A love-letter to the place where StoryBoard was born
By Mark Fleischer
I really didn’t think I would shed any tears. Not that I’m not sentimental, because I am – in fact I’m about as sentimental as they come. But after everything and all that was 2020, the space had come to feel a bit depressing, and I was ready to move on.
However, on what would be the last Saturday in my upstairs office in Epicenter’s now-former headquarters, I had a moment. My chest and throat tightened, emotions and memories flooded into my head, and the fondness – love – of my too-brief history with 902 South Cooper Street hit me.
In the heart of Midtown’s 38104 zip code, the 1930 brick commercial building across the street from Celtic Crossing had been mostly empty since March of last year. The only signs of life I encountered appeared as occasional and quiet hello-who’s-there surprises while I was working or stopping in: the lady leasing a temporary desk downstairs; Brent, who sometimes set up his laptop and paperwork near the front; the CPR trainer and his smallish classes Saturday mornings and Thursday nights; the occasional mailperson; and, to my surprise, a squirrel.
And Taylor Sherbine, Epicenter’s intrepid Community Manager. On those rare occasions when I saw her, Taylor and I would catch up through our masks about the latest Covid news, the shutdowns or the re-openings, and our collective fears about what might happen next.
Before last March, the place was always hoppin’. The building had great energy. Good vibes flowed down the walkways. Positivity, hope and excitement were always in the air, upstairs and down.
Epicenter employed about a dozen diverse Memphians who served the entrepreneurial community, and their offices lined half of the upper floor. The large upstairs conference room was often buzzing with voices and plans and strategies and luncheons. The visual arts and educational nonprofit Studio Institute held the corner loft office upstairs to the right. The ladies of Chalkbeat held the center of the loft, gathered around their trio of desks writing or reviewing stories or on their headphones, conducting their latest interviews.
Downstairs, eager new business owners and community leaders came and went daily, there for meetings or conferences. Weekday evenings were more get-togethers, meet-n-greets and happy hours, intimate political campaign rallies, community or neighborhood meetings, networking parties for budding and growing entrepreneurs. Throughout the week, co-work members typed away or grabbed quick calls at the various open desks on the first floor. The kitchens and refrigerators upstairs and downstairs were always jam packed, the coffee makers always brewing, and conversations were at the ready each time you’d leave your desk.
My office – our humble StoryBoard office – was upstairs in a far corner, hidden almost from the rest of the building. The office was a logical and natural progression matching the upward trajectory of our publication after our successful launch to print in September of 2018. But my personal history with the Epicenter building started almost a year earlier, when I started leasing a downstairs desk during my work as a consultant and a contractor. By the fall of 2018 and after our launch of StoryBoard I moved to a dedicated desk in the loft, where I put in long days and nights into building the new publication.
Epicenter was the perfect place to start a business, and 902 S. Cooper the perfect location. I could take a quick walk to Young Avenue Deli and Java Cabana, pop in and visit Cheryl and Corey at Burke’s Books, give a wave to Ben at Tsunami and Jay at the Etkin Gallery.
And then there was that private office in the corner, suite 201. From my desk in the loft I eyed that little room like a twenty-year-old climbing the corporate ladder. And as soon as I heard that it was being vacated by the folks at Slingshot, I asked Taylor about it and jumped on it.
“That’s the best office in the building,” everyone said. Epicenter’s Tonda Thomas cautioned me that the room could get a little chilly in the winter. But the room itself was striking in its warmth and charm. With a south wall of exposed brick, a small window overlooking Cooper Street, and with a little help from my wife’s decorator touch, it felt instantly like any home away from home should.
And oh the view. From that little office window I observed the daily life of Cooper Street. Feeling like a latter-day Jane Jacobs, who from her 1950s Greenwich Village corner watched and documented the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of shopkeepers and wives and children at work and at play, I watched bicyclists and joggers and dog walkers and tourists. I watched Jenean and Joel change out their seasonal window decor across the street at their Cooper-Young Gallery & Gifts, and the comings and goings of diners, party- and bar-goers into and out of Celtic Crossing, directly across the street.
I learned to anticipate Celtic’s weekly rhythms. They became a gauge to my work week. The lonely quiet Mondays when it was closed and dark, Wednesday night trivia, hoppin’ Friday nights, soccer fans spilling out onto Cooper on Saturday mornings and live music in the corner of the patio on Saturday afternoons. It also became for me a lunchtime staple, chicken wraps and corned beef sandwiches, and DJ’s Breakfast Sandwich and potato cakes to go along with those Saturday workdays.
From that window and the Celtic view I also watched the seasons change – yes Tonda you were right, it did get a bit chilly during the winter – the giant dogwood turning from white to green to red, from the barren trees of winter to the lush greens and beating sun of summer, the amber leaves of autumn to the brilliance of the blooming maples of early spring.
