A Century of Commerce at Nelson and Barksdale

Most historical accounts of the commercial businesses in what is now known as the Cooper-Young neighborhood in Memphis, Tennessee focus on its main intersection. But local businesses at the corner of Nelson and Barksdale thrived in the first few decades of the neighborhood due to their proximity to the Normal streetcar line and development of housing in Lamar Heights and other subdivisions of the Cooper-Young Neighborhood. The history of the intersection serves as a reminder that people lived and shopped for basic necessities much closer to home in the first half of the 20th C.

Railway map of Memphis and vicinity in 1925 (Tennessee State Library & Archives).

The Normal line cut South from Central Avenue onto Barksdale Street and turned East toward the Fairgrounds on Young Avenue. Most residents of the new subdivisions shopped at corner businesses for daily necessities, especially in the first two to three decades of the neighborhood.

The intersection of Cooper Street and Young Avenue looking north in 1945 through which passed the Normal streetcar line (Memphis and Shelby County Room, Memphis Public Library & Information Center).

After World War II, the city removed streetcar tracks and paved the streets. More people bought and drove their own cars to shop for necessities. But before that time, city directories demonstrate a vibrancy and diversity of businesses on the west side of the Nelson and Barksdale intersection. The following video provides an animated timeline of commerce at this location:

As many as eight businesses engaged in commerce at this intersection in the 1920s. Many businesses moved to new spaces at the intersection over time. The addresses for 883, 885, 887, 889, and 893 S. Barksdale, densely nestled between Nelson Avenue and the alley between Nelson and Oliver Avenues, housed five businesses in 1925. A corner grocery would absorb those spaces and consolidate the address into 883 South Barksdale over several decades.

863 S. Barksdale Street

863 S. Barksdale St housed grocers, upholsterers, blacksmiths, psychologists and more before becoming a residence (Oct. 13, 2019).

Grocery Stores

Arrow Food Stores No 19 opened the first business at this address in 1925. Piggly Wiggly Store #3 assumed the space from 1930 to 1933 (see more below on 1902 Nelson Ave). Baker Brothers Grocery opened their first grocery at the intersection here in 1934. The owners obtained a city variance to allow them to maintain a rolling coop to sell fresh chickens. The Bakers moved the chickens outside during business hours and brought them inside at night. The Bakers moved their store across Nelson Avenue in 1943 (see 883 S. Barksdale St below).

Upholsterers, Contractors, Appliances, and Mechanical Service Providers

In 1945, Wyatt R Tomlinson moved his upholstery service business to 863 S Barksdale and lived with his wife Florence around the corner at 1835 Evelyn Avenue. Business continued at this location until 1953.

Home Specialty Services Company began selling household appliances here in 1954.

Nu-Home Construction, Inc., opened an office for its building contractor business in 1958.

After a brief vacancy in 1959, a sales office for Wilson Manufacturing Company opened here after operating at a location between York Avenue and the railroad on Barksdale. In 1964, Wimco Tool, a division of Parker Hannifin Corporation, began sharing the space with Wilson. Both businesses moved out in 1965.

A refrigeration service provider called Ajax Services Company opened in 1966 and closed by 1971. The space remained vacant from early 1970s until 1981. Estes & Weeks, a custom metal works business, and Mulrooney Remodeling & Construction opened here in 1982. Estes Products (probably of Estes & Week) sold custom furniture at this location from 1984 until 1992.

Therapy and Creative Arts

Dr. John H. Spencer, clinical psychologist, provided therapy at his office here from 1993 until until November 13, 2003 when he died. Dr. Judith G. Carroll also practiced psychology at this location for a brief time in the late 1990s.

Detroit native Jerry Couillard arrived in Memphis in 1985 for a short stint as artist-in-residence at the National Ornamental Metal Museum. He later opened Metal Works Design Studio where he produced custom ornamental metal furniture and fixtures as early as 1992. The studio operated at 863 S Barksdale until 1995.

