I don’t know about you guys, but I can barely make it a night unscathed on Beale Street, much less over a century. I sat down with Elliott Schwab, part of the fourth and final generation of the family to own A. Schwab’s before selling the store in 2011.
A. Schwab’s has weathered so much on Beale Street over the years. The store has seen yellow fever, WWI, The Great Depression, WWII, and the Civil Rights Movement, just to name a few. The dry goods store has watched Memphis grow and blossom around it all the while. If one thing has been made clear during their time here, it’s this: if you can survive on Beale Street, you can survive anywhere.
Our present-day story takes place at a sturdy wooden table, tucked away in an upstairs corner of the store. The building A. Schwab’s is residing in isn’t technically the original store, however, it has been the place they call home since 1911.
It would be a hundred years later when the Schwab family decided to sell the business, simply because it was time to go. With just a handful of family members left to manage A. Schwab’s, most of which were unable to stay involved full time, there came a day where the business started running them instead.
Even though Elliott may not be the owner anymore, he and his sister, Beverly, still work at A. Schwab’s and to this day, he treats the business as if it’s his own.
“I graduated on a Friday night from high school, and I came to work Saturday morning and that was it,” Elliott said. “They brought me down here when I was six months old and I haven’t left. Still haven’t left.”
What lines the shelves has changed over the years, maybe more than the street itself has. When A. Schwab’s first opened it was a haberdashery, and as time went on the store took on other merchandise such as toys, books, and kitchenware among other things. At this point, they still carry a little bit of what they always have, but they’ve started to cater more towards souvenirs and other things that pique visitors’ interests.
Don’t think that’s enough to figure A. Schwab’s out, however, I can assure you as long as they can sell it, they’ll buy it. In a shop like this, there’s really no telling what you’ll find.
There’s a lot of life lessons to be learned, as well. It turns out growing up in a family business is a better economics teacher than a high school could ever assign. When business and profit were brought up one class period, Elliott had a few insights on the matter.
“She was saying if you buy something for $12 a dozen, that’s a $1 each, you mark it a $1.98 and you sell that to make a $12 profit,” Elliott said. “No, you don’t. First of all, you gotta pay for everything. You gotta pay your employees and you gotta pay the bills. Also, you only got ten of them to sell because one got stolen and one got broken. She flunked me.”
I don’t see how anyone could argue with that kind of logic, but hey, economics isn’t for everyone. Trust me, I took it twice.
There’s probably something for just about everybody in A. Schwab’s, though. From funny hats, ukuleles, records, t-shirts, and literally, if I kept going, this would turn into a catalog instead of a blog. I haven’t even started on the soda fountain, which serves up coffee, soda, milkshakes, and waffle cones any way you like them. The best part? This parlor is set in the 1930s as opposed to the popular ‘50s model most of us are accustomed to.
Basically, A. Schwab’s is fun. It’s a little bizarre and off-center.
If you ask Elliott, Beale Street is its own entity, and as far as A. Schwab’s is concerned it’s the only place for them.
“The store is evolving all the time. If you stay in one setup, you’re gonna fail. So you have to keep evolving.” Elliott said. “The store itself has changed, but it’s still the same. It continues to go on.”
And go on it will.