Norwalk, California, situated somewhat between L.A. and Long Beach, is home to MW Polar Foods, which started with an unspecified seafood item in 1976 and has since branched out into a spectacular array of canned seafood, vegetables, snacks, drinks and fruits. In my local market Polar products are shelved on the dollar aisle, and while some might sneer at me for stooping to use such a low-end product, I’ve found their fruits perfect additions to any number of desserts, particularly their ridiculously evenly shaped teeny-tiny strawberries that are infused with enough red dye to turn your nasal hairs pink. I like their cute little jars, too.
As a life-long patron and former employee of the public library system, I was delighted to discover the work of Gina Sheridan, whose wonderful book and blog, I Work at a Public Library, has provided me hour upon hour of fun and wonder. Sheridan’s pithy, off-beat, quirky accounts of the incidents and exchanges that take place in what she refers to as a “neutral place” range from the poignant to the hilarious and make for fascinating reading no matter who you are. What’s more, I was thrilled to find out that Gina is a former pupil and current colleague of my great friend Jeff Weddle, who is an associate professor of Library and Information Studies at the University of Alabama. Gina graciously agreed to answer a few questions about her life and work so I could share.
A bit about me: I grew up in a St. Louis suburb, the middle of five kids. I have an older sister, an older brother, and a younger sister and a younger brother. I’ve always found this sort of special. My mom was always trying to kill herself (and still hasn’t succeeded) so we grew up fast. The girl siblings made it out smart and happy, and the boys made it out alive but damaged. I got married at 19 because it meant a fresh start and it seemed like the thing to do at the time. We lasted seven years. My brain exploded at college as I learned more about the world and its occupants, and he was kind but couldn’t keep up. I moved to Savannah, GA for fun for a couple of years before graduate school in Tuscaloosa, AL. My first professional librarian position was in Fresno, CA where I met husbear and started I Work at a Public Library because I wanted to try out Tumblr and was in awe of almost every person I met at the library. Even though I’ve been writing since I was young, first bad poetry and then so many blogs! I never sought to be a published author; it was such a fluke how it happened.
You say you “curate” the stories, which I find a curious way to say you compile and edit the stories. Describe the process of submission to blog, in other words, the stories you receive, where do they come from (geographically), what are your criteria for acceptance, and while you say “Most are offered without comment …” what sorts of stories do you find need or deserve some sort of comment?
I love the word curate because I collect the stories from all sorts of places, not just the submission button on the blog. Sometimes I find a great story on a friend’s Facebook page. Sometimes it’s a story told in passing at work. Yesterday, one came by snail mail! Sometimes people will text or email me a snippet of a story and I have to carefully flesh it out for it to make sense and appeal to a general audience. Often it’s something I personally experience. But there are times I start typing it up and realize it’s not quite right, or won’t mean enough to anyone other than me. Those are the ones that are hard to explain. Many of the submissions I receive (perhaps 40% of them) are way off base, something I’ll discuss in another answer below.
The stories come from all over the world–I’m surprised how many submissions I get from people in Canada and Australia in particular. Most are from current or retired library workers, but I get some messages and stories from library users who have had weird or funny or touching experiences at the library.
I like to offer up the stories objectively, without comment or judgment for the most part. I do this so that readers can get a picture of events that actually take place without my opinions murking it up. However, the “bullies” tag is inherently subjective and a few others sprinkled here and there provide commentary on how I feel about the subject or situation. When I share a link to Facebook, it often accompanies a sentiment. There are times I can’t help myself.
Do you find that people are confused by the things you (and I) find amusing about library patrons? Do you ever get any feedback from people who find the blog offensive in any way, for instance condescending?
99% of the Tumblr interactions are overwhelmingly positive. The same is true of the interactions on the associated Facebook page and Twitter feed. There have been very few negative comments or reactions. While I try to avoid my own book reviews, I did catch a few of the IWAAPL book that expressed things like, “I could’ve written this.” or “This could’ve happened anywhere, not just a library.” or “What is so special about these stories?” or “Libraries are WAY worse than this watered down bullshit.” Those sorts of things. And I agree! But that’s what I find so cool about the subject. It’s not unique. I love paying attention to my surroundings and the people I meet. Sometimes you look up and see something brilliant in the mundane. Not everyone does, though. I think most people who don’t get it just stay away or keep quiet–in any case, I don’t hear from them!