In 2020 the view gave audience to a different kind of season, when for St. Patrick’s Day, March 17th, I watched in quiet dread as patron after patron waited patiently to enter the Celtic patio, being screened for Covid before being admitted inside.
902 S. Cooper was empty that night, and dead quiet. And it remained empty for days, weeks and months on end. The empty upstairs conference room was now simply a walk-thru to get to the kitchen. The refrigerator stored not much more than my lunch and my beverages, and the coffee makers were often dry. I worked from home for weeks, the days and events crunched and blurred without the normal routines, until I returned to the office off and on through the summer, fall and another winter. Most of the time I was the only one in the building. I’d walk in under the red awning, bring in the mail, turn on a few lights, and make the lonely walk upstairs to the even quieter spaces in my little corner office suite 201.
I continued the day-to-day work in getting StoryBoard in position to survive in a pandemic world and rebuild for a post pandemic world. I held Zoom meetings there, recorded podcast interviews there, and played music about as loud as I desired there.
But it had become depressing. A place teaming with life and eager new business owners had now gone silent, with all that former energy and optimism now off in distant, unknown places. And I sensed that Epicenter’s remaining days in the building were numbered. During our occasional talks, Taylor and I would discuss the questionable future of co-working spaces as the entire world was adjusting to work life at home. In a place built for mingling and networking, those priceless and energetic moments with potentially new colleagues or collaborators, or for working with acquaintances a few feet apart and side by side, all now seemed unsafe, unsustainable and very questionable in the near future.
With questions like these in the back of mind, I knew that StoryBoard’s days in the space could be numbered as well. When the calendar turned mercifully over from 2020 to ’21, I started making contingency plans for a possible new home. And as March approached it was becoming official: Epicenter and its lease holders would be leaving 902 S. Cooper by the beginning of April.
Ironically enough, our last days in the building coincided precisely with Good Friday, and the official and final exodus of occupants Easter Sunday, when Epicenter and StoryBoard prepared to resurrect themselves in other spaces; Epicenter relocating to offices downtown in Peabody Place, StoryBoard relocating to a spot up the street on Cooper, in the Playhouse on the Square building.
For me there is a very human and palpable sense of the two organizations, Epicenter from StoryBoard, separating as necessary and moving forward. But like a parent watching a grown child heading off to college, Epicenter’s influence and support of StoryBoard helped make our publication possible. Without Epicenter’s sponsorship and their guidance, StoryBoard would not have gotten off the ground. With caring people like Tonda and Taylor, past CEO Leslie Smith and new CEO Jessica Taveau, StoryBoard as an organization was allowed to develop at 902 S. Cooper. Heck, from its start I was a brand-new green-eyed business owner at an age when AARP cards and retirement guides start arriving in the mail. I made plenty of mistakes and learned plenty of lessons. I matured there under their tutelage, as a person as much as an entrepreneur.
As for the building itself, it’s got great bones and an even greater energy. Skylights line the second floor ceilings overlooking the top to bottom common spaces. It has great sight lines, the upstairs walkways providing a great way to stop and watch the goings-on downstairs. And as part of the Cooper streetscape, we didn’t just have a view of the life out on the street, we interacted with it and kept our eyes on it.
And life. Life happened there. I met new colleagues there, established new friendships there. I celebrated StoryBoard’s one-year anniversary there, experienced highs and successes along with the struggles and challenges, witnessed friends and colleagues achieve new heights and new recoveries there. And, I shed tears there. I learned of and wrote about the death in 2019 of our friend Mary Burns, Java Cabana owner and Cooper-Young’s favorite bohemian. And in August of last year I walked into the quiet spaces upstairs and remembered another life gone too soon as I grieved my younger sister’s passing due to Covid.
In the end, what had been a depressing silence turned poignant, reminders of the special aura of the building. Coming and going I had brief moments and short conversations with long-time co-workers from other organizations – Amy, Elizabeth, Jenna, Anthony – and with Tonda and Taylor while they packed up the place, the reality of the pending move heavy in the boxes and the air, and we exchanged knowing glances and can-you-believe-this comments through our face coverings.
And on that last Saturday my wife and I ran into Epicenter’s Ashley Weaver, there to pick up some of her office belongings. She was there with her mom, her husband and their year-old little girl, who in her sweetness was wobbling around on pre-toddler sea-legs, exploring the open spaces. “She’s never been anywhere outside the house until today,” Ashley told us. Of course, I thought. Born the week of the pandemic shutdown a year ago, her bright eyes and wide-eyed delight took in a brand new, open world.
As I picked up my last belongings from suite 201, leaving nothing but the whiteboard and empty desk that was there when I moved in, I paused, and those three years flooded over me in an instant. That building was my and StoryBoard’s Cooper-Young home for just 36 months, but it was the place where we both grew up. And if there’s any truth to the expression “home is where the heart is,” then a big part of my heart will beat forever behind the red awning at 902 South Cooper Street.