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Dan Conaway

Dan Conaway is in a relationship with his city. A communication strategist, freelance writer, and author of "I'm a Memphian," he can be reached at dan@wakesomebodyup.com.

Conaway: Ode to the olive boat captain

John Simmons, who made retail a riot, gets a Carnival Memphis salute

By Published: February 21, 2019 3:20 PM CT

One of us … uniquely one of us … came home for a visit this week.

Carnival Memphis saluted the home furnishings and decor industry at its annual Business and Industry Luncheon and presented its highest honor – the Cook-Halle Award – to John Simmons.

He sailed undiscovered seas on waves of whimsy and winds of wonder, seeing markers no one else saw, navigating and even creating channels, his singular name known in far-flung ports and lost in a storm of imitation, his extraordinary creativity pirated and pillaged by the ordinary.

I’ve never known anyone quite like John Simmons. Equal parts arbiter and destructor of taste, maker and disruptor of markets, seer and purveyor of what’s next, master of what matters and what matters not at all, certifiable and a certifiable blast to be around.

John Simmons had the most interesting store in Laurelwood in 1960, and later the most interesting store on Union, and then the most interesting five stores in Overton Square, the most interesting store in Poplar Plaza, and the most interesting store on South Main.

Retailing was around before John Simmons, but retailing wasn’t a riot before, a colorful celebration of personality and expression, a singular selection in all shapes and sizes of “What the hell is that?”

The McCartys were making pottery in Merigold, Mississippi, and Mary Sims and Sophie Coors were painting before John Simmons opened shops in Overton Square, but none of them were the talk of this town before John talked them up and showed them off in style. A new generation found their sense of style on his shelves.

When Ben Woodson, one of the Overton Square founders, called John and asked him to open one shop in the nascent Midtown restaurant and shopping district, John opened five and did for retailing what Friday’s did for bars. Forty Carrots, Sycamore, The Potting Shed, Little John’s, and Swings caused a feeding frenzy.

McCarty pottery bells hang in our master bath and outside our front door. I haven’t smoked since 1992 and nobody smokes in our house, but we have signature McCarty ashtrays everywhere. I don’t like olives. We have three McCarty olive boats. Three.

Remember John’s bud vases? A bulb supported by legs made from its roots, sprouting tall leaves, and fashioned from copper to hold a single bud. I don’t buy bud vases. I bought a couple of those.

Those things and more, some going back almost 50 years, were the direct result of my asking John, “What the hell is that?”

John lost the right to use his own name in retailing when others thought they could use it better, when they thought putting it on some 60 stores and expanding its footprint could replicate the magic without the magician.

They didn’t realize that the treasure wasn’t in The Shop of John Simmons; the treasure wasn’t in the imaginative inventory of Carnevale.

The treasure is in John Simmons.

He lives in Mexico now in a place called Ajijic on Lake Chapala among expats and a Memphian or two, and often invites me to visit in emails from “the John Simmons.” I agree. There is only one.

I’m a Memphian, and John made that more interesting.

Topics

John Simmons Overton Square Carnival Memphis

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