Yes, the characters are colorful and often entertaining, but what do you mean by “their jackets are dusty, subtext confusing, and even if they don’t fit in anywhere else in life, all of them belong at the library.” I think this is charmingly intriguing, and would like as full an explanation as you feel you can provide.
The American public library is one of very few places in the world where everyone is truly welcome. As long as you abide by a few simple (common sense) rules, you can stay from open to close, you don’t have to make a purchase, no one will ask for your membership card or judge what you are reading (or not reading). All of this means that public libraries attract all sorts of people, of course. And this includes employees! Some of the quirkiest people I know are librarians. Librarians aren’t just cardigans and margaritas, people!
Here’s a question I’m sure you get all the time: Where did you get the idea for I Work at a Public Library?
I’ve been blogging for many years. Blogs are a free and easy place to collect things and find community. I used to have a “Quotes of the Week” blog where I shared funny things I heard throughout the week, with a complete lack of context. I also have “Here, Hold This” which contain iPhone photos of my husband holding miscellaneous items. IWAAPL was a place I could collect the library stories that amazed and touched me. Plus, I wanted to try out the new-at-the-time platform called Tumblr. I didn’t realize it would become popular and I never imagined it would turn into a book deal. Several years in, an agent contacted me on Twitter and it was only a couple of months later that a publisher offered us a contract. It really was the right combination of people at the right time–I call it a fluke because there are so many other blogs out there with way more readers than I have.
Sure, your stories illustrate the “quirkiness” of humanity, but what else? What else do they have to say about the human condition, particularly in terms of the thirst for knowledge, or the need for information?
Some people come to the library because they don’t have many other places to go, or people to talk to. Some are indeed thirsty for knowledge and aren’t at all afraid to ask any question under the sun. People feel pretty safe at the library and library workers love to be busy and helpful answering questions others may scoff at. But working with the general public can be difficult at times. When someone is exhibiting poor behavior, I see it as a challenge–how can I deescalate the situation? How can I smooth things over so the person and the staff member is happier than when I found them? I tell my staff, “Start with yes and always err on the side of customer service.” That seems to work pretty well, but some people carry their baggage with them everywhere and nothing helps.
The biggest surprise to me is the response from library workers, young and old, just starting out or retired, professional or paraprofessional. The stories give them hope, validation, humor they can relate to, nostalgia. Radical librarian Sanford Berman and I are pen pals because he happened upon my book! He sends me clippings of old newsletters and sends me notes on the backs of grocery lists. I cherish our correspondence very much.
Be honest and tell me you do get submissions that you consider inappropriate for your blog. What sorts of submissions would fall under this category? Accounts of child abuse, perhaps? Criminal activity of other sorts?
Nothing that dramatic! The worst sorts of submissions I receive have a huge slant toward the negative. Some people just don’t “get” the vibe I’m going for. They want to vent about “crazy people” or their co-workers or boss. These are stories of poor customer service. Some are mean-spirited or could be perceived that way. That’s not cool with me (and frankly, it’s boring).
What sort of reception has your blog received among librarians? Are you a celebrity at conventions? (Weddle once told me that librarians will hold meetings/conferences at the drop of a hat, and as a former librarian, I know he’s right.)
No! I’m so not a celebrity. There are so many rockstar librarians actually making a difference in the industry–Jason Broughton, Taneya Gethers, David Lee King, Scott Bonner, Melissa Jacobs, Patrick Sweeney. These guys are change agents and library advocates, I’m just a blogger!
Is “Cuckoo Carol” a real person, or is she an amalgamation of assorted nuts you have known? (I suspect the latter, btw … )
Carol is a real person named Meg. She was such a character who kept me on my toes. The nickname came from her–“Just call me cuckoo!” she once said to me. When the book was coming out, I gave her a call at the library where I knew her (because I knew she’d be there–she was there for 10+ hours per day. I even knew where she’d be sitting so they could go get her and tell her she had a phone call). Here’s how the conversation went:
Me: “Meg, it’s Gina, the librarian who used to work there. Do you remember me?”
