A Tour of Tomball Retail in 1998

Editor’s Note: Today’s post is a guest submission from HHR’s good friend Anonymous in Houston

Tomball might seem like just another Houston suburb today, but nearly a quarter of a century ago in 1998, Tomball was a bit of a distant place to visit even for those of us like myself who lived in the Northwest Houston suburbs in the Willowbrook Mall area. That said, I did visit Tomball quite frequently in the 1990s and through the turn of the Millennium period. Given that, what a surprise it was recently when I came across a video on YouTube posted by Dan Starr and filmed mostly by his wife Amy which contains video footage of what was the heart of Tomball’s retail district in 1998!

It was great seeing footage of retail establishments that I shopped at decades ago! Almost all the places in the video are places I shopped at back in the day. After discussing this video with Mike, the editor of HHR, Mike reached out to Dan Starr and asked if we could develop a blog post based on screenshots from the video him and his wife took in 1998. Dan agreed and so where we are with this blog post! Many thanks go to Dan and his wife for posting this great video time capsule.

The beginning of the video puts the viewer on FM 2920 heading eastward into Tomball. This area is actually the part of Tomball that has changed the most dramatically since 1998 from a retail perspective. 1998 slightly predates the time that the bulk of Tomball’s retail shifted to FM 2920 just east of SH 249 (Tomball Parkway) itself. Also, 1998 predates the construction of the new SH 249 tollroad which has changed the traffic flow around Tomball. Prior to that, the main north-south road through Tomball is what is now known as the SH 249 Business Route. Before the 1990s, this itself was known as FM 149. Of course, continuing south on SH 249 takes one to the major retail hub of the Northwest suburbs, Willowbrook Mall.

Our first screenshot takes us just east of long-time Tomball establishments on FM 2920, Moore Supply, a plumbing supply store, and the Tomball Bowl bowling lanes. Both of these are still around, but what we see in the screenshot above is a whole lot of nothing. Today, this scene looks very different. Starting in the early 2000s, major big box retail developments started being constructed on the left with the major players there being Target, Lowe’s Home Improvement, and Office Depot. Development on the right, the Tomball Marketplace, started not too long later and brought Kohl’s and Academy to Tomball. Actually, Academy was in Tomball in the past as we will see just below.

In 1998 at least, signs of major civilization didn’t start to become visible until one got near the intersection of FM 2920 and SH 249 and that is what we see in this screenshot above. Off to the right is the Four Corners Shopping Center. Straight ahead is the unmistakable golden arches of McDonald’s and also the unmistakable façade of a 1970s Safeway. We’ll get to those in a bit, but our first stop is at the Texaco gas station on the NW corner of FM 2920 & SH 249.

This Texaco became a Shell in the early 2000s when many local Texaco stations were rebranded as Shells. The rebranding into Shell was quite strange because just across the street on the NE corner of the intersection was another Shell, a Hexa-Shell in fact. Photos of the Tomball Hexa-Shell exist from 1988 which were posted on HHR’s post about Vintage Aerial photos.

On the SW corner of FM 2920 & SH 249 in 1998 was a Diamond Shamrock gas station. I believe this was formerly a 7-Eleven & Chief Auto Parts combo in the 1980s if I remember correctly. The Diamond Shamrock and the two Shells were all torn down and replaced with small shopping centers. Currently, the NE and SW corners of the intersection both have Mattress Firms locations. The NE location actually reuses the old Hexa-Shell street sign. The two Mattress Firms at the intersection does remind me of when the intersection once had two Shells!

From the Texaco, Dan’s wife takes footage of the famous ‘Welcome to Tomball’ sign that was made famous in the Tomball Bunch car dealership commercials that ran so frequently on Houston local TV in the 1980s and 1990s. Here’s an example of one of those Tomball Bunch commercials from the 1980s and we also see the Hexa-Shell in the commercial. Also, we see the Tomball Luby’s Cafeteria that operated between 1995~2018. The Luby’s building is now empty. Just barely visible in the video is the Hi/Lo Auto Supply that was formerly a Fischer’s Auto Parts and is currently an O’Reilly Auto Parts store.

Moving on from the Texaco, we head further eastward on FM 2920 (W. Main St.) where we see the Tomball Burger King that is still around and has been a familiar sight to Tomball visitors for decades. An image of the Burger King from 1988 also exists in the aforementioned HHR post about Vintage Aerial. Behind the Burger King are two major points of retail interest. One is visible in the video and the other is not.

The thing that is visible is the Academy Sports & Outdoors store in what is clearly a 1970s Safeway. Specifically, it is Safeway #950 that operated between 1977 and 1987 before becoming Academy in 1989. Those familiar with Houston retail might be confused about these dates. You might be thinking that this Safeway should have become an AppleTree after being a Safeway in 1987, but this location never did become an AppleTree. It’s hard to explain why it didn’t, but Safeway certainly faced supermarket competition in Tomball and perhaps AppleTree didn’t want to take on the grocers we will mention later on in this post.

