The building that sits at 531 South Main isn’t much to look at. Like many of the structures in downtown Memphis, it bears the weight of its years: the two-story, brick façade is striped with decades of multi-colored flaking paint, pockmarked with crumbling gaps in the mortar, and adorned with abstract runes of graffiti, faded from years beneath the Southern sun. The windows are bare, the sidewalk broken and burgeoning with tenacious wisps of Tennessee weeds. The only indication that the building hasn’t been utterly abandoned, in fact, doesn’t appear until after the sun sets and darkness falls on Memphis, when a single blackened window flickers to life with an incongruously cheerful, red, neon glow: “Earnestine & Hazel’s,” it advertises, is open for business.
With almost 100 years—and a number of incarnations in varying degrees of reputability—under its belt, the establishment runs thick with history, making it a magnet for local lore, tall tales, and good old fashioned ghost stories. Located on the central hub of Main Street and close enough to the railroad tracks to attract a crowd, the building opened its doors as a pharmacy in the 1930’s under the auspices of an entrepreneur and amateur chemist by the name of Abe Plough.
Though the pharmacist presumably found success and satisfaction in his humble business, he eventually developed a product that would “straighten the hair out,” a miracle tonic that garnered him fame from New York to New Orleans and filled his pockets with cash. Armed with newfound celebrity and wealth, Plough packed his bags and high-tailed it out of Memphis, pausing only long enough to sign over the building to the tenants that rented rooms upstairs, two hairdressers by the name of Earnestine and Hazel.
The ladies, who had limited interest in the pharmaceutical industry, converted the establishment into a café, complete with a menu of drinks, music, and dancing on the first floor, and one that catered to gentlemen callers with slightly less conventional appetites on the second. Not surprisingly, the cast of characters attracted by the unorthodox carte du jour brought trouble with them; dark rumors of murders, suicides, and accidental overdoses surrounded the café until it closed its doors in the 1970’s. Earnestine & Hazel’s was boarded up and abandoned until it caught the eye of Russell George, a nightclub operator who purchased the building in 1992. Though the doors had remained locked and the windows boarded for some twenty-odd years, it soon became apparent that some of the building’s original occupants had never left.
The paranormal happenings at Earnestine and Hazel’s are among the most famous in Memphis, as much of a draw as the Soul Burger—the only item on the menu and touted as the best in town—and certainly more than the minimalist ambiance of the restaurant itself. Having undergone only enough restorations as to be deemed inhabitable, the interior consists of a long bar running the length of the building, a few cantilevered tables scrabbled together, and a flickeringly-backlit display case commemorating the legendary blues musicians that popped into the café on their way to Beale Street.
Against the front wall rests an old-fashioned stand-alone jukebox with a half-dozen flip-pages of classic blues and country laid open expectantly. Though the machine appears to be innocuous enough, droves of paranormal enthusiasts make the pilgrimage to Main Street, Memphis, just to hear it play, since it not only does so of its own volition, but also appears to choose tunes that bear an eerie relevance to whatever conversations the current patrons are having.
The second story of the bar is no stranger to supernatural happenings either. Settled and worn at an unsettling cant, the dim stairwell that leads to the former brothel is the site of numerous spectral encounters; the upright piano on the landing has been known to strike up a tune on its own; and each of the rooms—outfitted with original claw-foot tubs, bare bedsprings, or sunken sofas—pulses with the memories of its previous inhabitants. Even the most insistent skeptic would find it difficult to walk down the dimly lit hallway without feeling a prickling of the scalp, a tightening of shallowed breath, and a tensing of nervous muscles.
With almost two hundred years of troubled history deeply embedded in its streets, Memphis is a city with as many ghost stories as street corners, yet one should not allow the sheer profusion of spooky tales to detract from the unique genesis of each one. The building that stands at 531 Main Street and the stories it holds are at once quirky and dark. From pharmacy to café to bordello to bar, the building’s many incarnations provide the perfect backdrop for a myriad of supernatural suppositions, yet whether the mysterious happenings at Earnestine and Hazel’s can be attributed to overactive spirits or overactive imaginations, they are a testament to the uniquely Southern proclivity to seamlessly blend historical fact, hearsay, and myth, creating a story as multifaceted as the city itself.