Meg: “No! Is this a sales call?”
Me: “No, no, nothing like that. Listen, I remember you fondly. Anyway, I’m writing a book about funny things that happen at the library. You’re in it. Are you cool with that? Do you want to read the stories ahead of time? You are basically going to star in a chapter.”
Meg: “That’s the story of my life!”
And she hung up.
You confess that most of the stories are in your book, I Work at a Public Library. How has the book been received?
About 75% of the stories in the book were new (never published on the site). I just checked: the site has 850 stories to date! The book is not at all a runaway bestseller or anything like that. It’s a great bathroom read and makes a good gift for library lovers and book people. I’m proud the book is out there in the world.
How do you view the role of librarians in society now? Petty bureaucrats or guardians of the public trust?
Librarians of today are space makers, community teachers, innovators, change agents, information helpers. We help people find jobs, get their mind off their troubles, learn to read, learn to love to read, and we offer free classes and lectures and performances. In St. Louis during the Ferguson turmoil, both protesters and non-protesters felt safe coming into the library to find some respite, get a drink of water, charge their cell phones, use a computer, etc. It’s a neutral place that is much needed today.
Dear Mr. Yancy,
Thank you for submitting your work, The Existential Tomato, to the University Press of Missitucky. I want to assure you that your book did receive a great deal of consideration.
The title itself was subject to intense study. Our assistant senior editors, Mr. Stanley Pastel and Ms. Judith Brawn, engaged in a lively debate on whether a vegetable can be considered “existential” with Mr. Pastel contending that it’s not the vegetable itself that is existential but rather the perception of the vegetable that is of an existential nature whereupon Ms. Brawn threatened to tear the rug off his head and flush it down the toilet in the ladies’ room. Ms. Ergot, who manages most of our culinary titles, said that while The Existential Tomato does have many farm-to-table aspects, the recipes for the most part seem to be more in the grandmère à petit enfant vein, which while certainly a valid culinary movement is very little known and even less understood in this country. I must say that the graphics editor, Mr. Wing, was quite enthusiastic, and prepared no less than nine prospective covers, none of which had anything remotely resembling a tomato. The copy editor, Mr. Rupert, said that your writing, while crisp and clean, not only had too many semi-colons and long dashes, but was peppered with such unfamiliar words as “macerate”. At this point the senior editor, Mr. Crabtree, had what we politely refer to as an “incident” and had to be taken by our receptionist, Ms. Harcourt, to the showers in the women’s dorm across the street for assistance, and the meeting was adjourned until the next day.
In the final analysis, I’m sorry to say that The Existential Tomato while informative, amusing and illuminating of the state of mankind in the 21st century does not meet the criteria for our publishing house. We wish you the best of luck.
Graduate Editorial Assistant
This distinctly Southern recipe is most often cooked and served as a casserole. Now, if you’re wealthy enough to afford a quart of oysters or lucky enough to be able to get a sack, not to mention industrious enough to shuck them, knock yourself out. If however you’re poor, unfortunate and lazy (as I am), you can assert (as I do) that this simple, elegant recipe deserves a more sophisticated presentation and cook individual servings in a gratin.
Most traditional versions of this dish employ parsley and paprika, but I feel the parsley gets lost and the paprika adds an unnecessary smoky accent, as does the Worcestershire many use. I use chopped scallions in lieu of parsley and grated onion or shallots, seasoning with only a bit of black pepper. While oyster cracker crumbs are undoubtedly a nice touch, I use saltines and a heavy cream instead of half-and half.
Place a single layer of drained oysters in a 10” gratin, drizzle with melted butter, sprinkle with chopped scallions, a little more butter, pepper and top with cracker crumbs. Lift one edge of the mixture and slowly pour in the cream, being careful not to wet the crumb topping. Bake in a very hot oven until bubbling and lightly browned. Serve with lemon.
Don’t be put off by the fancy name for this dish, since essentially it’s just a sweet molded pudding usually made with milk or cream, though you’ll find a savory version with chicken from Turkey. It’s very simple and very old; Chaucer makes a really gross joke with it in his Prologue to The Canterbury Tales (I won’t go into it). The thickening is usually achieved with either cornstarch or gelatin, though in this version I use both because while buttermilk gives the dessert a nice acidy zing, it tends to separate with heating so just using gelatin will give you a 2-layer dessert of clear yellowish whey and a sort of grainy white cream. The addition of the corn starch stabilizes the buttermilk for an even consistency.
