5 Star Stories: A. Schwab’s resilience prevails through pandemic

Updated: Jun. 30, 2020 at 9:44 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - The A. Schwab dry goods store has become a Memphis institution as Beale Street’s only original business still standing.

The store motto: If you can't find it at A. Schwab, you're probably better off without it!

Tourists get googly-eyed when they walk inside.

“I’d really like some candy. The soda fountain looks pretty cool over there,” smiled tourist Ashlee Haviland.

“A lot of people, when they come in here, they say they came to Memphis to come here. So, we’re definitely a big draw,” said Elliot Schwab, A. Schwab’s great-great-grandson.

It’s that store on Beale Street where you can get just about anything.

"You've heard of a mass, merchandiser. I call us a 'mess' merchandiser. Haha! We'll mess with that, if we can sell it," Elliot added with his infectious laugh.

His great-great-grandfather Abraham Joseph Schwab was a Jewish immigrant who fled war-torn Germany in the late 1800s.

"He was going to Detroit. He traveled. When he got to Memphis, he ran out of money," Elliot explained.

Fortunately, Schwab had an uncle here named Jacob Goldsmith. You know, the old department store. Schwab worked there for some time to get his money together, decided to stay in Memphis, started a family, and opened A. Schwab on Beale Street in 1876.

“When we started out, it was a men’s haberdashery,” said Elliot. “So, boots, shoes, menswear. As they grew, we just kept adding more things and we just kept evolving.”

They have various departments in the open setting: Toys and Candy, Home and Health, a mini Beale Street museum on the balcony, Instruments and Records, and of course, their wildly popular Mojo Department.

"It just got bigger and bigger and bigger," Elliot recalled.

He says that area of the store drew the most attention with its incense, oils, and candles. If something ailed you, A. Schwab had the remedy.

In the mid-1960s, the Memphis Housing Authority launched an urban renewal project with plans to bulldoze Beale Street and take A. Schwab with it.

“A belief between my father, me, my cousin and all that. If we had sold out, Beale Street would not be here. We were the lone holdout,” said Elliot. “They kept trying to get us to sell out. They tried. They threatened us with different things.”

However, Schwab owned the building outright and kept operating. A. Schwab was the place for everybody.

“Nobody was excluded out of the store. It didn’t matter who you were. If you came into his store, he would help you,” Elliot exclaimed.

In 1968, when Memphis sanitation workers went on strike for better working conditions, Elliot says peaceful local marchers were redirected from Main onto Beale.

“The ones causing the trouble were trucked in here. They broke out every facility down here,” he said. “Some businesses were totally looted. We were not. We lost every show window, but we had no looting at all.”

Elliot says local ministers who organized the march came to the store to apologize for the damage.

Fenced in, Beale struggled in the 70s, but the city launched an initiative in 1983 to turn things around, and it worked. A. Schwab thrived even after Abraham passed away in 2002 and handed over the business to family.

The family then sold the business in 2011 and Elliot says he was stoked when the new owners immediately installed a soda fountain.

“When my family had the store, we always wanted to put in a fountain,” he said.

Adult beverages soon followed and a gelato bar. Elliott returned to his family's old stomping grounds in 2016.

“One of the reasons they brought me back to work here was because I know the secrets to the store,” Elliot chuckled.

You know, how an old house has quirks.

“We’ve got ghosts in here. Haha. It’s my uncle. We don’t know which one. Haha. The other day, I have a coffee grinder down there. It came on by itself. I wasn’t even near it.”

Year 2019 brought in even more spirits, when the new owners started selling draft beer, expanded the grills, and launched a small lunch menu.

Then, 2020 ushered in COVID-19 and shuttered A. Schwab and the rest of Beale Street for weeks.

“It’s just a very weird time. Let’s just say that I wish we could just get rid of 2020, go to start 2021,” Elliot bemoaned.

As A. Schwab gets back to business customers are back to buying all those things they never knew they needed.

“It’s different than the other souvenir shops and the other offerings, and I think it just adds a special uniqueness and quality to the area,” said Haviland.

A. Schwab has become a source of Mid-South pride and resilience for more than 140 years and Elliot knows the history.

“We survived through two bouts of yellow fever, survived through World War II, The Great Depression,” he said. “This too shall pass, as they say.”

During the pandemic, A. Schwab is open Thursdays through Mondays. They offer curbside pickup and have an online gallery so you can buy items without contact.

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