins.
By the time Acie got to Wisconsin, he and Carrie tried their hands at a fast-food endeavor, a religious record shop, a candy store and a market with freshly cooked fish in order to provide for their 13 children. The two landed on a bait shop, which Acie would staff 24 hours a day.
Though Tommie runs it now at more regular hours, with four or five others, the shop still has touches of the old days — like the loud entryway doorbell that buzzes when you come into A&C and the door’s closed. White says he still jumps out of his seat every time he hears it. “That bell startles everybody,” he laughs.
There’s an extra, less-startling bell to announce when a new customer is in the store. It didn’t announce 22-year-old Josiah Hopkins because he is not a new customer. He heard about the store a few years ago through word of mouth.
“I'm getting my rods, I'm getting my rigs, right now I'm looking for good musky rigs, so [Tommie] set me up with a good rod and reel,” says Hopkins. “He's got every lure you would need, soft plastics, hooks, weights nets, everything you need to get out in the water.”
White is proud of his thorough offerings, but says good people skills are the key to staying in business.
“Knowing your customers, treating your customers the way you want to be treated, OK? Being courteous, polite, and giving out good information,” he notes. “You know, a lot of people go to the internet to get their information. But a lot of my customers come to us to get the information.”
Like a traditional bartender, White’s ear is open to customers. “We've talked over the years, we've watched the kids grow, we watch them get married, we've watched them have to bury their family members. And they've watched us do the same thing.”
He says they know a lot of his kids and he knows their kids. And while his business certainly serves those in the Black community, and White has said that it’s important for new generations of African American kids to be taught the useful pastime of fishing, his shop is open to all. “This is a business that, I happen to be a Black man and my family is Black, but my customers come from all walks of life. Not only in color but also financial background.”
In one modest area of wall above the register, a hiatus from the glimmering baits and hooks, is a treasured wall-hanging. It’s a portrait photo of White’s parents: Acie in a black suit and tie and Carrie in an elegant white suit jacket with a matching white lace hat.
Tommie keeps it there knowing they’re looking down fondly at him — and everything going on in the store.