3 cups low fat buttermilk
A half cup of sugar
2 pkgs. unflavored gelatin and 2 tablespoon2 corn starch mixed and dissolved in about a guarter cup of warm water
1 tablespoon lemon zest
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract (check the label)
Add gelatin and cornstarch mixture to hot but not boiling buttermilk, whisk to a smooth consistency until it just begins to thicken, add lemon zest and vanilla. Let cool slightly in the refrigerator until just firming and spoon into lightly oiled individual molds, cool until quite firm. Makes six 4 oz. servings. Serve with a raspberry or strawberry puree. Top with crushed sliced almonds if desired.
The day Jimmy went into rehab Debby put in a garden. I kept telling her it was too early, but Jimmy would be out in a month, and she wanted everything to look promising. He was in what once was a church to get rid of a demon, to build a future, and the very day he entered was sunny and warm.
Jimmy’s commitment had been court ordered after he’d busted up the pool hall on Radley Road and sent Dennis Sprayberry to the ER with six broken ribs. Jimmy wasn’t always like this, meaning the type who’d take a cue and beat the ever-living hell out of the guy who was the best man at his wedding, a guy who was also the smallest football player in Mississippi ever to make All-State. No, Jimmy was good once, and things just went bad, but before that he and Debby got married in the same church he was now exorcising his devil. Dennis couldn’t bring himself to press charges, so Jimmy wasn’t in that much trouble, but he needed to mind himself.
Debby just couldn’t understand how it had all gone wrong, since for a long time all Jimmy did was drink a little too much beer every now and then but bit by bit he kept drinking more, got off all by himself a lot of times and nobody could talk to him and when we did he just said nothing he had going was doing right. And it wasn’t. He was hanging by a thread with his job, and when he almost cut his thumb off in an air-conditioner changing out the condenser and tested for alcohol for the third time he was fired. That’s the night he ended up down Radley Road and tried to kill Dennis. The sheriff played on the same All-State team, and he told the prosecutor to throw the book at him, but things worked out so that Jimmy had to spend a month in rehab and two years under observation.
So when Jimmy went in, Debby planted a garden in the cold earth under not much sun and a lot of rain. She went to the garden store in Tupelo and bought tomatoes and peppers, squash and cucumber seedlings, which she set out in a bed off the porch. She said she wanted her and Jimmy to be able to sit there in the afternoons and watch the sun go down over the garden. She said she was going to make Easter eggs so she and Jimmy could go looking for them the day after he got out. I knew it was a bad idea, but I’d said all I could. Good Friday came, and Debby got a call. Jimmy had broken out, so they had to put him in jail for violation of a court order. That night a cold wind came in and threw down a hard frost. Come morning the garden was nothing but frozen rows with withered plants, and all I could do was be there.
“You knew this was going to happen, didn’t you?” she said. I didn’t. I was blinded by hope, too. I loved my brother Jimmy more than she did.
The following article, written by Col. M.D.L. Stephens, appeared in Calhoun Monitor in 1900, was reprinted June 18, 1931 in The Monitor-Herald and again in July 6, 1972. It later appeared in the newsletter of the Calhoun County Historical Society MS, First Quarter, 2000.
In 1856, Old Dan Rice, the celebrated clown and circus showman, made a venture through Calhoun County, striking Benela first, next day at Pittsboro and thence over to Coffeeville. Being a man of extraordinary abilities and sagacious comprehension by nature as well as the experience of extensive travel, it took him no time to discover the prominent characteristics of the denizens of that inland county.
Really he did not expect to find so far out in the interior a class of people so intelligent and independent. Calhoun’s citizenship made no pretensions in those days at style rather on the
grotesque order. Such a combination, Old Dan, in all of his travels, had never struck before. Evidently their mark made its impression upon his mind as the independent sovereignty he had ever come across in all of his travels, so much so that at his next performance in Coffeeville the next day, he got off some laughable jokes at their expense, which were heartily enjoyed and applauded by her sister county-men attending the circus that day.
