Ghost signs show Memphis commerce of days long gone

"Signs signs everywhere a sign. Blocking up the scenery breaking my mind."

A child of the early 1970s or of the early 1990s remembers these lyrics. But well before Five Man Electric Band, people took the time and effort to put their own words onto buildings throughout the city of Memphis. And while the businesses are long gone, their markers remain.

These ghost signs, or faded remnants of advertisements once painted on the side of buildings, have turned into artifacts of a day of Memphis commerce long gone.

The messages have little meaning in 2017 other than jogging the memories of those who worked or did business there. An acute eye can show the changes in manufacturing and retail that read like a map across the façade of Memphis.

The Frank James Hotel is a remnant of Downtown's hospitality boom following the opening of two train stations in the early 1900s.

The Frank James Hotel at 516 South Main

Dates unknown
The sign catches your eye as you pass by photographer Murray Riss' studio. An art nouveau-inspired portrait shows a blissful woman surrounded by flowers. The sign reads, “Frank James Hotel 516 S. Main”

This stretch of Downtown was home to many small hotels after Memphis' two largest train stations opened in South Main in 1912 and 1914. The Frank James Hotel stood apart, however.

Riss purchased the building in 1987. "The sign was up when I purchased the building, but it was a totally different painting on its original structure. I had it repainted by Jan Hankins who is a fine local artist as well as a sign painter about ten years ago," he said in an email.

"When I bought the building, it was an abandoned whore house.

For at least four years before my purchase it was the comfortable home for a large family of pigeons who came freely in and out of the building through the roof that had caved in,” Riss added.

Riss remembered a similar sign on a beauty shop at what is now the Parkview Retirement Community at 1914 Poplar Avenue. A little research shows that beauty shop was Hollice Johnson's Salon.

As for being a house of ill repute, as some places fell onto hard times, the clientele changed. A 1989 article in The Memphis Flyer said rooms could be had for $2 and prostitutes were working the area. The 1990s changed things. But the sign stays up reminding locals and visitors of South Main’s ribald past.

Located at 516 South Main, the former Frank James Hotel building is now a photography studio.

The King’s Heartbreak Hotel at 633 Monroe Avenue

1982 to 1983
In June, 1982 Graceland began opening for tours. Sun Studios, where Elvis recorded his first record, had been open for the fans for three years before that. Just around the corner was a hotel that dates back to 1917. It was known as the Texas Hotel and the Monroe Hotel over the years.

Warren and Shannon Williams found the perfect opportunity in The King's Heartbreak Hotel, a 1950s themed restaurant decorated with over 100 rare photos of Elvis Presley, with a 1957 Cadillac as its salad bar, a neon rock singer in blue shoes out front. Patrons sat in wine colored velour booths with cranberry pink linen and blue napkins decorated with a phone number of 525-KING.

"We told the painter to do a picture on the walls outside of a rock singer of the 1950s. We wanted someone similar to Elvis but not Elvis exactly. But the picture did turn out to look more like Elvis than anyone out of the '50s,” said the former owners of the building.

It opened March 12, 1983. Georgeann King of the Memphis Press-Scimitar gave it 2 out of 4 forks for food and service and 3 for ambiance. Cost of dinner for 2 without tip, she said, was $36.51. But the restaurant was short lived. It closed August of that year and the building was sold November 1984. The heartbreak was not just in the name.

A short-lived restaurant located just around the corner from Sun Studios tried to capitalize on Graceland's fame.

Memphis Tobacco Company at 320 Monroe Avenue

1971 to 2007
In 1946, this current site of Mutt Island pet daycare was built in the area now near Fielder's Square Apartments. It was originally Memphis Tobacco Company. Archives of the city directory point to William H. Harris & Co. as owner of the building between 1971 and 2007.

Surrounded by hi-rises and office towers, the Memphis Tobacco Company sign remains as a testament to Memphis' merchant past.

Abraham Grocery at 705-711 Dudley Street

1917 to 1950
This family business just north of Elmwood Cemetery was the main office of R. Samuel Abraham, a native of Austria and his wife Rosa Weisberger Abraham, also of Austria, whom he married in 1913.

As grocery merchants, they lived and worked at 699 Dudley Street in 1915. Around 1917, they moved the business to 705-711 Dudley Street, where one can see the family name emboldened in a ghost sign.

The business seemed to propagate and by the 1922 city directory, there were seven additional stores in Memphis. Samuel and Rosa continued to live at the store until moving into a home at 677 Melrose Street by the 1920s.

It was an era of the family business where Samuel was the president, Harry Abraham as vice president, Jack Abraham as treasurer and Etta Abraham Stark as secretary. George Abraham and patriarch Adolph Abraham worked as the clerks. Later the family went into business selling wholesale meats. Samuel died in 1940 and by the 1951 directory the company had moved to Warford Street.

For many, a family business provides a legacy. This ghost sign has remained longer than the business' active life.

