A. Schwab looks to become cultural hub with renovations, performance space

Courtesy Memphis/Shelby County Public Library & Information Center
A. Schwab moved into this Beale Street building in 1912. "Talking the Blues: Conversations about the history, culture, and meanings of the music," a series of lectures, film screenings and discussions about the blues, continues on Friday at A. Schwab during the International Blues Challenge.

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Courtesy Memphis/Shelby County Public Library & Information Center A. Schwab moved into this Beale Street building in 1912. "Talking the Blues: Conversations about the history, culture, and meanings of the music," a series of lectures, film screenings and discussions about the blues, continues on Friday at A. Schwab during the International Blues Challenge.

Talking The Blues

Friday, at A. Schwab, 163 Beale Street. 11 a.m. lecture by Dr. David Evans; 12:30 p.m. screening of "The Blues: The Road to Memphis"; 2 p.m. discussion of Jim Dickinson's "The Search for Blind Lemon" with Mary Lindsay Dickinson. The events are free. Coffee and doughnuts will be served. For more information, call 901-523-9782.

This week, as hundreds of musicians compete to make history as part of the annual International Blues Challenge, A. Schwab is celebrating those who have already made their marks with its "Talking the Blues" series.

On Friday, the 137-year-old dry goods store and Beale Street icon will conclude several days of free daytime presentations with a lecture by musicologist Dr. David Evans, a screening of the Martin Scorsese-produced "The Blues" documentary on Memphis, and a chat with Mary Lindsay Dickinson discussing the legacy of her late husband, roots music producer Jim Dickinson and his forthcoming memoir, "The Search for Blind Lemon."

The events mark the start of a new entertainment presence for A. Schwab since the store changed hands just over a year ago. In December 2011, a group of investors, led by Terry Corona Saunders, principal of Martin Group Realty, and other Saunders family members — including her husband, Jake, a grandson of Piggly Wiggly founder Clarence Saunders — purchased the A. Schwab's business and property (located at 163 and 165 Beale). Since then the store has undergone renovation, and with this week's Blues Challenge, store owners hope to reconnect with Beale's musical and arts communities.

"We're trying to get back involved in things," says Tommy Foster, A. Schwab's buyer and entertainment consultant. "Whenever there are things like the International Blues Challenge, we want to do satellite events, whether it's academic stuff, music, or whatever we can host. We just felt this would be a great way to reach out to all the blues travelers who are in town."

Foster says in addition to this week's IBC-related programming, A. Schwab will be staging similar free presentations during other major events, including the Memphis in May International Festival and Elvis Week. Foster adds that there are plans for Elvis Week readings by authors Mike Freeman and Robert Gordon. Also, there have been discussions about staging a mini-film festival showing the work of Swedish director Ingmar Bergman during Memphis in May, whose honored country this year is Sweden.

Continuing renovations to A. Schwab have also opened up opportunities for the store to present cultural programming. Upstairs on the store's second floor — where they sell musical instruments, CDs, and books — they've recently added an events space. Housed in what was once the hardware department, it now features a stage and bar.

"We're not going to be a club," says Foster, "but we're just going to do special events." So far, the space has hosted some live music performances and several private functions (including weddings and corporate events). Concert promoter Jonathan Kiersky is also planning on booking some national acts in the space after his Midtown venue the Hi-Tone Café closes in late February.

Meanwhile, downstairs at Schwab's 165 Beale Street location, work is under way to build a turn of the century-style ice cream parlor and soda fountain. "It's going to be a real soda fountain, where you can get a root beer float or a homemade strawberry coke," says Foster. "We'll have cappuccino, light foods, baked goods. But the main focus is homemade frozen pops and ice cream."

The space is expected to open in April, and it too will have a small stage that will host acoustic acts and book and poetry readings on the weekends.

So far, the response to Schwab's efforts have been positive; many of the tourists and locals are excited about celebrating blues and local history inside one of the area's true landmarks, Foster said. "It's been going gangbusters. We're really happy to be part of IBC atmosphere this week and hope to do a whole lot more soon."

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