The first one the writer remembers was by Old Dan on his little trick mule in the grand entry, which always captivates the audience into an enchanted trance. I may say as they emerge from the dressing tent, indeed there is a charm about the “Grand Entry” of a circus; irresistible, even with the most stable-minded—the beautiful horses of varied colors, the riders in their dazzling costumes, will surely product the same effect that it did upon St. Peter, when that panorama of four-footed beasts descended to earth from the heavens.
After this parade, leaving the ring-master with his four-in-hand whip in hand, Dan Rice and his mule made possession of the ring to round up this initial act with something ludicrous. He made many circuits around the ring, imitating each round some laughable incident real or imaginary. Finally to close the scene, he humped himself as awkwardly as he could, at the same time remarking, “This is the way the Schoonerites rode into Pittsboro yesterday, coming to see Old Dan.”
Of course this brought forth a yelling applause from the Yalobusians. About the same time, however, the little mule was nearing the exit gap in the ring, apparently tired of the game all at once as if imitating his rider, got a vigorous hump in his own back, and just at the gateway, made a sudden stop, sending the clown forward like a flying squirrel, spreading him out in good shape in the dirt, instantly darting in to the dressing tent.
After a few seconds of suspense, Dan rose, hobbling about as though he was disjointed and a fit subject for the hospital for several weeks at least. At this juncture, the ringmaster in way of reproof said, “Oh, yes, my laddie, see what you get by making invidious comparisons?” To which the clown said pathetically, “Master, do you reckon that dang little mule was taking up for them hossiers in Calhoun County?”
“Why, sir, of course he is; he knew every word you said, besides he has relatives over there,
didn’t you see them?”
“Dad drat it, them was the fellows I saw riding that way?”
“Yes, sir,” said the ringmaster.
Cogitating a moment, Old Dan came back to his master, “Say, Mr. Ringmaster, if you wanted to get out of this world without dying, where would you go to?”
“That, sir, is an impossibility; no man can get out of this world unless he dies.”
“No! I know where to get out of this world without dying,” said Dan.
“And where would you go, sir?”
“Why, just over the Schooner, into the Free State of Calhoun!”
The rebel yell followed this enunciation. Many Schoonerites present and their generous natures added in the eclat of that day. In this tour of Dan Rice of Mississippi, The Memphis Appeal had accompanied the show, and reporter and solicitor, and this joke upon Calhoun County seemed to be enjoyed and relished with such tenacity that this reporter sent it to the office and a few days after I read in the humorous column of that paper a verbatim account of Dan’s act in Coffeeville. Afterwards, I heard Old Dan kept the joke all through North Mississippi, which gave the county that notoriety as “The Free State of Calhoun”, and will no doubt follow her through the decades to come. Thus Calhoun County bears that name and is amply able to take care of herself amid exigencies of any sort.
A lady friend once asked me why she couldn’t make potatoes “like Granny used to make”. I knew what she was talking about since people have been making potatoes this way in the South for well over a century. She was trying to cook Irish potatoes in water and stir them until they’d had broken into pieces to get a that stew-y texture, which would work with russets because they would dissolve under such treatment, and while russets create a dish that’s similar to her granny’s, it’s no good for reheating, which was the rule rather than the exception in those days and a practice that should be taken into consideration.
Here in the South our climate is too warm to grow russets, which have high starch content and are usually the kind you’d call a baking potato. We grow Irish potatoes, which have much lower starch content and they’re often served in a thick broth, a dish that in any other part of the country would be called potato stew, but by some quirk of Southern syntax is here called stewed potatoes.
Simply peel and cut those lumpy red potatoes you see in the store into more or less bite-size pieces, boil them with water to cover by an inch until they’re just done, add a smooth flour and water mixture (1:2) and cook on a very low heat until quite thick. You can add bacon drippings or butter, cooked or dried minced onions (my preference), but salt and black pepper are must-have.