Firestone Tire & Rubber Factory at 974 Firestone Avenue

1937 to 1983
It's a summer sunrise and no one is out as I'm getting photos of the morning sun hitting the old Firestone smokestack. Had it been 1977 or 1967 the scene could not have been more different with bustling factory workers going about their early morning shifts.

The first tire went off the assembly line in 1937, according to Jestein Gibson, collections manager of the Pink Palace museum where that very tire is part of their collection.

Stretches of Frayser and North Memphis were blue collar neighborhoods that benefitted from the plant’s proximity. By the late 1960s, Firestone was producing around 20,000 car and truck tires every day. At its peak, it was one of the largest area employers with over 3,000 workers. The 1970 census shows about 60,000 people living around the plant.

In the following decade, the situation began to turn for U.S. manufacturing. In August 1982, Firestone announced it would close the plant which then numbered 1,100 employees. The last shift ended March 18, 1983.

The Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. factory brought thousands of jobs and a stable middle class life to North Memphis.

That blow to the community combined with the 1985 shuttering of International Harvester stunted growth in Frayser and North Memphis. In 1990, seven years after the closing, there were 36,000 people living there and by 2010 the census reported less than 27,000 residents.

Now, the factory is a shell of the old school manufacturing economy and looks like something Bruce Springsteen would write a song about. But decades of Memphis winds, rain and sun have not taken away the Firestone name that adorns this former star of Memphis industry.

R.J. Stange & Co. Clothing and Shoes at 310 S Main

1909 to 1920
Robert J. Stanage opened this clothing store at 310 South Main Street in 1909. It disappears from the city directory in 1920. About that time, Stanage went into the real estate business at 78 South Main and lived at 964 Oakview Street. His advertisement is displayed prominently on the cover of Memphis City directories. He was born New Year's Day 1883 and died New Year's Eve 1952.

A ghost sign from the turn of the century hangs on to the side of South Main.

Harding’s Fish at 2264 South Lauderdale Street

1981 to 1993
Two signs claim territory over 2264 South Lauderdale Street. The window advertises for Bea’s Unisex Hair Salon. The brick wall reads “Enjoy Harding’s Fish”.

Based on all appearances, it would seem that Harding’s Fish was a longstanding business that existed before the hair salon. That’s not the case according to salon owner Bea Gipson.

The building is from 1916 but Harding's first shows up next door in 1981. The listing disappears after the 1993 city directory. Gipson tells High Ground News she opened in 1977. Harding's is gone, but Bea remains at Dempster and South Lauderdale ready to take the next haircut.

Fish and a haircut, two bits.

Shoe Carnival at 6485 Winchester Road

1997 to 2014
A phrase mall historian Peter Blackbird came up with is labelscars, which means fading dirt or signs left behind from a once thriving store. While many of these signs show places and a city of decades ago, Hickory Pavilion shopping center is not old enough to buy beer.

Built in 1997, Hickory Ridge Pavilion once supported this Shoe Carnival store which moved out in 2014.

The shopping center also housed a Circuit City, a Barnes and Noble, Marshall’s and an Office Max, plus many others. But retail and neighborhood changes can be rough on shopping centers. A visit in July showed four places remain – Salon Suites, Value City Furniture, Life Center Church and Hair Unlimited – in the more that 318,000-square-foot center.

Census data provided by DataUSA shows the tracts in and around the center with household incomes ranging from $22,000 to $44,000. In comparison, the Memphis metro area has a $49,000 median income.

The turning tide against enclosed malls nearly drowned the Hickory Ridge Pavilion.

But travel east about a mile and past Riverdale the median household income can get near $70,000. The owners of the center have not given up as evidenced by plenty of "For Lease" signs dotting the storefronts at the mostly empty mall.

James Keyes Bassoons at 3542 Walker Avenue

1980 to 1998

Sitting between Girabaldi's Pizza, 901 ScoopA professional bassoonist-turned-repairman made his home on this University of Memphis-area corner.  and Moe's Southwestern Grill, aside from temptation to forgo a diet, is a little piece of the city's musical past. Though Memphis has a drum shop and a few guitar places that draw music lovers from all over, once it had a place for bassoons within walking distance for a University of Memphis music major.

Keyes at the time was a bassoonist for the Memphis Symphony Orchestra in the early 1980s. With former student Alvin Swiney, he opened the shop where oboes and bassoons were maintained. Though the sign reads James Keyes Bassoons, it was referred to as the Woodwind Clinic.

It takes more than just an ability to play to make a great craftsman, Keyes learned.

Five hundred hours in the machine shop plus 500 hours of drafting got him to the point where he could be called on by members of symphonies from around the nation.

"I enjoyed the satisfaction of doing great work, plus it was fun,” Keyes said. He left for family reasons in 1998 and now does woodwind work out of his shop in Alexandria, Tenn. where he says he keeps “plenty busy.”

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Read more articles by Devin Greaney.

Devin Greaney is a Memphis-based freelance writer and photographer who has been published in the Memphis DowntownerDeSoto Magazine and others. He works full time as an Emergency Medical Technician and had an extensive knowledge of the history and geography of the MidSouth area.