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VOL. 127 | NO. 8 | Thursday, January 12, 2012

Preserving the Magic

A. Schwab changes but holds on to history

By Bill Dries

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Decades ago, Abram Schwab had the idea of putting a blues singer with a guitar on a stool somewhere in his general store on Beale Street to help along what was becoming a robust demand for the blues records his store sold.

“There’s treasures everywhere,” said Terry Saunders, new co-owner of A. Schwab on Beale Street. “It’s a balance between retail and museum and whatever the next thing it needs to be.” 
(Photo: Lance Murphey)

When the store’s new owners debuted what will be an evolving mission and look Saturday, Jan. 7, Lamar Sorrento and his guitar were part of the floor plan amid a group of sale tables.

On the floor above, five musical acts performed in an Elvis-themed party that served to introduce the new owners of the Beale landmark to the public. In this case, it was a decidedly local crowd coming to see bands that performed original material in a district where most of the traffic is tourist and where “Mustang Sally” can be heard frequently as well as the line, “Where are you from?” between cover tunes.

The store will keep its moniker, A. Schwab, and its ground floor will remain retail with the upstairs keeping some of its retail function. Half of the upper floor will probably be given to a museum and will double as a rental space for private parties and possibly a gallery to sell art.

“Schwab has had many chapters,” said Terry Saunders, one of the new owners. “They saw the market wanted blues music so they sold it. Then they saw that the people who bought blues music also liked voodoo items so they added it. … What does the street need A. Schwab to be? That’s what we’re trying to respond to.”

Saunders wants to “preserve the magic” and feature music on the weekends – possibly in a smaller performance area on the ground floor – and use the upper level as a gathering place for the school field trips to Schwab that she took her own children to over the years.

“There’s a musical heritage with Schwab’s already in existence, and we want to honor that and really enhance it,” she said. “We see this as an opportunity to really teach the kids about music. It’s the great equalizer. It knows no racial or age boundaries. It’s the thing we all have in common. To me, it’s the golden egg of our city.”

Elliott Schwab, the son of Abram, admitted to mixed feelings as he, Saunders and others slimmed down the store’s inventory and took the green plywood off the upstairs windows.

“It’s kind of weird to me; I don’t want to say melancholy. It’s just that it’s always been retail,” Schwab said. “I don’t know really which way I want to go. I want to stay in retail. … The best part is I don’t have to worry about paying the bills.”

He is most excited about Saunders' plan for a soda fountain and coffee bar on the ground floor, calling it “a crowning glory.”

The new owners of A. Schwab are adding to the store’s endless treasures. They debuted live music last weekend at the Beale Street landmark.
(Photo: Lance Murphey)

Schwab is also outspoken about the environment around the store. He sees too many loudspeakers blaring recorded and live music that often sent visitors into his store just to escape the cacophony.

“I know you have a house band and you have them play certain nights. But I was hearing the same music at the same time every day. Just play something different,” he said. “To me, you should walk down the street and hear music coming out of the building – not from three blocks away.”

Some of the adjustments by Saunders were immediate. In previous trips there as a customer, she wanted something with the Schwab logo on it. She eventually found two items in different parts of the store and found several more on a later visit. When she went to pay, the store didn’t take credit cards – cash only.

Saunders initially got involved with Tommy Peters, owner of the nearby B.B. King Blues Club, who had the building under contract. Saunders, who has a commercial real estate background, was helping with that part of the deal and slowly got talked into a larger role as an owner.

The deal was cemented on a musical note – at a party in August for Pete Best, the original drummer for The Beatles, who was in town to play Levitt Shell.

“I’m a glutton for remaking and renovating,” Saunders admitted. “I don’t even like to shop. … This is not really to me about retail. This is about preserving an institution and taking it to the next level.”

RECORD TOTALS DAY WEEK YEAR
PROPERTY SALES 56 56 9,658
MORTGAGES 49 49 10,665
FORECLOSURE NOTICES 10 10 1,299
BUILDING PERMITS 212 212 21,170
BANKRUPTCIES 49 49 6,157
BUSINESS LICENSES 34 34 3,973
UTILITY CONNECTIONS 38 38 2,930
MARRIAGE LICENSES 28 28 2,049