(Two weeks after I gave the lady this recipe, her husband called me up and cussed me out up and down because she’d been pouring the potatoes over biscuits and covering them with ketchup. “And they kicked her out of Overeaters Anonymous! *click*)
At first, I was trying to buy Walker’s Drive-In; I really wanted that place badly. I’d become such a fixture in there, I could feel my personality taking over, and it seemed only natural to get it, but the deal didn’t work out, so I started looking around for a place to put Sartin’s, or rather Sartain’s, since my last name is French, and I wanted to get into classic French cuisine. I went to Blockbusters in Castlewoods to drop off a movie, and I saw the Little Caesars next door was for sale. I just looked at it and though I could do my own pizza place. So I called the guy, Johnny Solomon, who owned all the Little Caesars and Popeyes in the area. He said he wanted $50,000 for the place, I offered $30,000, he came back with $35,000, and that was it. I started with $35,000. My dad loaned me the money out of his house equity. This was 2000. We opened February 7, 2001.
I decided I was going to open a pizza place, and when I realized I could do that, what with the casualness of the atmosphere, I realized I could simply be who I wanted to be and not worry about cutting my hair or what clothes I wear and putting off the customers. I decided I would make the theme of the place the music of the Allman Brothers, the Grateful Dead, the blues, the jam scene of the Sixties and Seventies because I had to be in there a hundred hours a week and why not enjoy myself while I’m there, hang up the pictures I like on the wall, almost make it like my college dorm room. It was almost accidental, how it all came together. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I was 30 years old. I had tried the insurance business; my dad and his brothers were very successful in it, and somehow that’s what I figured I’d always end up doing, but I just didn’t like it. It’s not that it’s a bad business, it just wasn’t for me. I was an artist; I needed to write, paint, sing, play, cook, and that’s what I needed to do to be happy. My Dad got behind me, and I’ll never forget that. That was a big deal, it meant a lot to me. He had the money to get me started at the time. He wasn’t wealthy when he was growing up and had to work to earn everything he got, all the brothers did, so he wasn’t going to just lay it out there for me. But this seemed like a safe thing; if it failed, it would sting to lose $35,000, but not change his life.
And it went off like a rocket. I think people wanted something real. Also, there wasn’t another gourmet pizza shop in Jackson at the time. I don’t think at all. We made everything from scratch, had some great music playing. It helped that we were next door to a Blockbusters at the time, which was before Netflix and all that. I had two guys in the kitchen, and I took some of the recipes that I knew from Walker’s, like the crawfish bisque and a bread pudding, you know the bread pudding that Miss Hazel baked and I would watch her. I took a little bit of something from everywhere I worked, brought it to the table and went to my guys and said, “Alright, let’s do this.” The recipes have changed up since then. The pizza dough now is nothing like it was back then. Now it’s a 300-year old French artisan recipe. We used everybody who was there and pulled upon their knowledge and experiments. Over the years I changed things to make them better, particularly the pizza crust, which I wasn’t happy with in the beginning. We sold a lot of pizzas and people loved it, but I wasn’t satisfied with it. I think in retrospect it was really the ovens, not the recipes, so now that’s why I have brick ovens in every location. I changed up the recipe and moved forward.
We moved into Hal & Mal’s in ’02. Malcolm would come into Soulshine at Castlewoods for some reason, and you didn’t see him that often outside the city limits. We started talking, and I kept thinking about it because I often hung out at Hal& Mal’s, thinking there was room there for a Soulshine. They weren’t using that back room all the time, and so I said, “Hey, man, we’ll open up a Soulshine at Hal & Mal’s. He loved the idea. Hal and Charly didn’t like the idea, they didn’t have anything against us, they just saw trouble coming, and they were right. My first idea was to pay rent and have the bar in there, but you can’t buy two liquor licenses under one roof, so I said how about I don’t pay any rent, you sell the liquor, and I’ll keep a crowd in this room for you. I’ll make it worth it to you just for me to be here and you can sell all the alcohol you want based on my customers. And that was okay, but it still wasn’t worth it for both parties.It didn’t make sense. Then there was a lot of partying going on, and that’s really what made it fail. I learned a lot of lessons. I pulled out of there after being mugged for a third time in Jackson. My car was broken into, I was losing money and on top of that, I just wasn’t sure what I was doing and everybody was partying. There were other factors, too, but it might have worked if I’d known what I was doing, but if I’d known what I was doing, I’d never have gone there to begin with, nothing against Hal & Mal’s.