The Tomball Academy lasted until the mid-2000s. Prior to the construction of the original Willowbrook area Academy, the Tomball Academy in the old Safeway was the largest Academy in the area and so we often ended up there when the Academy stores closest to us did not have something in-stock. The Academy was eventually torn down and Academy moved to the aforementioned Tomball Marketplace.

Although it’s not all that visible in the video, there would have been an HEB Pantry Foods in 1998 next to the Academy/former Safeway in an old Gibson’s Discount Center. Photos of the Gibson’s and Safeway can be seen here at the Texas History Portal from the 1982 book A Tribute to Tomball: A Pictorial History of the Tomball Area. In around 2004, HEB decided to expand the HEB Pantry Foods store into a full HEB. This would have been an early example of a full Houston area HEB store. In order to expand, HEB tore down their HEB Pantry Foods location and built a new store on some empty land just behind the HEB Pantry Foods. The new HEB opened with the Academy awkwardly sitting next to it but much further forward. When Academy moved, the old Academy building was torn down and converted into additional parking for the HEB with the old HEB Pantry Foods land also serving as parking for the full-sized HEB. Oddly enough, HEB decided to reuse Safeway’s classic street sign which is still in use today by HEB.

Continuing eastward on FM 2920, we see two longtime Tomball eateries which are still around, the Pizza Hut and The Nook. The Nook really has not changed that much since 1998. The Pizza Hut has been remodeled to look less like a classic 1970s-1980s Pizza Hut, but it’s still obviously an older Pizza Hut location.

Dan and his wife are now looping back westward on FM 2920 and we see one of the most famous and storied retailers in Tomball history, the IGA Klein’s Supermarket. Klein’s Supermarket had a long history in Tomball as they started selling groceries in 1922 before moving to the spot currently operating as the Tomball Emergency Assistance Ministries thrift store in 1933. They moved to the spot in the screenshot above in 1969 and lasted there until 2010. The Houston Chronicle and Community Impact both have articles about the history of Klein’s Supermarket. In the 1980s at least, Klein’s was neighbored by Perry’s and Bealls. Perry’s still appeared to be in the shopping center in 1998.

We now end up at what would have been the heart of Tomball retail in 1998, the aforementioned Four Corners shopping center. The first things we see in the video are a Subway, Domino’s Pizza, and a local computer store called Digital Sources. Of these three, Domino’s Pizza is the only one left in their original spot. Subway and Digital Sources have been replaced by a First Watch eatery.

Next, we see the main tenants at the Four Corners in 1998. The main anchor was Kroger who operated a greenhouse store at the Four Corners from 1985 to around 2004 when they moved just north on SH 249 to the then-new Tomball Town Center where they are today. I remember the old greenhouse Kroger though when it was still around and it was usually buzzing with activity. Next to the Kroger was an Eckerd Drug. The Four Corners Kroger was subdivided after it closed and is now Party City, Boot Barn, and Spec’s Liquors. The Eckerd was turned into a Tuesday Morning that has closed in recent years.

The other main anchors of the Four Corners shopping center consisted of a Weiner’s clothing store, home of Weinerman as seen here and here, and a 6 screen movie theater originally operated by Cinemark named the Cinema 6. Some photos from inside the Cinema 6 are available here and here. The theater still exists today as the expanded and upgraded Premiere Lux 7 Cinema. Back in the Cinema 6 days, I remember seeing a few movies there in the 1980s and 1990s. While waiting for the shows to start, I remember shopping at the other Four Corners retailers.

The Weiner’s is currently a Goodwill where there may well be some old clothes for sale from Weiner’s. Neighboring the Goodwill is a thrift store that also existed in 1998, the Resale With A Purpose store. Also still around from 1998 is the Golden Nonsense jewelry store. Golden Nonsense, what a name!

To conclude the video, we see various fast food establishments and signs. Most notable is the Popeyes Chicken & Biscuits, which is still around, and which wore Popeyes’ distinctive pastel color scheme in 1998. I believe the Popeyes was formerly a Tinsley’s Fried Chicken that became Popeyes around 1990. Also still around are the Schlotzsky’s Deli and the Jack in the Box. The Wendy’s is no longer around though and the building is now a Shipley Do-Nuts.

I mentioned the Burger King earlier and briefly mentioned the McDonald’s. Just to complete the discussion about the McDonald’s, as it is another Tomball landmark, photos of the old McDonald’s exist on HHR’s Vintage Aerial post and in the aforementioned A Tribute to Tomball: A Pictorial History of the Tomball Area book. The old McMansard -style McDonald’s was torn down and replaced with a new, modern McDonald’s in 2016.

Two non-fast food retailers we see towards the end of the clip are Walgreens and Payless Shoe Source. Walgreens is still around in much the same form, but Payless Shoe Source is now a defunct chain.

We hope you enjoyed this historical look at Tomball from 1998! Again, many thanks go to Dan Starr for posting the great video and allowing us to make a post about it! Please feel free to leave a comment below if you have any thoughts or memories about Tomball retail history!

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