This article originally appeared in Volume I, Issue III of StoryBoard Memphis Quarterly in the summer of 2022.
If you walk through A. Schwab’s doors, take a left past the checkout counter, walk down the stairs, and sit at the soda fountain, chances are good that the man serving you will be Elliott Schwab. As a member of the store’s fourth generation of Schwabs, his firsthand memories of the store date to the mid-1960s. But as a keeper of the store’s history, the stories he has heard and kept alive date decades further into the past. No history of A. Schwab would be complete without Elliott’s stories. In the following excerpt from our first oral history interview, you can get a sense of the store and Beale Street in the 1960s and 1970s.
Caroline: What’s your earliest memory of the store?
Elliott: Actually, it’s all a cluster of memories to me. The things that I remember are the smells of the store – the smell of the floors, the smell of the candy. The one thing I can still smell today that we haven’t had here in 30 years was the little peanut machines up on the steps. Every time I walk by, I can smell the peanuts. The sounds of the store that I remember – downstairs, we have a small office – and it’s hearing the gate swinging, hearing the door open, hearing the floor creaking. When you hear the floor creaking with people in here is one thing. When you hear it creaking when you’re in here by yourself, that’s a whole different deal.
It’s the memories of seeing the way the store was. I remember where certain employees stood. On some of the tables around here, there’s a stool that folds up against the side of the table. Those are called sales ladies stools. The labor laws were requiring that women must have a place to sit down during the daytime, so the women and these fold down the stools. Everybody had their own stool. And like how everybody has their favorite seat at church or at the bar – the same kind of thing. We had a lady work here named Mrs. Randall. I always thought Mrs. Randall was my grandmother, but she was an employee here. She was sitting on her stool one day, it was quiet, and she drifted off. She fell off the stool. You heard, “BOOM!” And she said, “I wasn’t asleep!” Nobody said you were!
We had two elevators in the store. By that I mean, it was a big clip that had a string on it. The office was up here on the second floor. So if you needed something, like a payout or a layaway, you’d say, “Drop the elevator!” and here comes the string down. Actually, it’s still over there. We had one there and had one on the other side of the balcony.
Caroline: Did you do a lot of layaway business?
Elliott: We did a helluva lot of layaways. During most of the year, it was pretty consistent. But at Christmas time, we had so many layaways that on Christmas Eve, that’s all we did. There were some sales but there would be a line of people up here getting their layaways out.
We had stuff stored in the ladies department; that’s where the layaway department was. It was stored on top of the shelves, it was under the counters, it was behind racks. It was stored behind the paint department on the second floor. We had stuff stored in the basement. So we had to bring stuff up out of the basement, bring them all the way up here, and then carry it back downstairs.
The only stipulations we had were that you had to put a dollar down on it and pay on it at least once a week. We did away with layaway in about 2000. As long as you were paying on it, you could leave it there forever.
Caroline: What kind of music has the store carried over the years?
Elliott: From what I can tell, it’s always been Blues, but it’s also been a lot of Gospel. And then R&B. I grew up listening to this music. We sold a lot of Gospel records, and I mean, a lot of Gospel. And the one that I liked the most was Reverend CL Franklin, who is Aretha Franklin’s father.
The record selection was left up to the record department. One of the unique things here was that we could sell records that other places could not sell. If it was Blues, we could sell it. It didn’t matter what it was. If it was Gospel, we could sell it. We sold so much that the record companies here would actually hold the records for us when they got the returns from other places. In fact, there was a radio show in the 1950s or a little before that was sponsored by us because we provided all the records for the show.
The record department was up here on the second floor. We had a table that had the records displayed on the front of it, then we had albums up on top. To get people to buy them, you’d play the latest Blues song.
So, customers would be coming in, and they’d be listening, and they start buying and all that. Not a buying frenzy, but it would be busy up here. When they stopped buying and started standing around to listen, we put a gospel song on it. That would clear out the crowd, and then we’d start all over. We’d let the record player cool off and change the needle.
The person who took care of the record department was the cashier because it was all right together. Beverly [Elliott’s sister] worked the record department, my mother worked it. I sometimes worked it. Even today, I have people come in here and tell me, “I used to get on my gospel records here. Do you all have any gospel records?”
And I think of you sitting to go over and look on the start dig around the cracks of the floor, you’ll find the old steel needle.
Caroline: When you were in junior high in the mid-1970s, what other businesses were on the street?
Elliott: Start up at the corner where BB King: That was a pawn shop, then there was a Vogue Beauty Supply. There was Hutkin’s Hardware. It was a junk store and a hardware store. You could go in there and get anything you needed to repair this or that.
He could fix things. It was a little, small store, I was always up there. They’d come down and harass me; I’d go up and harass them. In the buildings next to that, the stores were come and go. They were small shops that would be there one day and have gone the next.
