Made in the Mid-South Gift Guide
One-of-a-kind finds from local small business superstars
Story by Casey Hilder
Memphis Cigar Box
There’s nothing quite like the sound of a good old cigar-box guitar. Few are as familiar with that sound as Matt Isbell, frontman for Ghost Town Blues Band.
Isbell started his own business selling handmade guitar slides and cigar box guitars in 2013.
“When I was a kid, I remember making a guitar out of a shoebox, rubber bands and metal brackets,” he says. Because many of the frames and bodies are built around found materials, Isbell has been known to a little fun with his designs. “When I started playing Beale Street and looking for ways to stand apart from the crowd, I thought to myself ‘Maybe I should try to make a guitar out of something interesting.’”
The three-string cigar box prototype was inspired by Isbell’s first guitar – on which the other three strings were broken. “So I made another one. And another one,” he says. “Now I’ve made 376 of ‘em.”
Isbell is no shame to blues lore, playing a central role in University of Memphis student Alexander Conrads’ short film, There Once Was a Cigar Box, a short film that delves into the history of the craft. “He followed me through the whole process of building one and trying it out on Beale Street in real life,” he says.
The sound produced by a Memphis Cigar Box guitar can be described as “Grit ‘n’ growl in a good way.” It definitely sounds like a guitar, but the thicker gauge strings lend themselves to a deeper, more primal baritone than the average guitar. “They have a deep, rich, warm sound,” Isbell says.
And for Isbell, there’s no better sales tactic than showing people what these guitars can do onstage. Memphis Cigar Box Guitars have been purchased and picked by big-time players like Eric Schenkman of Spin Doctors, JL Fulks, Janiva Magness, and of course, Isbell himself.
Memphis Cigar Box products can be special ordered online for $229.99 for a three-string acoustic, 339.99 for a three-string electric model and $449.99 for a six-string electric.
The handcut wooden crosses and signs of Cohen’s Crosses are a labor of love.
Barry Perkins’ small business venture is a tribute of sorts to his son, Cohen, who was born with Downs Syndrome. Perkins, a former patrolman with the Senatobia Police Department, left the force to be at home to take Cohen to the myriad of doctor appointments and therapy sessions associated with his condition.
“We had no idea what to do at the time,” he says. “You just gotta kind of take what He gives you and roll with it.”
The idea for handcrafted crosses and signs stems from an old hobby Perkins had as a teenager and keeps him close to his son at all times. The crosses are hand cut, sanded and painted in Senatobia, Mississippi, and can be used as indoor or outdoor décor. Other popular creations include Mississippi-shaped signs and some subtle shout-outs to local college football teams.
Perkins, 44, has hit a stride as a father of three through his craft and caretaking of Cohen. “He loves music, he loves getting out on the boat,” Perkins says. “He wants everybody to sing to him.” Cohen, now 11, delights in hearing “Let My Baby Ride” by R.L. Burnside.
Perkins’ signage and crosses are made using 3/8 inch plywood and due to the nature of the craft, no two items are the same. “Ronnie Warren at Senatobia High School taught me woodworking about 26 years ago,” he says. “That stuff kind of sticks with you.”
The crosses are the stars of the show, but Perkins has also dabbled in building cornhole tables, desks and dressers on commission. Perkins’ work can be found locally at Blue Olive Shop in Hernando and through wholesale orders.
When Amber Abney needed a name for her toffee company, she decided to let the product speak for itself.
“I was talking to a friend of mine about branding and she’s, like, the biggest toffee fan,” Abney says. “I didn’t want to be ‘The Germantown Toffee Company’ or anything like that since the recipe was originally from Louisiana. That’s when she says ‘Amber, you don’t need anything else. This is THE Toffee.’”
Abney’s take on toffee consists of thick chunks of handbroken bark, lovingly branded with a wide assortment of packaging. The fancy packaging comes naturally for Abney, a freelance graphic designer. Her unique recipe, passed down from relatives in Louisiana, brought forth a trio of toffee treats that serve as the three pillars of her company: “original” milk chocolate with pecans, dark chocolate with pecans, and a nut-free variant of the original.
