Immortality at Schwab’s On Beale Street
One would think that the most memorable event on a trip to Memphis, Tennessee would involve live music and dancing or perhaps something involving Elvis, the King of rock ‘n’ roll. But, alas, for these travelers, our profound moment came in the stinky embrace of an eccentric variety store.
My parents and I went to Memphis for a wedding. We were weary from the grueling drive and the raucous rehearsal dinner the day before. On Saturday afternoon, we found ourselves strolling down Beale Street, the place to be for live blues music. At that time in the afternoon, the bands were just starting to rock. We wandered from gift shop to gift shop, and then stumbled upon Schwab’s. Unknowingly we entered a time warp. The historical marker out front said the store opened in 1876 and the first pharmacist had been a black man who had attended the University of Michigan. Distracted by this information we decided to enter.
My first appalling impression came in the form of an awful stench. Imagine the accumulation of 120 some years of greasy, sweaty grime. Instantly the smell reminded me of a dime store from my childhood, but there simply isn’t anything quite like Schwab’s. I coughed and struggled to breathe. Thank goodness for allergies or the full force of the fumes would have knocked me over. Eventually we got used to it.
The first floor of Schwab’s is a little smaller than a football field. Sometime in the past 120 years they spilled over into the store next door, adding more space to their domain. At the back of the store a wide staircase leads up to a second floor landing where the “Museum” is located. The stairs then continue on to the third floor and two more football field sized areas of floor space.
Picture this: warped, squeaky floorboards, worn smooth by thousands of feet over the course of more than a century; railings on the staircase made from metal pipes, now rusted and bare of the paint that once covered them. Bins of bizarre objects filled most of the store. Narrow aisles stacked with boxes made shopping difficult, if not impossible. A few bare light bulbs hung down from the ceiling. Greasy pull-cords with rusted washers on the ends dangled from the light fixtures.
Every aisle produced bewilderment. There were plenty of bins filled with Memphis souvenirs – from 1975. I erupted into a fit of giggles over the pink “Memphis” baseball cap with the pink fuzzy ball on top. At one display a man stood in shock, looking at an elaborately carved antique sword. Where did that come from? Toward the front of the store my mother encountered a rack of homemade Schwab’s barbeque sauces. She said the sauce bottles were clean and looked okay, but I still had my doubts. Can one really trust food products from a place that smells that bad? After checking out the candy counter, I’m not so sure. A thick layer of dust covered the jellybeans.
On the second floor landing we toured the “Museum.” It was more like a bunch of stuff from the store that they never threw out. At the back were two antique cash registers in pristine condition – except for the grime. One shelf contained old, dusty bottles from the turn of the century – the first turn. Dad pointed out the side-by-side defunct drinking fountains with the “White” and “Colored” signs mercifully removed. Rusted tools filled some counters and sepia-toned photographs were dispersed throughout. At one point Dad and I zeroed in on a class photo, now faded to a mellow brown. Near one of the children in the back someone had written “Elvis.” It couldn’t be, could it?
On the third floor they sold clothing, hardware and house wares. I found myself appalled by the condition of the grimy, stained women’s panties. I turned the corner and headed down another aisle only to encounter the dressing room. The brown satin curtain hung dejectedly in the corner where it had rested undisturbed for decades. Closer inspection revealed that the curtain had once been gold and it was now in tatters and held together with rusted safety pins. On a shelf above the women’s clothing, a mannequin displayed a “Big Gals” bra from the early seventies. Thick coats of dirt covered the top of the display model’s pointed breasts.
Next to the hat department sat the store office right out in the open with a couple of “Private” signs here and there. On the wall a sign in German read, “Work Makes Work.” Ledgers dating back 50 years lined the walls. The rest of the ledgers could be found in the Museum.
In hardware my father disintegrated into crazed chuckles. I pointed out a yellowed handmade sign advertising the making of skeleton keys. When was the last time anyone needed a skeleton key made? Fifteen barrels of nails, now rusted into solid lumps of iron, lined one of the aisles. Dad rummaged though a bin of extension cords. “They’re all used,” he muttered.
Surprisingly, Schwab’s was actually pretty busy. Tourists, sucked in by the historical marker or the fact that it was the next shop in a long line of shops, soon found themselves trapped by the inability to think clearly. Maybe it was something in the air or just the general shock of it all, but I noticed a certain insanity in my fellow shoppers.
For a good five minutes one man played with a toy that made a “Moo-ing” sound. When his family moved on to another part of the store, it took everything he had to pull himself away. Upstairs in the clothing department a woman held up one limp brown sock and exclaimed to the clerk, “This is perfect for Junior!” The clerk looked at her blankly. Suddenly the woman realized what she said and a stunned look crossed her face.
All throughout the store people hissed their amazement to each other. “Did you see that?” “Can you believe this place?” “Come here! You have to see this!” The clerks ignored our blatant whispers and rabid finger-pointing. Actually, heated debate later ensued as to whether there were two clerks who looked remarkable alike, or if it was actually one clerk mysteriously appearing on whatever level we happened be on. I opted to for two. They were both rather hefty women and I couldn’t see them jogging the stairs that easily.
To describe Schwab’s as existing in a time warp gives one the impression that time stopped while the wild world rushed on. In a way that’s what happened, but time also warped by the layering of decades and centuries, one upon the next; the juxtaposition of the stuff of our lives in a manner never intended. The new fangled wet mops that came out last year sat next to a kettle full of handmade lye soap just like the kind my great-grandmother used to make. Schwab’s stocks a variety of kerosene lanterns and even a pot-bellied wood stove. Frosted eye make-up from the 1970s sat next to brand new hair-care products. The upstairs clerk slumped her arms over a rack of audiotapes, vintage 1983.
“One more thing before we go,” Mom said as she guided us back downstairs. Around a corner and nearly to the back of the store we came upon a wall covered with business cards. Some hung at angles from crusty tape from the 1950s. Yellowed, water-stained cards scaled the walls like the reptilian skin of some long forgotten fossilized creature. Over the years as the wall filled up with business cards, space became limited and people began to stuff their cards into the slats in the ceiling. Even more cards were stacked on the shelves. I couldn’t resist. I dug into my wallet and removed my own business card.
There is something truly comforting in the knowledge that my business card is collecting dust on shelf in Schwab’s on Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee. I bet it will still be there a hundred years from now. How’s that for immortality?