A. Schwab, DIG Memphis, and StoryBoard Memphis release the first few thousand digitally scanned items from the A. Schwab Collection with a Digital Scavenger Hunt
The A. Schwab Basement Archives are now open to the public. In the summer of 2021, A. Schwab Dry Goods, the oldest and only remaining original establishment on historic Beale Street, initiated the help of StoryBoard Memphis and DIG Memphis – the digital collection of the Memphis Public Library – to scan, digitize and record their vast collection of documents and materials from their basement.
The materials in the basement date back to the early 20th Century, and include original correspondence, invoices, merchandise orders, employment applications and records, and sales and inventory documentation of the store’s vast 1920s-30s Blues record collection. After a year’s worth of scanning and digitizing, the first set of materials are being released in conjunction with a month-long digital scavenger hunt.
“I am beyond thrilled that we have finally reached a point where we can share the fruits of our labors to date,” said StoryBoard Founder and Executive Director Mark Fleischer. “We started this project with so many unknowns but with the excitement of a kid searching for buried treasure. And oh the stories this store can tell. People – even those who are familiar with some of the store’s history – will be blown away by how just important the A. Schwab collection and store history is to Memphis, Southern, and U.S. history. I am honored that StoryBoard is playing a part in sharing this incredible story, and excited to invite the public into this treasure hunt.”
“The primary sources housed in the A. Schwab Collection provides a fascinating glimpse into one of Memphis’s oldest and most iconic businesses,” said historian and author G. Wayne Dowdy. “So far covering the 1920s and 1930s, the business records and correspondence helps us understand better the inner workings of a small enterprise operating in the urban South during the Jazz Age and the Great Depression. In addition, the collection makes available heretofore unknown details regarding the operation of the world-famous Beale Street. Thus the A. Schwab Collection is a uniquely valuable resource that further describes the rich tapestry of Memphis history.”
A Digital Scavenger Hunt
With the release of the first few thousand materials, DIG Memphis and StoryBoard have partnered on a digital scavenger hunt, open to kids of all ages, that will encourage enthusiasts to search, peruse and enjoy the new collection in search of specific historical records, correspondence, and other items that illustrate an exciting and important collection digitally housed by the Memphis Public Library.
Scavenger hunters will be directed to the online collection on DIG Memphis, will be furnished with 10 clues, and once they locate and record the items’ locator numbers, will be directed to take a selfie photo at 163 Beale Street in A. Schwab Dry Goods at an iconic location within the store.
Winners of the scavenger hunt will receive two tickets to the June 17 USFL Memphis Showboats game. The Showboats play the Birmingham Stallions at 3:00PM at Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium and will be televised by FOX Sports. Scavenger hunt winners who cannot make the June 17 game will receive a special prize from A. Schwab Dry Goods.
The hunt begins with the opening weekend of Memphis in May, May 5th, and ends on June 10. Those unable to participate in May will have other opportunities with another digital scavenger hunt, to be announced for the summer season.
To access the digital scavenger hunt, explorers can start by going to the main A. Schwab Collection page at memphislibrary.org/schwab-collection. From there, explorers will find a link to the scavenger hunt.
The A. Schwab Archive Project
Almost two years ago the project began with an innocent question from Terry Saunders, principle owner of A. Schwab Dry Goods: “So, do you know anyone who might be interested in taking a look at our basement archives?”
The question was directed to Mark Fleischer, StoryBoard’s Executive Director, in the summer of 2021, inquiring about the prospects of curating the store’s vast collection of materials and documents stored in boxes in the basement. Terry’s question also became the roots of a massive, multi-year project to collect, scan, digitize, curate and archive over a hundred years worth of history, to capture the numerous threads of stories out of the collection, and to eventually produce a book, podcasts, and a documentary film.
From that conversation StoryBoard Memphis approached the curators of the digital archive collection – DIG Memphis of the Memphis Public Library – to discuss a potential partnership. While the vast collection of archival material would remain onsite at the store, representatives from the Memphis and Shelby Country Room, along with the library’s Virtual Digital Team, recognized the value of providing broader digital access to the treasures found within the A. Schwab basement.
“DIG Memphis currently has over 22,000 unique items that have been digitized, mostly from the Memphis & Shelby County Room,” said the Library’s Digital Projects Manager Jamie Corson. “The digital archive gives us the opportunity to provide direct access to old photographs, letters, interviews and more – opening the archives to a larger audience of people. Now, people can now explore the history of Memphis from their home, or even their mobile device.”
With the assistance and support of the library, the store itself, and from a grant from Humanities Tennessee, StoryBoard Memphis’s archival team, initiated by curator and project consultant Caroline Carrico and carried out by archivist Kimberly Bradshaw, began to carefully open each box, sort through its contents – an archivist’s dream! – and start the process of documenting, scanning, and digitizing the massive collection.
Principle store owner Terry Saunders, who has owned the store since 2010, has been wanting to share the store’s stories for years. “Folks have no idea what’s here,” Terry said. “Literally the things that are here, but then the stories about this place from people all over the world. Not just in Memphis. For example, I was touring the basement with an older Blues musician several years ago, showing him the old coal chutes, and he explained to me that the store also sold coal to customers. No one anywhere seems to know that.”
“Well,” said StoryBoard’s Mark Fleischer, “I was thrilled to tell Terry that we indeed found 1920s and ‘30s coal orders and receipts during the first phases of our archival work.”
In addition to the coal receipts, to date roughly 4,500 items out of about a half-dozen boxes have been scanned, digitized and recorded, and this week are ready for public display and use. And this is just the beginning; the A. Schwab basement contains over 100 more boxes of archival materials that have yet to be reopened. But from the materials digitized so far, StoryBoard and DIG Memphis have already established the foundations of the broad picture of the vast influences and connections the A. Schwab Dry Goods store has to Beale Street, to Memphis, to the Mid-South region, and to the history of the United States.
With this collection, visitors and researchers will have evidence of and the roots of stories that deepen our understanding of everyday people during the Great Depression, the early days of the sale of Blues Records, how the world of retail worked in the early 20th Century, how this little store, established by a Jewish immigrant on “Black Main Street,” became a racially-integrated proprietorship through the heights of the Jim Crow era, and how Abe Schwab himself was a key influence in the saving of all of Beale Street from 1960s urban renewal bulldozers. All of this from this two-story building at 163 Beale Street, and all here in the archives, waiting for more discoveries.
This project is funded with support from the ownership of A. Schwab Dry Goods; the initial, foundational phases of this digital collection was funded in part by a grant from Humanities Tennessee, an independent affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), as part of the American Rescue Plan (ARP) and the NEH Sustaining the Humanities through the American Rescue Plan (SHARP) initiative.
StoryBoard Memphis is a nonprofit 501(c)3 multimedia humanities-focused publication in support of local arts, culture, history, and community through the power of storytelling. StoryBoard Memphis can be found online at StoryBoardMemphis.org, on Facebook and Instagram @storyboardmemphis, and on YouTube at StoryBoard Memphis.