Helen of Memphis
Our trivia expert solves local mysteries of who, what, when, where, why, and why not.
Helen of Memphis as it looked in the late 1950s
COURTESY OF SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, UNIVERSITY OF MEMPHIS LIBRARIES
Dear Vance: Who was the “Helen” of Helen of Memphis? — R.W.
Dear R.W.: When I mentioned to my cellmates — uh, I mean colleagues — that I wondered why this question hadn’t come up long ago (after all, in the past I’ve chatted about Admiral Benbow and even Captain D), I was troubled to find so many who asked me, “What was Helen of Memphis?”
Are memories so short in our city that we no longer recall what was considered the finest women’s clothing store in the city — a landmark on Union Avenue for more than half a century?
To prove just how fancy this place was, I encourage you to turn to the August 28, 1941, edition of The Commercial Appeal, which featured an article headlined “Helen Shop Gala Opening Attracts Many to See Rare Objects of Art.” I’ll wait right here and “friend” random people on Facebook while you get that volume from your library.
Got it? Now just skip down to the paragraph that talks about the women’s clothing department, and the glove counter, “where an artisan who learned her trade in Europe hand-tailors gloves to order from leather.”
That’s right. Helen of Memphis was the kind of place where shoppers didn’t buy clothes that could fit just anybody. Not even gloves. No, you went there and had them custom-tailored just for you. Mother Lauderdale bought her bonnets there every year. Oh, how happy it made her.
But I’m skipping ahead a bit. I should start at the beginning, or close to it, when a young Memphis woman, Helen Reinault Ingram, married a local physician named Arthur Quinn. This was on June 18, 1927. Dr. Quinn was a pediatrician, who owned The Babies and Children’s Clinic at 1193 Madison. His practice must have been quite successful, because old telephone directories show the Quinns moving to bigger and better residences almost every year throughout the 1930s, eventually making their home at 698 Charles Place.
Meanwhile, across town, an interesting assortment of businesses had moved into a wonderful old Gothic Revival building at the corner of Union and Idlewild that had been constructed in the early 1900s as St. Luke’s Church and later First Unitarian Church. For some reason, the church moved out of 1808 Union in the 1930s, and Mary Catherine’s Beauty Salon, Holman-Wade Florists, Myrtle Shellenberger’s Art Studio, and the Rothschild Sisters Dance Studio moved in.
Back to the Quinns. In 1931, Helen became the shop manager for Phil A. Halle men’s clothing store, then located on the ground floor of the old Exchange Building downtown. She worked there three years, and then apparently decided she had what it took to open her own place.
And so in 1934 she opened The Helen Shop at 1648 Union Avenue, in a building that formerly housed Heirloom Antique Shop. The first Helen Shop was also an antique shop, but within a year or so the city directories described the business as “women’s furnishings.”
Finally, on February 7, 1937, the big move took place. I don’t know what happened to the beauty salon, florist, and dance studio that formerly occupied 1808 Union, but Helen moved in. She paid just $12,500 for the two-story building, with its nice turret and rows of big windows.
Within a few years, Helen expanded, buying the building next door that had once housed a photography studio. That’s when The Commercial Appeal published the story I mentioned earlier. The reporter noted that The Helen Shop “played host to the fashionable women of Memphis.” In those days, the shop offered all sorts of things for “the city’s smart set” (such as these Immaculate Conception High School girls, left) and “debutantes of the past season mixed with many of former seasons, and with the city’s socially prominent matrons.” In addition to fine clothing, the Helen Shop offered “a unique gallery of rare and individual gifts in stationery, glass, furniture, and objets d’art.”
How rare? Well, the store offered a Chippendale cabinet more than 150 years old, a “Venetian agate floor vase shot through with gold,” fine oriental rugs, a French game table inlaid with satinwood, and “a Hungarian fischer jardinière of the seventeenth-century period, when they were last made,” among other treasures.
In addition to all the antiques and custom-made clothing, the shop offered a complete infant’s department, jewelry of all kinds, shoes, hats, and hosiery “in all the new fall colors.”
