A. Schwab’s located on historic Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee, has seen a lot of changes out its front window, a whole lot of changes. Opened in 1876 by Abraham Schwab, it has the distinction of being the only original business still in operation on Beale Street, and, possibly, the oldest family-owned general store in the mid-south. The family business was originally located right up the street and moved to its current location in 1912. In 1924, it expanded into the building to the left of the main doorway, which had been occupied by I. Goldsmith’s and Brothers (the predecessor of Goldsmith’s Department Store). The beautiful brick buildings were built in 1865.
When you step inside its doors, you are immediately transported to a different time, a simpler time. The creaky wooden floors, glass display cases, and tin roof are reminiscent of the original Beale Street of years gone by. But the going hasn’t been easy for the iconic store. In the mid-seventies, with traffic on Beale at an all-time low, the family began a museum within the store to pay homage to the rich history of the street and area they called home.
The museum includes many relics of Memphis history. From farming tools to washboards and household items, original blues records, and even a carriage warmer, the museum is a visual history of Memphis and the Delta region through the years. But it isn’t just about the past at Schwab’s. The store has adapted and changed with the times. In the 1980s, the store played an essential role in the revitalization of the community and the street. Once again, visitors young and old begin to stream through the doors and discover the wonders inside. Wonders like a fully stocked old fashioned candy counter with all your favorites from your childhood represented.
Are you looking for a pair of Elvis Pajamas? They have you covered, complete with an Elvis pillow. How about suspenders? Schwab’s carries over 100 different kinds. A galvanized Maid-Rite washboard and bar of homemade lye soap are located just across the aisle from an extensive collection of kazoos and harmonicas. Books about Memphis history line a table that is right beside the largest collections of hats I have ever seen in one place.
I am always amazed at how many locals have never walked through the doors of this treasured landmark. Children love the selection of retro-inspired wind-up tin toys, yo-yos, and slingshots. A very nice change of pace from the ever-growing diet of video games most of them are used to. There are plenty of Memphis, souvenirs too. From T-shirts to post-cards, key-chains, and bumper stickers, Schwab’s is one of the city’s biggest fans.
In 2013, Schwab’s made another addition to the store, a retro soda fountain. With its 50-foot white marble counter and vintage stools, it is the perfect place to sit and watch the people walking up and down the historic street. Want a simple ice-cream cone? They have you covered. But the soda fountain also creates and mixes their own syrups for delish and unique sodas and shakes.
After being in the Schwab family for 136 years, the torch was passed to new owners in 2011. But do not fear, the new owners are dedicated to preserving the rich history found within the walls of the store. So next time your kids have a day out of school, or you have an unexpected free Saturday, head downtown, and be a tourist in your hometown, I have a feeling you will be pleasantly surprised.
2 thoughts on “A Schwab’s…A Memphis Landmark”
Your blog is beautifully written and photographed, and a joy to read.
When I first came to Memphis, A. Schwab’s quickly became one of my favorite things. At the time, the owners were still buying up vintage-but-new merchandise that had been sitting in warehouses across the country, and their shelves were filled with all manner of yesterday’s products.
Among my purchases: cards of buttons, each with a photograph of a different ‘current’ movie star from the 1940s. Upstairs, rows of linoleum stood like soldiers waiting to be carried home by those wishing to remodel their kitchen and bathroom floors. There were dishes and old records as well.
Over the years I would take visiting family and friends there, all of them fascinated by the uniqueness of the merchandise, not the least of which were the bottles, soaps and candles that promised riches, love and other life-changing results. Among them: Money-drawing floor polish, and Hug Me/Kiss Me perfume.
On my last visit – a little over a year ago), I was saddened to see how the feel of the store had changed, from the main room, where the central counter had once held penny candies at near-penny candy prices, to the side room, where I had once bought a train conductor’s cap as a gift, and marveled over the huge pair of bib jeans that hung from the ceiling. No longer a living breathing general store, it had morphed into a kitschy, souvenir shop.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m still glad it’s there. And for those who come to it for the first time, with fresh eyes, it is a wonderful way to spend an afternoon. I realize that there had to come a time when there were no more warehouses filled with ‘new’ old things, and if the store was to survive it was going to have to re-invent itself, with machines that spit out polished stones and Elvis pjs.
I can’t blame the new owners for stuffing as much ‘stuff’ into the store as the fire marshal would allow. I just wish that they -and those who came before them, had not taken out the heart of the store, and the things that made it so unique, like the row of attached wooden chairs and the old machine that ‘x-rayed’ your feet when you tried on the shoes that lined the shelves where those pj’s now sit, or the notions area just by the stairs, and all of the other things that had been there from the first.But time, as they say, marches on, and A. Schwab’s is, thankfully, marching along with it.
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Have I told you lately how much I love your words???? So beautifully written my friend. I was immediately transported back to a school field trip there..I don’t really remember how old I was. But I remember those jeans vividly…hanging from the ceiling like some giant pinata!!! Thank you for helping me find that memory again!!! P.S.-my daughter is learning to drive in Emmy Lou….she is such a patient car:)