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Nov 2003 / expatriates :: email this story to a friend

St. Louis: The Gateway to the South
By Roger Stolle

First off, I'm not going to tell you what high schools my wife Jennifer and I attended. Truth is, we were expatriates from another city before St. Louis. We moved to St. Louis in February 1995 because I had a job offer we couldn't refuse. After a couple of forgettable years in the suburbs, we moved to the city and loved it. Living just off South Grand was pretty darn cool. There's no two ways about it. Great Asian, Italian and French food nearby. Good coffee shops. KDHX community radio in our neighborhood. Who could ask for more? During our time in St. Louis, I worked at Venture Stores and May Company as a marketing director while my wife Jennifer worked at Busch Creative Services and Phoenix Creative as a production coordinator. Quality jobs, nice people and memorable paychecks. We also volunteered for KDHX and various literacy programs. Again, who could ask for more? So why would we leave all of this and a city that boasts music every night, pro sports teams and that big ole hunk of curved steel by the river?

Around three years ago, my wife and I started talking about what we were doing in life versus what we thought was important. Like most on modern career paths, we could be heroes and save the day in our corporate environments by meeting deadlines and satisfying clients. Seems like big stuff when you're in the midst of it, but once we stepped back and looked at it, this sort of "corporate heroism" just didn't seem to be enough for us. Did getting the day's hot project to the FedEx guy by 6 p.m. really make a difference in the whole scheme of things? Would it make interesting reading in our obits some day? Not really. We both loved St. Louis and our jobs, but we were being defined by them as opposed to us defining ourselves.

At first, the conversations usually involved drinking, and centered around eventually "retiring" in a place where we could make a difference through donations and volunteer work. Then, slowly, the conversations sobered up and started to involve "early retirement" supplemented by a meaningful small business and some volunteer work. In the end, we decided that it was way too easy to put things off or do them halfway. In the end, we decided to make the move now, on our terms.

A year and a half ago — after a full year of saving and planning — we both marched into our bosses' offices and resigned. We didn't mean to shock anyone, but we did. In my case, my former employers first believed that I was just lobbying for a raise (which they were more than willing to give). Later, they just thought I was nuts.

Oh, did I mention that we left St. Louis, Missouri, for Clarksdale, Mississippi?

Believe me, I know the reaction you may be having right now. So why Clarksdale, Mississippi? We were first drawn to it for its amazing blues music history but soon found there was so much more. For about eight years, we had visited the area and ran across some of the most fascinating people we'd ever met. We also found that "Southern hospitality" is a very real thing. Blues musicians, folk artists, club owners, community leaders, career gamblers — we were welcomed by all, truly amazing folks in a truly amazing town. Through time, we learned that tourism may likely to be the only saving grace in a town hit hard by big changes in agriculture (i.e. fewer hands needed), an exodus of industry, nearby casino growth (i.e. removing workers and entertainment dollars) and an overall soft economy. It is pretty stunning how many tourists, authors, photographers, musicians, anthropologists, and more come through the area. They're in search of blues history and living Southern culture. You name the state, you name the country; the visitors are just about non-stop. After all, guys like John Lee Hooker, Son House, Sam Cooke, Ike Turner and Earl Hooker were born in Clarksdale. Muddy Waters, Pinetop Perkins, W.C. Handy and Tennessee Williams all lived here. And Bessie Smith died here. Locals also claim that Robert Johnson's legendary "crossroads" is here in town.

In the end, it boiled down to this: whereas we could make little difference in a city the size of St. Louis, we felt we could make all the difference in a town the size of Clarksdale. (Keep in mind that the population of metro St. Louis is larger than all of Mississippi, and you start to get the idea. Clarksdale is 20,000 people, by the way.)

Before Jennifer and I finally made our move, we made an agreement: I could open my own blues music and folk art store if Jennifer could get her teaching certificate and teach reading in the local schools. A year and a half after moving here, we are both doing what we love. I won't say it was easy getting here. When you move from the big city to a small town, change two careers, buy a house, and buy a business, you hit periods of serious stress and spend a lot more of your hard-earned savings that you thought. That said, we have absolutely no regrets. It has been more amazing than I can ever explain. This is the first time we've ever chosen a community. Before, it was dictated strictly by birth, parents, school, jobs, etc. This time it was our decision. The people in Clarksdale have been extremely supportive of our business and of us, plus we meet incredible blues tourists, musicians and artists from all over the world on a daily basis. The store enables me to make enough money to survive, and just as importantly, it gives me a way to support and promote the town, people and music I believe in. In addition, we volunteer with various groups, including the non-profit Sunflower River Blues Association and the Downtown Merchants Association. Jennifer works way harder than her paycheck indicates, but she loves her kids and truly believes she is making a difference in her tough, under-funded school.

Having said all that, what do we miss most about St. Louis? Our friends, of course. Plus — and I promise it's not as much — good bread, cheese, wine and beer. You know, the trivial stuff that you can live without but love anyway. Who knows, maybe another St. Louisan or two will move down here to open up a Wine Merchant or something. It's not out of the question. Actor Morgan Freeman co-owns a fine restaurant and a blues club less than a block in either direction from our store. Incidentally, please note that I didn't say we miss the money. We certainly live a more modest life now, but I would say it is more fulfilling than ever. Finally, just for the record, let me say that our Mississippi mission was never to get away from somewhere, it was always to go somewhere. We loved St. Louis and honestly appreciate who it enabled us to become.

Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art Clarksdale is about six hours south of St. Louis. If you haven't been here before, I'll just tell you that it is so different here, you'll swear you flew 6 hours instead of driving. I mean that in a good way. Our store is called Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art. It is located in downtown Clarksdale at 252 Delta Avenue, just 1 block from the Delta Blues Museum. (You can get a better idea of what we're about at www.cathead.biz.) One of our core missions is to help promote local clubs and musicians, so be sure to check out our "Live Music" page.

Come visit sometime, y'all.

Roger Stolle can be found puttering around the shop in Clarksdale.

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