O nce upon a time, back in the late 1970s, the offices of this magazine were nowhere near downtown. The first issue of Memphis , in fact, came off the presses in 1976 at 1545 Brooks Road, “way” out in Whitehaven. Our nondescript building housed our presses as well as a few offices, but the good news was that it was across the street from the city’s hippest “urban cowboy” bar — Bad Bob’s — and around the corner from the Italian Rebel, the most aptly named pizza place in town. The Rebel’s still there, run now by the grandchildren of the folks who served us lunch two or three times a week back then, but Bad Bob’s is long gone. And so are we.
In 1982, Bob Towery, the founder of this magazine, and his business partner purchased an abandoned coffee warehouse in what is now known as the South Main Historic District; we moved into the renovated space later that fall. To say that we were a bit ahead of the curve is an extreme understatement. A couple of businesses still lingered in the old warehouse district from the first half of the century (Imperial Dinettes manufactured furniture next door), but by and large, our new home was established in a wasteland of vacant lots, empty streets, and lots of weeds. Yes, the Arcade (as it has since 1919) still served breakfast and lunch across the street from the train station, where the Amtrak whistle blew twice a day, once around midnight and once in the early morning. But other than that, you had to make your own noise.
Today, of course, ours is the hippest neighborhood in the city, and while we feel honored to be so hot (senior citizens usually aren’t), some of us are still a bit befuddled by just how much things have changed. When I go to lunch at Rizzo’s, for example, a couple of blocks away, I need to remind myself to walk, even if the temperature’s pushing 100 degrees, because your chances of finding a parking spot along Main these days are slim to none. Parking was never a problem in the good old days, and paying for it? You have got to be kidding.
There are lots of heroes who helped fuel this transformation. Kudos need to go to folks like Henry Turley, who pioneered urban living in Memphis with his two 1980s condo developments nearby, Riverbluff and Chickasaw Bluffs, long before Harbor Town or the South Bluffs were even remotely feasible projects. Props as well to the late Robert McGowan and to the very much alive Leigh Davis, and to all the founding fathers and mothers of what would become the South Main Historic District, homesteading here in the early 1980s, just as we were work-steading. (For more about Leigh and the Hotel Pontotoc, see the article in this issue.)
It was a rocky passage, one that lasted well into this century. While much of Craig Brewer’s breakthrough 2005 film, Hustle and Flow , was shot within half a mile of our office, the film today, with its seedy vistas of downtrodden urban Memphis, already seems almost an artifact from the distant past.
In South Main, we’ve come a long way in the last ten years, which brings me to the shameless self-promotion part of this little essay. Hard as it is to imagine, for those of us who have been here longer than dirt, this magazine next year will celebrate its fortieth birthday. Born in Whitehaven, Memphis grew up in and alongside the South Main Historic District. The neighborhood’s done pretty well, and so have we. Last month, Memphis won the City and Regional Magazine Association’s 2014 General Excellence Award; only three of these are given annually, to magazines in the large, medium, and small circulation categories.
Memphis has won the CRMA General Excellence award for under 30,000 circulation magazines pretty frequently this century (in 2007, 2008, 2010, and 2014), but the thing I’m way prouder of is the fact that we have been among the three or five finalists every single year since 2007. That’s a real achievement. Anybody can dazzle a few judges now and again, but to have that kind of consistent performance, year in and year out, speaks volumes about the remarkably talented individuals who have helped this strange beast come to life, month in and month out, for nearly four full decades.
For three generations — we have children and grandchildren of early employees working around the place today — the Memphis staff has been doing this. It is a bizarre but extraordinary testimony to the validity of the concept of mind over matter. And it’s an extraordinary tribute to our core readership, without whom none of this would have been possible. Thanks for your loyal support, and may we continue to merit it.