Elvis bought his underwear there. B.B. King stopped in when he was in town. Amid the bars and juke joints of Memphis’ famous Beale Street, 142-year-old A. Schwab has been a seemingly-unchanging witness to the rise of blues and rock ‘n’ roll as well as civil rights history. For decades, the old-fashioned “dry goods” store has always been where the locals of every description went for just about everything: pencils like this one, frying pans, 45s, overalls, and — for at almost half a century — all the roots, candles, oils and other hoodoo supplies you could possibly want. After all, as you can see on the late 1960s pencil we found, their motto is, “If you can’t find it at Schwab’s, you’re better off without it.”
About 94 years after French Jewish immigrant Abraham Schwab opened his store on Beale, his son Leo went in search of something to cover up strong smells from nearby restaurants and a salesman hooked him up with some A.A. Vantine Temple incense, which worked (excuse the phrase) like a charm. Vantine began sending promo boxes of other products, much of which happened to be hoodoo related. When Leo decided to put them on display, the modest selection flew off the shelves and soon he was ordering it by the ton and Schwab’s became a respected source. People came from near and far to scoop up some “Protection From Harm” house blessing, rattlesnake root, “Money Drawing” incense, or any number of other items you can still get there at the shop just a couple miles from "Blues" Highway 61. A 1988 Spin magazine article even mentions R.E.M. producer Mitch Easter making a trip to Schwab's for “Exorcising Room Deodorizer” for his North Carolina studio. And ethnographer Tony Kail’s 2017 book “A Secret History of Memphis Hoodoo” has a wealth of other stories about how folks have used the store’s spiritual supplies through the decades.
No doubt, a shop pencil would certainly help keep track of the wide-range of other goods at Schwab’s through the years. By the time Leo Schwab discovered Memphis folks had a strong affinity for candles, oils, roots and other special stock around 1970, A. Schwab had already become the oldest shop on Beale Street, a local landmark that had grown to engulf the building next door (previously one of the first Piggly Wiggly stores) in 1924, and had not only been a go-to for a young Elvis (according to fourth-generation shopkeeper Elliott Schwab at least) but had also seen history march right by its front door.
On March 28, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King organized a peaceful march during the Sanitation Workers Strike that met violence when it reached Beale Street. Schwab’s escaped with just a broken front window and some smashed displays, but a famous photo on the front page of the Memphis Commercial Appeal a couple days later shows a fearful Abram Schwab (grandson of Abraham), his daughter Beverly and an employee “astonished” as Army tanks LBJ called in to quell the unrest roll by the store. Tragically, just a few days later Dr. King was assassinated just eight blocks away.
Today, A. Schwab still stands proudly at 163 Beale Street, the same address as the one on our half-century-old pencil. A sign still points the way to the store’s selection of “Mojo Hands, Music Instruments, T-Shirts, Museum Souvenirs, Blues, Magic Spells, Books/Art, Hoodoo.” They no longer carry these hexagonal yellow A. Schwab pencils and the Schwab’s sold the store to another family in 2011 (though they remain involved). But if memory serves, you can still buy modern white A. Schwab pencils from a cup near the front register. And just as they promised all these years ago on our old yellow No. 2, “if you can’t find it at Schwab’s, you’re better off without it.”