VOL. 125 | NO. 148 | Monday, August 2, 2010
A story from The Memphis News
On newsstands throughout the city
Novelist and Attorney Gillen Recalls Time on Cotton Row
By Bill Dries
Neal P. Gillen is an attorney and author whose seventh novel was recently published.
“The Night Clerks” is a murder mystery with plenty of Memphis connections.
Gillen, general counsel for the American Cotton Shippers Association in Washington has also written a poem about the Little Tea Shop, the Downtown institution on Cotton Row known for its clientele from the Memphis legal community.
The Memphis News talked with Gillen at The Cotton Museum.
Q: Your victim in the novel writes some poems found later in the story, including one about the Little Tea Shop.
Gillen: My introduction to the cotton business was in 1966. And as part of that introduction it was going to lunch almost every day in the Little Tea Shop. I met some very memorable people and also was introduced to greens and things … things that I’d never experienced as a boy growing up in New York City.
Q: What do you think about the move of the U of M law school to Front Street?
Gillen: I think it’s great. When I first came to Memphis that was the U.S. Courthouse. At one time, I knew the major figures of the legal world here in Memphis. That’s changed. They are all passed and gone on to their great reward in life. There’s a new generation that’s taken hold. The courthouse is closer by the Cook Convention Center. I’ve tried a couple of cases there. Memphis has changed since I first came here. It’s changed immeasurably and all for the better.
Q: The business of cotton has also changed.
Gillen: The interesting thing is that in 1966 when my career started, you had approximately 50 cotton firms located in and around Front Street. At that time, the U.S. cotton crop was only about 12 million bales. Now you have fewer and fewer and fewer people handling immeasurably more cotton. Everything is done electronically. The whole technology has changed. One person literally can run a cotton business from a small office just with a laptop computer and buying and selling cotton, creating the shipping documents on a computer through software, doing their futures trading with their BlackBerry or over the telephone. You don’t have warehouse receipts. I can remember spending a Saturday afternoon with Billy Dunavant and his five employees on Front Street stapling USDA classing cards and warehouse receipts together and putting them in a sort of enlarged shoe boxes to represent a shipment of cotton.