New retail center may conjure spirit of the hip Bitter Lemon by Tom Bailey

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Developer Ray Gill just bought a corner lot on Poplar, where he will erect a new retail building and somehow pay homage to a hip coffee shop that once operated there, The Bitter Lemon.

Gill Properties on Wednesday, Feb. 3, completed the purchase of the now-vacant, 0.71-acre lot on the southwest corner of Poplar and Humes, at the east end of the Poplar Viaduct.

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Gill paid Loeb Properties $650,000 for the land on which Loeb, now LPI, had already had demolished the strip center.

When most others drive by the corner, they likely see vacant land ripe for a new building. But Gill can never pass by without recalling The Bitter Lemon.

That was the 1960s coffee shop that music historians, Memphis historians and others have described as “beatnik,” “hipster,” or simply the city’s coolest coffee shop of the turbulent 1960s.

The little place with no parking provided a live-music stage, served coffees, notoriously bad pizza and something called a “Suicide” — a blend of Pepsi, Teem and grape juice.

Other substances were known to have been consumed there, too, Gill said.

A short, crime story in the Dec. 22, 1966, Commercial Appeal reported that a 26-year-old employee of The Better Lemon Coffee Shop and Gallery was arrested and charged with selling marijuana. The guy told police he also was a self-employed writer and musician. It’s unclear why the subject was arrested on South Cooper.

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Gill calculates he was in his mid-teens in the mid-1960s when he started going to the Bitter Lemon.

“I never drove by this site my whole life when I didn’t think about The Bitter Lemon,” he said. “And nobody ever talks about it. This was important to people in my generation.”

Perhaps yet another reason the place was perceived to be so cool is that a Memphis College of Art professor owned The Bitter Lemon.

The “Ask Vance” local-history column in the Feb. 1, 2009, edition of Memphis Magazine shed some light on The Bitter Lemon. The column quoted from an earlier Memphis Magazine story in which the Bitter Lemon proprietor, John McIntire, said, “I got the place real cheap, because there was nowhere to park.

“There was just a little bitty stage, set way back. The walls were covered with antiques and musical instruments, and every night I’d go there and ‘psychedelicize' the place with paint, from floor to ceiling. People would come in there stoned and just stare at the walls,” the art professor told Memphis Magazine.

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Acclaimed author and physicist Alan Lightman wrote about his teenage experiences at The Bitter Lemon in the early to mid-1960s in his book, “Screening Room: A Memoir of the South.”

“The Bitter Lemon was a little storefront on Poplar, in Midtown just east of the viaduct, so small you could fly past it on your way downtown,” the White Station High grad wrote. “But it had live music, and you could hear real good rhythm and blues. Furry Lewis used to play at the Bitter Lemon. And Gus Cannon …

“It smelled of rich coffee and pizza, but not alcohol because this was a teenage joint,” Lightman wrote. “However, some guest came in already stoned, encouraged by the psychedelic paint on the ceilings and walls.”

The owner would walk around the tables asking customers if they were having a “fine time,” Lightman wrote. “Of course we were having a fine time. What could be finer for a 15-year-old kid than to sneak out of his house at night and listen to live soulful music while drinking Suicides and eating slices of godawful onion pizza?”

Still, The Bitter Lemon closed by the late ’60s.

The memories remain just as vivid for Ray Gill as they do for Lightman, and now Gill owns the property.

An Xfinity store will lease space in the new building for which construction will start in March. More room will be available for one or two more business tenants.

It’s a long-shot that one of businesses could be a Bitter Lemon 2.0, but Gill is determined to acknowledge the site’s rich history.

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He and his son, Brown Gill, have decided they want to create an homage to The Bitter Lemon.

“It had a huge impact on Memphians near my age,” Ray Gill said. “It was the first hippie or folk music coffee house in Memphis. I first heard Bob Dylan’s music there. Furry Lewis played there.”

Calling the retail building “Bitter Lemon Plaza” seems a bit presumptuous to Gill.

“But there may be a way to incorporate Bitter Lemon into the project somehow,” he said.

Meanwhile, Gill Properties brokers Barry Maynard and Frank Dyer III will handle the leasing for the spaces next to Xfinity.

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