Anyway, I decided to go out to Highland Colony Parkway because I could see it all going there. I could see the future. We were the first restaurant out there. I signed a lease in ’04, we opened in ‘06. It took a year and a half. I just knew that’s where the white-collar world was headed, you could see it happening. There was nothing there, just this one little center that I’m in which is a big development now. But I could just see it coming. I believe in the township; I thought it would be cool to live there, like being in Belhaven in the Fifties. I could walk to the grocery store and this and that. So I got there, and it was too soon. I lost my ass for a little while. Once again, I really didn’t know what I was doing, I just had a great idea and I could talk to people and put out good food, make sure the place was clean, but when the business shuts down, when you’re through serving people, when all the food it put up, there’s still a lot of work to do, in the office, at the bank, with your attorneys, whoever it is, and I didn’t know anything about it. And what’s maybe even worse, I didn’t want to know anything about it. I just wasn’t interested in it.
Really, I’m just a glorified bartender at forty-six, and that’s alright with me. I’m not special; I just feel like I had a dream, and I was willing to lay it all on the line to either lose it or end up ultimately happy. I was willing to lose everything because I was literally just miserable. As an artist, you know that if you don’t create, you’re miserable. I had to create in some shape or form. A couple of years into that store, we just weren’t where we needed to be. That area still hadn’t developed yet. We got there too soon. So that’s when I went to Porter & Malouf and asked them to be my partners, to back me and help me with the business end. I’d been going out to Tim Porter’s house cooking pizzas in a brick oven at parties, so I went to them and said, “I need help.” They love me and they love the place, and they decided to do it. When I realized how backed up I was, it turned out to be a substantial investment, which surprised both me and them, but they were in. They stepped up to the table, and we became partners. That was 2008, and we’ve been together ever since.
Once we got some organization, the business really took off; we caught up on taxes and bills that had me behind the eight ball. The story was that I moved the Hal & Mal’s location to Highland Parkway, which was the way I spun it to the press, but that was bullshit because I was just a failure there. I shut it down, but I knew what I was going to do in Ridgeland, so I spun it off to the public as “We just had to get out of Jackson.” We eventually took off in Ridgeland, and it’s been great ever since. We moved from Castlewoods to Old Fanin, then we moved out Lakeland Drive again, now we’re out there in a big place right on Lakeland Drive. It’s done really well, and I’m really pleased with it. Those people out in the Reservoir community have been eating Soulshine pizza for fifteen years. They’ve been really good to me. I grew up out there.
When I first opened the original location in Castlewoods, it was just strictly a to-go Little Caesars spot. My mother, my sisters and I went in and painted and made it cool. I put the stereo in, took all the Little Caesar’s stuff down, played music over the speakers in the kitchen and then I decided to put in a dining area. People kept saying that they needed a place to sit and the bay next door in the center where we opened was available, so I got it, put tables in there, built a little makeshift bar, put in a few TVs, and I’d actually bartend and wait on every table myself. And everybody who came in, most of them I knew, had known them for years and years, and if I didn’t know them, I got to know them really fast. It was a magical time. I was doing what I believed in and that was really all that mattered. The people liked the food, they liked the music; they liked the way they got treated. It was all about service, and it was all about art, expression, and I didn’t think about much else. I still don’t think about much else. That’s why I have partners. You have to worry about it, you have to get involved, and they push me to get more involved, but it’s hard to get anyone who’s forty-six years old, ADD, an artist a musician, writer and songwriter to sit down at a computer and go through a P&L. It’s hard for me to do because I don’t have a natural interest in it; I just make sure it gets done.