An art gallery called 863 Gallery advertised exhibits in the Commercial Appeal at this location between 1997 and 2002. The blacksmith and gallery operations overlapped with Dr. John H. Spencer’s ownership of and psychology practice in the building. Perhaps they all shared the space between 1994 and 2003 until Spencer died.

Following his death, the property of Dr. Spencer became part of the Williams Spencer Investment Services Trust (managed by his son). The trust sold the property at 863 S Barksdale that once housed grocery stores, an appliance store, blacksmith and a psychologist office to

David and Lisa Lumb converted the property into a residence from 2015 to 2018.

The home now features exposed brick walls, wood beams in the ceiling, two bedrooms, a full bath and two half bathrooms, a large kitchen, living room, and patio. The Lumbs sold the property to Kelby and Hayley Davis where Mrs. Davis operates a home office at this address for her interior design firm: Hayley Davis Interiors. The proprietor sees clients by appointment only.

1902 Nelson Avenue

The front door of 1902 Nelson Avenue at Barksdale Street (Oct. 13, 2019).

Grocers and Baked Goods

The First Corner Grocery Started Here

Lamar Heights Grocery opened the first grocery and the first business to open at the intersection here in 1916. After closing in 1920, Piggly Wiggly Store Inc #38 opened in 1922.

Clarence Saunders pioneered the self-service grocery when he opened the first Piggly Wiggly store six years earlier at 79 Jefferson Avenue in Downtown Memphis. Before Piggly Wiggly, shoppers presented a list to a grocery clerk who pulled items from behind a counter for them. Saunders revolutionized the entire retail grocery experience with shopping carts, open shelves and no clerks to shop for the consumer. Piggly Wiggly grocery stores introduced features we find familiar to this day: checkout stands, items marked with prices, cheaper groceries through high volume/low profit margin retailing, refrigerated produce cases, and uniformed employees for cleaner, more sanitary food handling. Saunders began issuing Piggly Wiggly Corporation stock on the New York Stock Exchange in the early 1920s, but lost control of the company through a series of trades.

Interior of a Piggly Wiggly store (Memphis and Shelby County Room, Memphis Public Library & Information Center).

The Piggly Wiggly Store #38 closed the Nelson location in 1926, but a new franchised store opened at 863 S Barksdale in 1930.

The Barksdale Bakery sold baked goods to the neighborhood in 1927 until Moore E Edw Grocery moved into the space in 1933.

Beauty and Barber Shops

From 1934 until the 1960s, a beauty and barber shop leased the space at the corner at 1902 Nelson from the Dirmeyers. The hairstyling business changed hands and names over the decades. Children growing up in the neighborhood in the 1950s remember Ditto Barber and Beauty Shop which styled the hair of many of the women in the neighborhood. Polk City Directories reflect these shop changes through the years:

  • 1934 Artistic Beauty and Barber Shop
  • 1938 Bertie’s Beauty Shop and Carpenter Barber Shop
  • 1940 Bertie’s Beauty Shop and Acree Barber Shop
  • 1943 Counsil Beauty and Barber Shop
  • 1948-58 Ditto Barber and Beauty Shop
  • 1959-60 Rose Barber and Beauty Shop and Ruth M Ditto
  • 1961-62 Rose Barber and Beauty Shop

Widower Rose Bays was the last proprietor of the beauty and barber shop here. Her husband, Henry Speed Bays’ death in 1948 at the age of 40 in Cairo, Illinois may have prompted her entry into the business.

Photography and Film Developers

Litton Photo Service opened in 1965 at 1902 Nelson. In 1973, Litton changed its name to Bluff City Photo Services. The photo shop operated at this location from 1978.

Recording Studio

Don Smith and Jon Hornyak moved Sounds Unreel into 1902 Nelson in 1984 until Smith took full ownership in 1992.

1904 Nelson Avenue

The front door of 1904 Nelson Avenue (Oct. 13, 2019).

