Memphis Type History Caitlin Horton & Rebecca Phillips
Reviewed by Kevin Dean, Executive Director, Literacy Mid-South
Did you know Isaac Hays’ girlfriend, Elvis’ aunt, and Al Green’s mother frequented Atkins Beauty and Barber Shop, once located where the Beauty Shop Restaurant now sits? Who would have guessed that the Universal Life Insurance building, that gorgeous but derelict building on Danny Thomas Blvd., once housed an employee cafeteria and a 350-seat theater? How many people know that one of the first Piggly Wiggly’s was located in the building now housing Joe’s Liquor? I didn’t, but I’m glad I know now. Memphis Type History, written by Caitlin Horton with artwork by Rebecca Phillips, isn’t just about signage, which is what one might expect by the book’s gorgeous cover art. The book is also about Memphis’ unknown history, ranging from shootouts at hotels to the stresses of disco roller skating on “good clean family fun” in the 1970’s. When I received a copy of Memphis Type History, I expected a coffee table book, one with lots of pictures and tiny captions. I was surprised to find that the signage was secondary to the stories behind some of the most well-known buildings in Memphis. The type is denser than expected, and the pictures are secondary to the lush portrait that these stories paint about our city’s backstory. The book even shows us the underbelly of Memphis, ranging from strip clubs to seedy theaters. Of course, the Sputnik sign is front and center. “One of the most recognizable signs in this book, the Sputnik at Joe’s Liquors, represents the creative vision of a quiet inventor, hardly known to the world, who gifted us with spectacular road signs across the country,” Horton writes in her introduction. “The Sputnik also represents how a community will rally around something it loves to restore it to a former glory. While interesting, the engineering specs of the Sputnik do not tell anything about the sign’s true importance because a sign is a reflection of something more important than itself.” These signs represent our musical history, civil rights, and a generation that remembers the world as a different place. Don’t be misled when I told you that Memphis Type History wasn’t the coffee table book that I thought it would be. In fact, it’s better. A copy now sits on my own coffee table, a pictorial history book of the town I love filled with stories I’ll share with visitors for years to come. Caitlin Horton and Rebecca Phillips will join author Miriam DeCosta-Willis at the Mid-South Book Festival on Saturday, September 12th at Circuit Playhouse for a panel discussion about Memphis landmarks. The event is free and open to the public. More information is available at www.midsouthbookfest.org. 78 / 4Memphis
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