This past weekend my friend Nick and I made the trip from Nashville to Memphis to eat BBQ and dig for records. If you have never been to Memphis, or some how overlooked these activities on your trips to the city, its hard to quantify exactly how much you have been missing. Perhaps this story will help.
The drive from Nashville was around three hours and a lush green blur. We arrived in Memphis after two o’clock, and headed straight for Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken.
Gus’s has some serious fried chicken. Nick and I were joined by a friends Brandon, and Casey. We polished off plates of fried chicken and began to plot our stops at record shops. Brandon has been telling me about this little hole in the wall shop he found in Mississippi for a few years, and it was high on the priority list for the afternoon. The description of the place was almost as intriguing as the potential record finds it might hold. Here is how it was first described to me.
There is a record store Mississippi about an hour outside of Memphis in a small poor town. It was the black record store during segregation and they mostly have soul music. It is run by an old man named Mr. Johnson (the names have been changed to protect the innocent) who ether sells drugs or runs numbers out of an apartment next door. The store is filled with stuff, with only a narrow path carved through. There are tons of records inside, but getting in is a bit of a challenge as there are no set hours, and the door inside is usually blocked by boxes. On previous trips Brandon and Casey have wandered around the town looking for Mr. Johnson to open up so they could shop. On multiple occasions after locating him they were told that they couldn’t he couldn’t open for one reason or another, and sent home empty handed.
There really wasn’t much of a choice anymore. We piled into the car and headed to Mississippi to roll the dice.
After pulling off the interstate and driving around the center of town looking for the store, we finally found it tucked next to a seedy looking yellow motel. We pulled up to park in front of the store and saw a shady exchange take place that ended with a man leaving with a paper slip and Mr. Johnson in front of the store next to a pile of rusting bikes. Brandon, who knew him went over to say high, and ask if we could shop for records. After a warm, “I don’t see why not” and some introductions, we were set to go.
The actual getting into the store took about 45 minuets, as Mr. Johnson had to remove some crates from the entrance and things in Mississippi just take a while. While he worked we talked about the blues, the changes in Memphis, Juke Joints and Soul music. You don’t live to your 80’s without learning a thing or two and Mr. Johnson is still razor sharp.
When the path was cleared we wriggled our way into the store single file. True to Brandon’s description it was packed with stuff. Forty Five’s lined the wall with a three foot path cutting close. Shelves lined the other side stacked with random boxes and knick-knacks. Old posters hung from the rafters, and there was an entire section of the store cut off by precariously stacked shelving. The path was so narrow that navigating, passing, and leaving the store we’re almost impossible. Once you we’re in, you we’re in for the dig. The inside was sweltering, and there was a layer of fine dust all over everything. Clip lights illuminated sections of the wall, and baked the shelves. This could be heaven in Mississippi. We each began to sift through sections of the wall, pulling records, and sharing finds. Leon Fulsome, James Brown, Slave, and Jimmy Castor. The records we’re surprisingly well organized, and interjected with bits of Mr. Johnson’s mail from throughout the years.
Casey found a hand gun wrapped in a plastic shopping bag, and taped with duct tape, Nick found a box of old condoms and open packs of cigarettes. Someone could be heard outside asking if Mr. Johnson had any car radios for sale, or asking what we were doing in there. Mr. Johnson was playing the blues and gospel on a radio out front and would pop in from time to time to make comments about the artists and records we we’re stacking. At some point it sounded like there was a block party going on out front.
By the time we made our final selections and stepped into the fresh air, there was a small crowd of folks outside. People we’re lounging on cars, hanging in the street, and playing checkers in front of the store. We must have looked crazy coming out of this store holding stacks of records, drenched in sweat, and covered in dust. The sweet breeze of an impending rain storm hung in the air. We stood around for a bit paying for our records and talking. “I know what yall are lookin for” a woman by the apartment door said to Nick. “Yall are lookin for them blues”. “Yeah we like the blues”. After we realized she wasn’t talking about records, and we witnessed what could have been a scene from the Wire, we headed for the car, and hit the long road to Memphis, sharing our finds, and thinking of slow smoked ribs.