Struck out in Memphis

By Richard White, February 3, 2014

Too often we judge the success of our vacations by the quantity and quality of the “treasures” we bring home.  We love to find something unique at that off-the-beaten-path vintage or second hand shop or the out-of–the-way boutique or flea market.  We pride ourselves on being able to find an artwork/artifact we love everywhere we go.

In Vegas, we found an artwork in the trash can next to the bus stop after visiting nearby thrift store.   We expect someone purchased it at the thrift store for the frame and just threw out the artwork. One person’s junk is another person’s treasure. 

However in Memphis, no matter how hard we tried, we stuck out in our quest for that unusual souvenir.


We scoured the streets of downtown Memphis, but there were not many shops of any kind to be found.  First, we checked along Main Street – nothing. Then, we headed to South Main and found few shops, mostly restaurants.  However, we did find Memphis’ historic Central train station, which was fun yet sad to explore.  It was a vivid reminder of how the world has changed - what was once a vibrant meeting place and an economic engine for the city has been reduced to two Amtrak trains a day and a lone staff person keen to chat with us about the past.      

We did check out A. Schwab which is a Beale Street institution, but it seemed too touristy for us.  However, it is a great place to wander, with lots of artifacts from the golden years of Memphis and Beale St. especially if your time is limited.

South Main the area near the Civil Rights Museum and the Lorraine Hotel is Memphis' hipster district. 

The interior of Central Station is a sad reminder of days past. 

Flaneuring the side streets around South Main, we did find an alley with some very attractive architectural concrete figurines, but they were way too heavy even for me to carry. Alley “shopping” can be lucrative, like when in we found a weathered corbel from an old building in Washtucna, Washington – a great salvage find.  What we also found was a number of interesting warehouse loft conversions happening in the area – a healthy sign for future vitality.

This is the figurine we would have loved to have brought back for our garden. 

Vintage Trolley Experience

Deciding we had to head further afield and having read about a new hipster area called Cooper/Young, we took the $1 a ride Madison Ave trolley east as far as we could and then hoofed it the rest of the way.  Riding Memphis’ vintage trolley is a “must do” experience as they creak and grind their way along the tracks through the downtown.  I expect their maximum speed is no more than 10 miles an hour – it seemed I could walk almost as fast.  An interesting note is that they are not originally from Memphis, but are reconditioned ‘30s and ‘40s streetcars from Porto, Portugal, Melbourne, Australia and Rio de Janerio, Brazil that have been adding charm to the streets of Memphis for the past 20+ years.

The streetcars are the cutest I have ever encountered with their original wooden benches and seats, brass fittings and old weathered straps, some being little more than a very worn strip of leather. We were surprised- an impressed - to discover that at the end of the line, as the driver moved to the other end of the trolley he/she reversed the backs of the single seats so riders always face forward. How brilliant is that?

While the trolley cars are cute they aren't too practical when it come to large groups of people wanting a ride after a basketball or baseball game or when there is something on at the convention centre. 

Inside the trolley are long wooden benches or small single seats.

One of the better straps for hanging on. 

Finally, a Thrift Store!

Though we had done some research before coming to Memphis to see if there might be any thrift stores just outside of the downtown (and found nothing), we were nicely surprised, just five minutes into walking, to encounter a thrift store.  They could probably see the smile on Brenda’s face all the way back to Beale Street. 

Inside, we did find an interesting child’s artwork of a primitively rendered cowboy in a blue metal frame that had potential.  We should have bought it, but it was early in our trip - and day - and given it was on the large size, we both agreed to take a pass, sure that we’d find something else.  That was our fatal flaw!

Central Avenue  

We eventually discovered Centre Avenue (from S Cooper Street to East Parkway) which showed promise with a few antique shops, Flashback (a great vintage store), a junk dealer and a couple of used music/book stores.  Lots of interesting things, but nothing grabbed us.  Hunting for artifacts is an intuitive thing; you don’t know what you are looking for until you see it.

OtherLand cafe was our first sign of bohemia. Interesting place to hang out, but nothing much in the way of exotic finds - keep on walking. 

At Central Ave we found an Urban Outfitter's shop which seemed to be in a strange location with the antique stores. 

This fire hydrant was tempting but again too big and too heavy. Palladio is a huge furniture antique store with cafe/bistro on Central Ave., with a huge warehouse out back filled with architectural artifacts, fountains and fun objects like this one.    

Flashback vintage store was packed with mid-century artifacts, but nothing said "buy me, buy me."

Xanadu looked promising as it is used bookstore, record store and music store.  

I was tempted by the cigar-box guitars, but since I don't play the guitar is seemed silly. 

Our last stop on Central was Paul's Garage (I think that was the name). As you can see it was packed with junk...perfect for Brenda to do a little urban archeology.  No matter how hard she tried - nothing!

Cooper/Young District

Some hours later, after finally making it to the Cooper/Young corner, we found some quirky cafes and restaurants and a great bookstore but no shops, no artifacts. 

Burke's Books established in 1875 had great potential.  Brenda would have loved one of these typewriters, but they were not for sale. 

It seemed just too easy to buy some blues records in Memphis. 

Cabana Cafe offered a quiet place to rest before our journey back. 

Strike three and you're out!

Yes, with tails between our legs, we are ashamed to admit it we struck out in Memphis.  The upside? We saw some off the beaten path places that most tourists don’t. And, we’re darn heck committed to making this “strike out” a one-time wonder!

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Readers' Comments:

CW writes:  "Very interesting idea for a blog, what it means to be a pack rat but come up empty-handed.  As we live more and more digitally, collecting any object is bound to be more and more challenging. We pack rats are a dying breed. I pick up lps, cds and dvds, and occasionally books, all very plentiful now. But I'm open to anything. I think the challenge of being a pack rat is to appreciate the quality within an object - its quality today and, much more difficult, how it will be perceived in the future. It's all about predicting the future - yours and everyone else's, isn't it? Was your difficulty in finding stuff in Memphis about your present? Or about your future? My suggestion for you two when you travel: collect mugs of local businesses, often sold in the smallest thrift stores. Great souvenirs. Forever useful. I've never been unable to find at least one good one." 

Brenda responds: "I buy for the present or near future, i.e. only for my immediate use/enjoyment and/or quick turnover (i.e. largely no longer than a year I will either sell or give away)... NOT some long out future. I guess I am not a pack rat (that's good news for both of us I think... as don't think much about how it will possibly be perceived in the future (who wants to store it? Who wants to move it later on at some point?). As for collecting local mugs, interesting idea  - they are everywhere - too easy, where is the challenge. Mugs don't resonate with my fussiness about what I enjoy drinking my coffee and tea in.  Promotional-stamped mugs never seem to me to meet my high (snooty??) standards re: style and quality. I'm happy keeping the focus on artwork...just have to work harder so there are no more strike out!"