Dirmeyer Drug Store

Born in Ohio in 1865, William Charles Dirmeyer married his wife Elizabeth in 1894 and moved to Memphis to make their lives together. The German Catholic Dirmeyers raised three sons in Memphis: Louis Andrew (b. 1895, William C. (1898), Jr, and Edward C (1906). Mr. Dirmeyer operated a drug store in Downtown Memphis. After incorporation into the city limits, Mr. Dirmeyer moved his store to the Lamar Heights subdivision at 1904 Nelson Avenue as early as 1915. In the early years of the store, customers could purchase the 6 PM News Scimitar (a precursor to the Memphis Press Scimitar).

William C. And Elizabeth Dirmeyer (Public Member Photos & Scanned Documents, Ancestry.com).

William Sr. and Elizabeth lived down the street at 1807 Nelson Avenue with their two youngest sons. When W C died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1936, his youngest son, Edward C Dirmeyer, continued drug business at the street corner. Edward married Mary “Marjorie” Frances Hays in 1930. The couple lived North of the neighborhood at 1886 Cowden Avenue.

Edward C. Dirmeyer (Public Member Photos & Scanned Documents, Ancestry.com).

Children and adults in the neighborhood loved shopping at this corner drug store. Stella Weber Buchignani, whose mother grew up in the neighborhood, recalled a soda fountain on the left, comics and magazines on a rack to the right, and the pharmacy in the back as one entered through the front door. David Wells loved the ice cream sundaes from the soda fountain. Lorinda Haynes shared these memories:

I spent most of my time at Dirmeyer’s after my parents gave me permission to cross Barksdale. I lived on 1939 Nelson. I got my first Barbie doll for $3 there. There was a beauty salon behind it in the same bldg where all the women in the neighborhood got their hair done. Dirmeyer’s had a fountain. Philip Dirmeyer, a med student, worked for his father [Edward] who was the pharmacist, I believe, and owner. Philip became a GP doc. The tile was the black and white tile that was popular at the time. I have lots of stories about Dirmeyer’s.

Glenda Mathewson remembered:

I lived at 1940 Southern and rode my bike down Barksdale to Dirmeyers. I always ordered a chocolate soda! It was a wonderful time (early to mid 50s) when kids could roam their neighborhoods with their friends without fear. I bought an occasional comic book and my mother always followed Dr. Dirmeyer’s advice and kept our medicine cabinet supplied with Vicks, Calamine lotion, Castoria, and alcohol from there.

Edward C. Diremyer died of a stroke in 1962, and the drug store died with him. The family-owned store places second after the Bakers for their length of service to the neighborhood at the corner of Nelson and Barksdale.

Photography, Film Development, and Antiques

The last beauty and barber shop next door closed at the same time as Dirmeyer’s at 1902 Nelson. In 1964, a photography shop called Don Hemker Studio opened at 1904 Nelson. The studio closed by 1968.

A man named Steve Grubbs resided at 1904 Nelson from 1980 to 1982. Bird’s Nest Antiques opened here in 1983 but remained open for less than one year.

Recording Studio Era

Archer Records occupies the combined spaces of 1902 and 1904 Nelson Avenue (Oct. 13, 2019).

The owner and operator of Archer Records purchased Sounds Unreel’s recording at 1902-1904 Nelson in 2008. The studio conducts scheduled recording sessions in the old renovated building which once housed grocery stores, beauty and barber shops and a drug store. The Music & Arts studio records music for the Archer Records label (whose roster includes Amy LaVere and the Gamble Brothers Band). The studio contracts with others artists for outside film and video mixing projects.

883-893 S. Barksdale Street

The southwest corner of the intersection housed many businesses at the same time with Barksdale Street numbers 883 through 893. These spaces consolidated into one retail space in the 1940s.

