Dear Vance: I was enjoying dinner at Houstons Restaurant on Poplar, and the manager wondered what had been there originally. He thought it was a lumber yard. Maybe you can get a free dinner if you bring in the answer to the manager. -- K.P., Memphis.
Dear K.P.: Oh, Ive been tempted before with offers like these -- back massages, complimentary dinners, free BMW roadsters -- in exchange for my valuable services, but usually turn them down, because my high sense of journalistic ethics (two words rarely mentioned in connection with this column) forbid the acceptance of bribes. Or at least thats what the publisher wants me to say. Besides, your own query was interesting enough -- to me, anyway -- that I decided I would try to solve it for free. And so I did.
The manager is wrong about the lumberyard, but not by much. White Station Supply Company, as it was called in the late 1950s and early 1960s, actually stood next door, just about where the parking lot is located today between Houstons and Wild Oats. No, the building that houses Houstons was originally built as a drugstore, the White Station Pharmacy Number 1, which opened in that building in 1960.
That whole area was quite different many years ago, as you might imagine. It was actually known as White -- or more accurately, Whites -- Station, after the little train station that once stood at Poplar and Mendenhall. (The street known today as White Station was built later, several blocks to the east.) Even as late as the 1950s, Poplar was a two-lane road, and Mendenhall actually dead-ended on the north side of Poplar.
Anyway, in the early 1950s, a cluster of little mom-and-pop businesses stood at the northeast corner of Poplar and Mendenhall, including the Town & Country Barber Shop, Modern Shoe Rebuilders, Hamkirks Drive-In Grocery, Hamiltons Variety Store, Brouse Drugstore, and a few others.
In the late 1950s, a fellow by the name of Herbert Peek Jr. bought the old Brouse drug store, and when Poplar was widened and those little businesses had to vamoose, he and some business partners formed a corporation called the 6 Ds (there were two doctors, two dentists, and two druggists, you see) and built a two-story physicians building adjoining the White Station Pharmacy, which was a Rexall Drugs franchise.
Herbert and his wife, Marie, are now retired and living in East Memphis, and they remember when the new store opened. We moved everything to the new place in one night, says Herbert. We got six big Memphis State football players, and they hauled everything over there, and we were ready for business at 7:30 the next morning.
The Peeks couldnt find any interior photos of that particular store, but they furnished some great shots of White Station Pharmacy Number 2, an almost identical facility that once stood on Park Avenue (where Memphis Pizza Cafe is today). Besides a great old-fashioned soda fountain offering jumbo sodas for 19 cents and chocolate sundaes for 20 cents, the drugstore was stocked with all sorts of neat stuff: Ace combs, Pro toothbrushes, Stag lip aid, official Robin Hood hats, Rit tints and dyes, Mennen lather shave, Casco heating pads, and Nelson color hair rinse, along with housewares, candy, cosmetics, and dog collars. Why, there were even boxes of something called Kuddle Kitty and I dont really want to know what that is.
There are still some Rexall products that have never been duplicated, says Marie.
Thru Linament was the best thing in the world for sore muscles.
With all that merchandise, the Peeks did a bang-up business, and even had one or two special customers. One day Elvis came in and bought some Royal Crown hair grease, remembers Herbert. I didnt even look up, but the girl behind the counter just about had a fit!
The Peeks sold the property in 1981. The physicians building came down, and Houstons renovated and enlarged the old drugstore. The restaurant opened in 1983. We go in there, says Herbert, and look around and think, now heres where the soda fountain was, and theres where we filled prescriptions.
It must be a strange experience. Perhaps Ill find out myself when I travel there to receive my free dinner.
Dear Vance: Please tell me why there is a big stuffed gorilla standing in front of that vacuum-cleaner shop on Madison. I just dont get that. -- F.M., Memphis.
Dear F.M.: Well, youd get it if you were a vacuum-cleaner shop -- or any other business, for that matter -- and wanted some way to make people remember you. Its kind of a landmark, explains John Hardin, manager of Tri-State Vacuum. People come in from out of town and it helps them find the place -- you know, the one with the gorilla out front.
Hardin told me that the gorilla was the idea of the shops former owner, a fellow named Robert Hogwood.
Its just something he did when he bought the place, says Hardin, and its been standing in front of 1583 Madison for almost 40 years now.
The old gorilla even has a name. They call him Rufus, and they do bring him in every night, in case you were wondering how he spends his evenings.
When I strolled over to Tri-State one morning to take a better look at Rufus, I made a surprising discovery. Inside the store, half hidden behind boxes of Eureka vacuums and Hoover uprights, stood a second gorilla, apparently the mate to the first, dressed in a fetching gingham dress and straw hat.
Like the gorilla outside, this one is no longer in operating condition. At one time Rufus used to work -- bend and raise his arms a bit, says Hardin, but hes pretty much worn out now. Some of my co-workers, I know, say the same things about me.
Dear Vance: Who the heck is Corky, anyway? -- F.D., Memphis.
Dear F.D.: Well, lets see. If I remember correctly, Corky Sherwood was that spunky reporter on the old Murphy Brown television series. And Corky St. Clair, played by Christopher Guest, was the small-town drama teacher determined to put on the play in that rather droll movie Waiting for Guffman
. And . . . oh, you probably mean the Corky of Corkys Barbecue.
Don Pelts, founder of that fine establishment on Poplar, let me in on a little secret. He tells me that his favorite movie was Porkys, and very few people would admit that. Still, to each his own, as I say. When, in 1984, Pelts decided to open his own barbecue joint, he started to call it Porkys but discovered -- as you might imagine -- that clever name was already taken, and besides, there was always the risk of a tiresome lawsuit from that pesky Porky Pig fellow in all those Warner Bros. cartoons. So he put his thinking cap on, changed just one letter, and came up with Corkys.
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