What’s strange to me, however, is that Helen really didn’t stay involved with the business for very long. By 1945, the city directories show that a fellow named Richard Busch was now the manager of the establishment. Helen and Arthur Quinn were still living in Memphis, but the phone books no longer indicate any connection with the Helen Shop. And in fact, after 1953, there was no mention of them whatsoever, and despite a solid half-hour of searching the library files, I was never able to find a photograph of Helen herself.
The store on Union survived and even thrived, at some point changing its name to Helen of Memphis. The old buildings went through several transformations, the most dramatic in 1958 when noted Memphis architect Nowland Van Powell was commissioned to give the place a new look. According to the authors of Memphis: An Architectural Guide, “Powell gave the ensemble an almost impossible-to-achieve coherence. His solution was to encase all the disparate elements in a sheer wall brought right out to the sidewalk.” This gleaming white building is the one that Memphians remember — well, perhaps I should say those who remember it at all.
The business went through several owners over the years — first sold to an out-of-towner, Sidney Berman of New York City, then to Maurice Herman of Dallas, and then to a local businessman, Zachary Levine. A branch store opened in Germantown, plans were announced for another one in Clarksdale, Mississippi, and the flagship store on Union eventually grew to 30,000 square feet.
But you know the old saying: All good things must come to an end. In July 1988, the owners of Helen of Memphis closed the Germantown store “for renovations” but never reopened it. And in late October, shoppers at the Union Avenue store found the doors locked, the windows empty. Finally contacted by reporters, the owners said they were going to turn the site into an “upscale retail” development.
Instead, the old buildings were bulldozed, and a Rite-Aid pharmacy was erected on the site. I’ll let readers judge for themselves how “upscale” that is, but I have a feeling you can’t purchase custom-fitted leather gloves there.
One more memory: During the demolition of the Union Avenue store, I wandered into the rubble and pulled out a fat roll of embroidered “Helen of Memphis” clothing labels. That night, I sewed them over all the Kent’s Dollar Store labels in my shirts and pants. Nothing wrong with Kent’s, but hey, no place in Memphis had more class, for so many years, as Helen of Memphis.
Searching for the Sombrero
Dear Vance: Please settle a bet for me. I think the first Mexican restaurant in Memphis wasn’t Pancho’s, but a little place on Lamar called the Sombrero. — H.T., Memphis.
Dear H.T.: Oh, I hate questions like this. Whenever I pronounce something is the first, or oldest, or last, or newest, or anything really, then somebody usually shows up with their pesky facts and makes me look foolish. And you know what happens when you insult a Lauderdale? Pistols at dawn. Or at least a sound thrashing from my butler.
The hard thing about this debate is defining Mexican “restaurant.” As far back as the 1920s, Memphians could stop at tamale stands all over the city, and in fact, out in Germantown, I believe Dogwood Road was known informally as “Hot Tamale Road” because of a tamale stand located there. Or maybe I dreamed that. But these couldn’t be considered restaurants because you couldn’t dine inside, and most of them rarely lasted more than a year or so.
But there’s no question that the Sombrero came along almost 20 years before Pancho’s. Looking through old city directories, as I like to do, night after lonely night in the Mansion, I discovered that Frank and Maude Linche opened the Sombrero Cafe way back in 1936. The little building at 2693 Lamar, in case you were wondering, had originally housed Frazier’s Restaurant. Pancho’s didn’t open in West Memphis until 1956, and there’s no listing for a Pancho’s in our city until 1959, when the first one opened on South Bellevue.
The Sombrero, as so many restaurants do, had several owners over the years. In 1959, it moved to a larger building at 4003 Lamar, just outside the city limits. The last owner was Eugene Lawson, and he finally closed the place in 1973. As restaurants go, it had a good run — almost 40 years.
While I was searching through the restaurant listings in the 1930s city directories, I came across some eateries with especially intriguing names. Someday, when I get a chance, I think I’ll look into such establishments as the Okey Doke Lunchroom on Front Street, the Zero Inn on Walker, the North Pole Sandwich Shop on Beale Street, the Dipsey Doodle on Rozelle, and — my personal favorite for obvious reasons — the Ding Dong Diner on Vance.