Mr. Bowers Store and Kroger

As early as 1922, Mr. Bowers Store #48 at 883 Barksdale sold groceries in the neighborhood. Duke C. Bowers started his business in 1903 at the corner of Polk and McKinley in Memphis. His business model focused on selling groceries at lower prices than his competitors. Mr. Bowers accomplished this by purchasing his products for cash (no sales on credit) and not providing free delivery to his customers. He refused to sell tobacco or liquor in his stores. The business expanded to 39 “Mr. Bowers Stores” in Memphis over ten years.

Mr. Bowers Grocery Store ad from the October 29, 1919 News Scimitar.

When his health began to fail, Duke Bowers turned the management of his stores over to a firm that expanded them even more around 1913. When store no. 48 opened in 1924 at Nelson and Barksdale, the company boasted 60 locations in the Memphis area. The management team expanded to 114 stores before selling them to Kroger in 1934.

The Kroger company operated their grocery store at the corner of Barksdale and Nelson from 1935 until 1941. Many aspects of the company’s business today trace their roots to Barney Kroger’s early efforts to serve his customers:

Consider two specialty departments that today are regular fixtures in the company’s supermarkets – bakeries and meat and seafood shops. In the early 1900s, most grocers bought their bread from independent bakeries. But Mr. Kroger, always pursuing quality as the key ingredient for profit, recognized that if he baked his own bread, he could reduce the price for his customers and still make money. So he became the first grocer in the country to establish his own bakeries. He was also the first to sell meats and groceries under one roof.

Mr. Kroger also spied the promise of increasing his income by manufacturing the products he sold. It began [in his first store in Cincinnati.] When farmers came to town with their produce, he bought far more cabbage than he could expect his customers to buy. He took the cabbage home to his mother who, following her favorite recipe, turned it into tangy sauerkraut that proved hugely popular with his German customers.

Drug Stores South of Nelson

A few drug stores on the southwest corner of Nelson and Barksdale competed for business with Dirmeyers before and during The Great Depression. The space at 887 Barksdale saw a succession of drug stores over time: Owens (1925-1929), Economical (1930-34), and Barksdale (1935-1940). When the Bakers moved their grocery south of Nelson in the mid 1940s, they likely absorbed the space that housed these drug stores.

Short Lived Businesses

Further South at 885 and 889 Barksdale, Lamar Heights Cash Market and Blue Bird Delicatessen sold groceries and sandwiches, respectively, from 1924-1929.

Baker Brothers Grocery

Henry D Baker moved his family to Memphis from Selmer, Tennessee in the 1920s with hopes of working for the railroad. When the railroad didn’t hire him, he took a job at a Mr. Bowers Store where he learned the grocery business. He opened a grocery store of his own with his five sons in 1933 North of Nelson Avenue at 863 Barksdale with a starting inventory that cost him an investment of $700. Around 1943, the Bakers moved the store across Nelson at the same corner. The Bakers sold groceries from that corner until they sold the business in 1982.

All of the Baker sons continued in the grocery business as Memphis city limits expanded. Henry and his sons opened several Big Star groceries stores in larger shopping centers. Benjamin Baker, the second oldest, remained at the store on Barksdale.

In a 1986 interview, Ben described the goods and services sold at the family store. The first store sold groceries from behind a service counter, a format that would later change to the self-service model instituted by Clarence Saunders’ Piggly Wiggly stores. During this time, the Bakers and most other stores allowed sales on credit. Customers within biking distance could order their groceries delivered. The Bakers sold deliveries of a dozen eggs in reusable wooden cartons that customers emptied into containers in their home kitchen.

Neighborhood groceries offered inventories with a small selection of brands and sizes of shelf stable canned and dry goods in the days before electric refrigeration (no frozen foods). The Bakers’ service counters displayed 10-cent cans of corn, beans, green beans, tomatoes and baby food on shelves; corn flakes and oatmeal in boxes; and baked goods like cookies under glass. Clerks scooped bulk items sold by weight like dry beans and rice from drawers and and flour and sauerkraut from 50-gallon wooden barrels.