“There are a lot of recipes in the family cookbook, and the one for toffee was pretty much the only one I could pull off,” she says.
What was once a popular treat for Teacher Appreciation Days since 2012 became a small business February 1 of 2015 when Abney began accepting online orders. By Valentine’s Day, she had sold 116 pounds of toffee.
“Those were crazy days,” she says. “I was making it one pound at a time, pouring it into a tin pan and doing the whole thing myself.”
Longtime friend Cassie O’Connell now lends a much-needed hand in in the kitchen for larger orders.
“When we make milk or dark chocolate toffee, we can make up to 120 pounds in three hours,” Abney says.
The Toffee can be found online for personal orders, as well as various crafts fairs such as the Germantown Festival and Memphis Italian Festival.
From its trendy downtown space to the Memphis-centric array of T-shirt and clothing designs, style rules the roost at Sachë. Owner Eric Evans and his friends started the Downtown Memphis-based clothing store with a goal of selling garments that serve a purpose, but also tell a story.
“We basically got a press and started T-shirt printing out of our garage in Cordova,” Evans says. “We were pressing shirts on cardboard boxes, it was great.” When Evans’ wife got pregnant, he knew he had to step things up.
Sachë opened its doors in 2010 and gained local notoriety for its selection of unique T-shirts take on all things Memphis, from its iconic area code to the local legends known as the Memphis Grizzlies.
“We are not officially partnered with the Memphis Grizzlies, but we do work with FanBank – we produce all their shirts. Every once in a while, we’ll get a call to work with the Grizzlies on some halftime shirts and, of course, we’re always willing to oblige.”
The store, which got its name an old graffiti moniker used by Evans, began as a T-shirt shop focused on eco-friendly dyes and pigments. “I was looking for a name that had some meaning for me, something funky. It started as more of a graffiti approach to tie-dye,” says Evans, calling it a “look-feel-purpose” oriented approach to clothing.
Not long after opening, Evans and his crew of 10 shifted to an emphasis on what they do best – screen printed T-shirts and tops. In 2012, Sachë incorporated a full-service salon run by Evans’ wife into the store, adding to its “one-stop street shop” vibe.
With more than six years in business, Evans says the downtown location has proven a good fit, despite the usual rigors of running a small business.
“Small business work can be hard, no doubt,” he says. “The absence of trolleys has hit us hard, but this area has always been prone to economic waves, but I think we’re on the upswing.”
Northern Street Candles & Soap
facebook.com / northernstreetcandlesandsoap
Necessity was the mother of invention for Pam Turman. The idea behind her Northern Street lineof products was born when Turman’s favorite brand of Shea Butter soap was discontinued one week. Coincidentally, her favorite candle place went out of business soon after. Undaunted, the former realtor decided the next best thing to do was to make her own.
“I’ve always been a hands-on, crafty kind of person,” says Turman. “I decided that it really couldn’t be that hard.”
She began learning how to throws her own pots and candles under the tutelage of Hernando potter Joseph Echles. Around this time, she was also learning how to compose her own scents, including the elusive chai tea fragrance that kickstarted her journey in candlemaking.
Popular natural smells in the Northern Street line include magnolia, gardenias, jasmine and even kudzu. “That one was a request -- I didn’t even know kudzu had a scent until I looked into it,” she says. “It’s actually delightful.” She rarely makes candles that smell like food, with an few holiday exceptions: peppermint fudge and sugar cookie.
The deep, bright colors of Turman’s pottery stand out from the subdued hues of her contemporaries. “When I look for a glaze, I look for something that isn’t drab,” says Turman. “I recently bought a white clay, which gives it even more of a ‘pop.’”
Northern Street candles are 100 percent U.S. made, from the soy wax in the candles to the boxes they’re sold in. Turman also handles custom orders and refills. Her candles and soaps can be found local through Bon Von Gifts in Hernando, UpperCutz in Southaven, Impulse Boutique in Collierville and personal order.