With signs of new life on the block of the Beale Street entertainment district between Hernando and Fourth streets, Rosalind Withers feels like she is ready to go in some new directions with the Withers Collection, the home of the collected works of her late father, photographer Ernest Withers.
The photo gallery and gathering place at 333 Beale St. opened a cafe Friday, May 23, named Dorothy Mae’s, after her mother.
The cafe includes a lounge reminiscent of the home setting Dorothy Mae Withers provided for the guests Ernest photographed then brought home for dinner. She was also Withers’ full partner in running the business.
Rosalind Withers, left, and head chef Fran Mosley in Dorothy Mae's, the new cafe space opening at The Withers Collection on Beale Street.
(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)
“She was such an important factor in his career that I wanted to do something that was kind of unique to her,” her daughter said. “And I wanted to do something different on Beale Street because Beale Street – you can always get the ribs and the catfish and all of the soul food. We wanted to do something with a little different twist of offering soups, salad and fine desserts.”
The back room that served as Ernest’s office toward the end of his life is now open as a performance and meeting space that, like the gallery, features his photos from more than 60 years of African-American life and culture in Memphis and elsewhere in a changing America.
The main storefront gallery, opened in 2011, is 2,700 square feet of the Withers Collection’s 7,000-square-foot space, and Rosalind Withers has always intended to use more of that. That’s happening now that the museum has become self-sustaining by being the sole licenser of Ernest’s works and the simultaneous exhibitions of his photos across the world.
The cafe is a long-held dream of Fran Mosley, a veteran of the catering business who has catered events for and at the gallery.
She and Withers have teamed up for a light menu of soups, salads, coffee and “petite fine desserts,” including both sweet and savory cupcakes. The Beale Street cupcake is a taste of barbecue smoked for 16 hours. Another cupcake in the savory line is a taste of meatloaf, mashed potatoes and green peas.
“We want that place where folks are comfortable,” Mosley said.
In the hallway setting, a famous Withers photo of a young Elvis Presley will become a life-size wall photo, and Withers’ 1950s photo of blues legend B.B. King and those in his road show standing beside their new tour bus on Beale Street will get a large photo-mural treatment.
Both are part of a set of 3,200 images the gallery sells and licenses.
“His work is always something that every day, every other day sometimes, we get inquiries about licensing his work,” Withers said.
She calls the set of catalogued images “what the world knows.”
What the world doesn’t know yet is stored at a nearby location kept secret for security reasons.
The archive of uncatalogued negatives and images taken by Withers from the 1940s until his death in 2007 numbers more than 1 million, said Rosalind, who stopped counting at a million, with many more envelopes left of negatives carefully labeled with subject matter and dates.
“It’s going to take almost a generation to really digitize his work because it is so much,” she said. “Every time I go in there with someone or going in to look for something, we find something new. It’s always something we are excited about.”
In old, metal file cabinets and faded wooden cabinets moved to the location from Withers’ last office on Beale Street, whose window looking out on FedExForum still bears his name and the company name, are an idea of the broad range of images.
A “club” drawer is next to a “church” drawer, and “politics” isn’t far from “weddings.”
Withers admits that as a child she would become annoyed at her father’s habit of amassing envelopes wherever he went. Today, she said, it has helped to locate images even as she contemplates raising money to digitize and preserve the massive number of files.
“We’ve had some struggling times, but we are at that pinnacle of really expanding to meet the demand of what we have, and that is so exciting to be able to do that,” Withers said. “We may not be on everybody’s lips because marketing dollars are something we don’t have. We try to put all of the money that comes back into the museum into the preservation piece of work. We feel that eventually we will be that.”