When operating at 863 Barksdale, the Bakers kept 3-4 chicken coops in the store at night and rolled them outside during business hours so customers could choose a hen. The butcher would take the hen to back, wring her neck, and pick her feather in a gallon bucket of water.

The Bakers’ butcher carved fresh cuts of meat from a meat cooler kept chilled by 300 pounds of ice delivered to the store. Customers bought household necessities like toilet paper, napkins, washing powder and coal oil for kitchen stoves.

The Bakers adjusted to changing times as the trolleys on the Normal station line ceased service on Barksdale. The grocery absorbed adjoining spaces when other businesses moved out , allowing the Bakers to expand the size of the store to around 5000 square feet. At some point, BellSouth Co. installed a pay phone at the corner. People who bought and drove cars for transportation started shopping at larger, self-service grocery stores at shopping centers as the city replaced streetcar tracks with pavement. The Bakers switched to a self service format around that time.

Gas Station

A small filling station called North Memphis Tire & Oil Co. #3 opened on the southernmost tip of the commercial southwest corner of Nelson on Barksdale in 1923. Terry’s Gas & Oil Co. assumed operations at that location from 1924-1930.. Fite Service Station took control of the filling station in 1930. The Baker family absorbed operation of the station in the mid 1940s. Gas service ceased by the mid-1950s.

The Fate of the Corner Groceries that followed the Baker Brothers’ Grocery

Ben Baker sold the contents of Baker Brother’s grocery to Kenneth Hungate who renamed the store The Barksdale Supermarket in 1983. In 1993, the Tax Enforcement Division of the Tennessee Department of Revenue placed a lien on the property for unpaid taxes. Mr. Hungate paid the taxes in full by the end of the year. The property defaulted back to Sewell-Allen, Inc. (successor to Baker Brothers, Inc.) which sold the property to Narendra and Anita Karawadra in 1994. The Karawadras kept the store name, closed it in 1997, and quit claimed the property back to Sewell-Allen, Inc. in 1999.

In 2001, Sewell-Allen, Inc., sold the store to Salam Wahab and Bilal Wahab who renamed the store 8 Til Late Supermarket. The Wahabs sold the property to Hamde Suleiman in 2007 who changed the name to the Barksdale Market from 2007-2010.

The store closed and remained vacant until until 2013 when Suleiman allowed a developer named Ahmed Saffarini to raze the building and tried to build new multi-dwelling housing on the property zoned as commercial before concerned neighbors and the Cooper Young Neighborhood Association worked with city authorities to halt construction. The developer hoped to “grandfather” his residential construction in a commercial zone by retaining one wall facing Barksdale to build out the rest of a new structure. City authorities ruled against him. After spending a lot of money on demolition of the old building and then on the framework of the unauthorized construction, the developer ran out of initiative and/or money. The partial rebuild was eventually torn down and became a vacant lot.

This alternate plan proposed by Ahmed Saffarini to the Memphis City Board of Adjustment never came to be (7/4/2014).

Mr. Saffarini claimed he would return for a permit from the city and a building plan that better suited the neighborhood. He finally bought the property from Hamde Suleiman in May of 2018 but later lost the property in November of 2018 when the county sold it at auction for unpaid taxes. The court awarded the property to Suzanne Carlson who paid back taxes as the highest bidder at auction. Ms. Carlson lives at 2024 Oliver Avenue and is the Transportation and Mobility Project Manager at Innovate Memphis.

Weeds now grow at 883 South Barksdale Street where 17 businesses operated from 1925 to 2013 (Oct. 13, 2019).

The lot remains vacant today. Only the floor remains where at least three surfaces give hints of the original footprints of spaces which housed many businesses over the decades.

Commerce at the Corner in 2019

No retail stores or shops greeting walk-in customers from the neighborhood remain at the corner of Barksdale and Nelson today.