The building next to that one had always been vacant from my memory, then we watched it fall down. Next door was Pape’s Mens Store. It was men’s wear and suits. Then it was us. Next door to us was another pawn shop.
Then there was a little liquor store. Next, there was the Gallina Building, which is the one that has all steel in front of it. There was a grocery store there. Also, on the second floor of all the buildings, there were apartments. At the far corner, I think that was a furniture store.
Across the street was a laundry. On the other side of the street at the corner was a pawn shop. Then I think it was Capital Loans.
Then there was Novick’s; it was part pawn shop, part music store. I never knew what they sold there. The building was another one that was sometimes one thing and sometimes vacant.
Above, a few images included in a folder of photographs labeled “Beale Street, ca. August 1968,” which were donated by Robert A. Lanier June 2, 2015. Memphis and Shelby County Room, Memphis Public Library & Information Center.
There was a barber college there. Across the street was a shoe store. There was a bakery. The bakery went out in the early 70s. Right across the street was another pawn shop. There was a building where things would come and go. And then there were two more pawn shops on the other end.
The weirdest thing was I never went past the door where the soda fountain is until 1978. I had walked down with my mother and my father, but the one time I got to go down the street by myself, it was a very strange feeling. Kind of like, “Am I supposed to be down here? Oh, I’m gonna get in trouble if I go down.” I don’t know why. I didn’t go across Third Street. You just don’t go down there.
Caroline: Why aren’t you supposed to go past Third?
Elliott: The other side of the third street wasn’t really the rough section, but if you didn’t have any business, you didn’t go down there. That was the bars. There were a lot of places on that part of the street that were different from up here. The way daddy described it, on this side of Third Street everything was up and up. If it said a dollar, you paid a dollar. On the other end, if you went down there and it said dollar, you could get them to change the price. There was nothing wrong down there, I just did go there. When they started doing the renovation of the street, that’s when I went down there. I was saying things like, “I didn’t know this was here.” It was like a new adventure.
Now years ago, the street was very open anyway. If you knew what went on down there, you didn’t go down there. As grandfather said, he never saw anybody coming out of the buildings down there that didn’t have something under their coats, all bootleg stuff.
There was a store down the street where Jerry Lee Lewis’s place is now that was called Greener’s. Greener’s store was almost exactly the same as us. They carried almost the same merchandise. The store looked the same. People were forever coming in here trying to exchange something they bought here, but it’s got Greener’s tag on it. And sometimes they’d take our stuff and try to exchange it down at Greener’s.
The Daisy was down there. The Old Daisy, the New Daisy. There was a store called Harry’s Discount Department Store. It was a general merchandise store like ours. When they went out of business in 1979 just before they started the renovation of the street, we bought them out. That was interesting and fun – having to haul all the store up the street.
Caroline: What happened to Greener’s?
Elliott: They moved away. I think it was part of urban renewal. When urban renewal came in, they redid the streets down there. The street came off of Linden and it’s called Handy Circle. The street curved, and it went round behind Handy Park. Where it went through, that’s where Greener’s was. They left the street, and they tore down that building.
Caroline: What were the customers like in the early 1970s?
Elliott: Most of them were still living in the area. Downtown area had not died down yet. There was still housing behind us. There was still housing where the Forum is, over where the park is. It was still a vibrant area, and Beale Street was still hopping at the time. It was dying, but it was still going. The people coming in would buy little things mostly.
It was about like going to Target to get a new pair of shoes and then get something else. In the early 70s, the historical aspect of Beale Street was starting to come alive, and we were getting people that were interested. Tourists, but not the tourists like today.
It was people who went out and found things. Downtown was starting to come back a little bit because before that everybody was moving out of downtown moving eastward and downtown was dying out.
Mostly what I remember about the street is just the people of the street. Nobody in particular, but everybody stands out. I remember this old couple that used to sit up on one of the stoops around the buildings. The guy was blind and sold the typical, the pencils, the chewing gum, all that. There was a guy by the name of Monk who must have worn 20 coats at a time. He looked like a big ball walking down the street chomping on a stub of a cigar every time you saw him. I remember a guy that had no legs who used to travel up into the street on a four-wheel car and he used the ends of tires to push himself along.
In the pawn shops, you had the guys that worked over there called pullers. They would get you to come into the store. They pullers were always arguing with each other, joking up and down the street, and all that. That was just the kind of camaraderie going on down here. Everybody knew everybody down here. So you need some help, you could yell at somebody across the street and they knew where they were. They go get them and bring them down here for you.
It was just like a miniature village down here. Still a lot of fun.
Caroline Mitchell Carrico is a native Memphian and, as a historian by training, she enjoys researching the city’s past and pulling it into the present. When she isn’t reading and writing, she can often be found cheering on her kids’ soccer teams.