FRESH START 

FRESH START

This time last year, the Center for Southern Folklore was plagued with debt and desperately seeking a new home. In the hole more than $100,000 to creditors, the center was forced to move from its location at 209 Beale Street and faced a bleak future. Today its director, Judy Peiser, looks back at that period with a smile. "It was a crazy time," she says. "But people weren't going to let the center disappear. I always felt it would survive." Located since September at 119 South Main in Pembroke Square, the 28-year-old cultural institution not only has a new home, but - with approximately 1,000 more square feet than its Beale Street location - plenty of room to grow. The new site has a gift shop with books, CDs, art, and novelty gift items; a stage for regional blues, gospel, and jazz musicians; and more gallery space for traveling and permanent folk art exhibitions. It boasts several new features as well, including a cafe that dishes up Southern specialties; a "video bar," where visitors can learn about quilting and other folk art; a CD listening post; and the First Church of Elvis Impersonators, a coin-operated shrine to the King that once stood in Java Cabana, the midtown coffeehouse. Peiser says the center also plans to add a cybercafe with computers, and a reading room complete with folk-art-related literature. The funky splashes of color that greet visitors to the center are courtesy of New Orleans folk artist "Dr. Bob" - whose real name is Robert Shaffer - and Tim Jordan, both of whom had helped design several House of Blues sites around the country. "They asked me what I wanted," says Peiser, "and I said when people walk in I want them to gasp and go aaaaah!" Now with most of the debt forgiven and a board that has raised several hundred thousand dollars in public and private donations, the center's future looks as vibrant as its decor. Peiser is particularly grateful to Belz Enterprises, which owns Pembroke Square. "I always knew the basic work of the center would continue to draw people," she says, "but I had no idea we'd be lucky enough to get the right kind of support and backing from the Belzes. They've allowed us to have such a playful, wonderful time here. It's a win-win for everybody." And as for future goals, she laughs and says, "Right now our goal is to stay in one place for more than three years." NOTE: This article originally appeared in The Memphis Magazine's "City Beat."

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