Why Oxford? There are a lot of reasons and one of the reasons is you have to get your partners to buy into it, but my partners are Ole Miss guys, and I knew they’d like it. Everybody wants to do something in Oxford, but what most people don’t realize is that Oxford really isn’t Oxford unless a ball game is going on, at least when it comes to retail. Everybody’s there for whatever big occasion is going on, but on a Tuesday in July, what are you going to do? It’s better now that people are moving there to retire. This coming April we’ll have been there for four years. The anniversary is April 20th (4/20). I opened it up on that date on purpose. We didn’t have our kitchen quite ready, but I opened up and served hot dogs that night so people would come in and drink and our anniversary would be 4/20. That makes it really easy for me to remember, because I never remember dates, and the number spans the culture of Soulshine. But the Oxford location has been fabulous, has kicked butt. When we cleaned up the floor of that location, stripped off the years of filth that had built up, we discovered that the site was once the location of one of the first Kroger’s in the state. It took my breath away. I’ll never forget looking at that and thinking wow this is history here. I’m a history major, and any time I can put in a Soulshine, and I only have four, I strive to keep that historical significance if possible, that feeling of realness, I don’t want them all to be alike. I’m always torn over how many I’m going to have and keeping it real, not being a sell-out.
The music is still relevant, and there’s still good music that comes out. You’re always going to have people listen to that kind of music; it might not be the masses, but the music is still there. The music is timeless. I didn’t call it “artisan pizza” back then; I didn’t call it anything. It was just Soulshine, and it still is. I don’t like to call it anything else. It’s always going to be Soulshine pizza, and now we’re making the switch to stone-baked. As I’ve gotten older, I’m not Mr. Detail still, but I’m also striving to get better. To be up where we need to be, I felt like we needed to take the cooking method to another level, to another tier, and that’s what we’re doing this year with the ovens to match everything else, which seemed to be so perfect. And I felt like you look on the internet now and you see brick-fired, coal-fired, wood-fired and felt like we needed to do that. And we have; we have a brick oven in Oxford and Nashville, and we just installed one in Flowood last week. All I have to do now is to install one in the Ridgeland store, and it will take a couple of weeks before we do that. I feel like that gives me the confidence to move to another fifteen years and look up when I’m sixty-one and say, “Yeah, okay. What’s next?”
If I had to look back on life, the last fifteen years of my life and the hardships I’ve gone through, from divorce to being broke, broke, broke, somehow I dug in and made it happen Soulshine has meant so much to me. It wasn’t just a restaurant that I opened up that could fail or be successful. It’s my life on the walls. Everything means something to me, the customers will always mean something to me, the music, everything. It meant more to me than money or my perceived success. But ultimately, in the end, taking care of the people and what I believe in paid off for me down the road. I consider myself a success now. I still think I’ve got a lot of room to get better, and I think that’s what drives me a lot, too, that I’m never satisfied; not with me, or the business or whatever. I’m satisfied that I’m living the life I’ve always wanted to live in certain ways, but I’m competitive. I’ve always been athletic, and I was out there playing tennis until I was forty and wanting to win.
So I think my competitive nature pushes me. I wasn’t going down, and I wasn’t going to let anybody take me down. I also felt like I owed it to the people not to give up; the people who came in there, the people who supported me and the people who worked for me, who had jobs. There were many times when I could have come in on a Monday and said to hell with it, it’s not worth it anymore. That happens all the time in the restaurant business, people just give up. But I’ve never let it go, and I still won’t. It’s me not letting go of myself, which is a big part of my identity and who I am. Sometimes people say your job should not be who you are or whatever, but I turned my job into who I was. I sell myself. When you open up a restaurant, people are going to come see you because you are who you are and it’s about you, but after they’ve eaten there enough times, maybe had a bad meal or two, and you’re having trouble, they just quit coming. They’ll be there to hug you when you close, but the food has to be good, too. And it has been. I’ve never been quite satisfied with it, but I doubt if I ever will be.
I decided to open a Soulshine in Nashville because my oldest daughter lives there, and I knew after being remarried and having two more daughters, I wanted them to be raised together. So we moved there after we opened in 2011, in Midtown near Vanderbilt. It’s a killer place; we have a rooftop patio with a stage up there. The Who’s Who list of legendary musicians and current stars who sit in there with our Soulshine Family Band is very deep. Once I was singing, and I look up and there’s Steve Tyler, for instance. Another time I’m standing in there around Halloween. I see this cat and I’m thinking, “Is that Billy Gibbons or is this dude in costume?” Well, it was him. This stuff happens all the time. I’m floored all the time by who walks in and tells me, “This place is cool, man, Nashville needed something real.” Maybe that’s what I want to have on my tombstone:
Brother Chris Sartin lies here.
“He kept it real”