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Boulevard Souvenirs is located at 3706 Elvis Presley Blvd.
Address aside, you won't find any references to Elvis Presley on the exterior of the small, rectangular building, which squats smack dab in the heart of one of Memphis' most
celebrated stretches of real estate.
As the last independent gift shop in the expanding spread of land controlled by Graceland and Elvis Presley Enterprises, Boulevard Souvenirs tries to be inconspicuous — to avoid
stepping on any corporate blue suede shoes, so to speak.
But inside, Elvis is everywhere. The store is an explosion of collectible Elvis trinkets, knickknacks and tchotchkes, including many that can't be found in the official Elvis stores.
If you want a $100 Elvis camouflage Army jacket, cross the street to Elvis Threads, one of the Graceland gift shops at the new $45 million Elvis Presley's Memphis entertainment
But if you want a plastic M&M character dressed in an Elvis jumpsuit, stay at Boulevard Souvenirs.
"We've got it all," said Renae Roberts, who co-owns the store with her husband, Rick Roberts. "It has to be pretty awful before we won't buy it because you never know what people
Like the stubborn old man's house surrounded by skyscrapers in the Pixar film "Up," Boulevard Souvenirs is a nonparticipant in what some call progress. It's a survivor from an era
when Elvis was known as "The King" but not yet labeled a "brand."
Almost hugging the curb on the east side of Elvis Presley Boulevard, the store is sandwiched between the Graceland offices, to the south, and the spacious Guest House at
Graceland, the relatively new 450-room hotel operated by Elvis Presley Enterprises.
This means that Boulevard Souvenirs also is just down the street from the famous mansion that attracts about 600,000 visitors a year.
"We tell everybody we're about a half block from the gates of Graceland," Renae Roberts said.
In the past, the relationship between Boulevard Souvenirs and Graceland was adversarial, complete with lawsuits, as Graceland sought control of the property and the souvenir
Like the space occupied by Elvis' sideburns, "Things got kind of hairy," Renae Roberts said.
Now, however, a spirit of detente rules, probably because Graceland, which declines to discuss the matter, can afford to bide its time. The Roberts' lease expires in 2021,
according to Rick Roberts. If this is a waiting game, Elvis Presley Enterprises is likely to prevail.
In the meantime, "We take a lot of pride in being a strong, independent Elvis business that appreciates the loyalty of the Elvis fans," said Rick Roberts, 55. "We just hang out and
do our thing."
Fans, apparently, appreciate that. As the street sign that identifies Boulevard Souvenirs states, in letters accompanied by musical notes: "THE BEAT GOES ON."
"We're glad it's still here," said Cindy Jolstad, 60, of Marshall, Minnesota, checking herself out in a full-length mirror as she tried on a pink Elvis T-shirt decorated with rhinestone-
like spangles, while Elvis rubber duckies, Elvis beach towels and Elvis clocks with swinging pendulum legs looked on.
Jolstad said she appreciates the store's constancy. "It's the one thing that feels the same," she said, adding that she has come to Memphis for Elvis Week — the tourist-heavy days
around the anniversary of Presley's Aug. 16, 1977, death — for 24 years straight.
Like Jolstad, some longtime visitors complain that the new, glossier Graceland experience is less fan-friendly than a visit to Graceland was in the past, even if the new museums
When Rick and Renae Roberts opened Boulevard Souvenirs during Easter week 2000, the business was one of many gift shops along Elvis Presley Boulevard. These included the
Graceland-owned stores across the street from the mansion in "Graceland Plaza" but also a number of privately operated shops in what was called "Graceland Crossing," a mini-
strip mall that housed the Wooden Indian, Memories of Elvis, Loose Ends and other places that augmented their Elvis items with such nostalgia-oriented products as "I Love Lucy,"
Three Stooges and Betty Boop memorabilia.
In a large tent outside those stores during Elvis Week, Elvis "tribute artists" performed for free. (The Roberts' son, Ron Roberts, now 35, was among those who used to sing there.)
Shoppers could relax and hang out in and around the tent. Parking, though limited, was free. The area always was crowded. "It was very social," Renae Roberts said.
Now, the Graceland Crossing shops are gone (except for a single Graceland-operated "Elvis outlet" store), the property having been purchased by Elvis Presley Enterprises. A
tent that is home to ongoing "tribute artist" performances still exists, but it's located in the pay lot at Elvis Presley's Memphis, and access is denied to those who haven't purchased
a wristband for Graceland attractions. What's more, several of the "official" gift shops are beyond the Elvis Presley's Memphis turnstiles, which means you can't get to them for free.
In addition, the distances between the mansion and the tent and the shops do not represent easy walks for many Elvis fans.
Said Rick: "There's so many changes going on over there, and the older people, you know, older people don't like changes." Said Renae: "A lot of these people don't have a lot of
money, and they save all year to be here. They come here with coolers of food and they're staying three and four to a room, and they have gas in the car, and they want souvenirs
they can buy that are not too expensive. They come here (to Boulevard Souvenirs), and they know I haven't gouged them."
Renae Roberts says the business is like a family, in more ways than one: Sister-in-law Delaina Roberts has worked at the 3,000-square-foot store almost from the beginning.
"My mom went to school with Elvis, at Humes," Delaina Roberts said. According to family lore from 1959, "I met him when I was 6 months old," when her mother pushed her in a
baby stroller to watch Elvis and friends play a game of touch football.
A lifelong Memphian and Elvis fan, Rick Roberts was a traveling souvenir sales agent with a yen to run his own retail business when he and his wife — a transplant from North
Dakota — first leased the property on Elvis Presley Boulevard, which previously had been a Precision Tune Auto Care franchise, built in 1975.
"I spent about eight months converting it from an auto place to a gift store, so I have a lot of sentimental attachment to it," he said.
The original lease-holder was Global Real Estate LLC, a St. Louis-based company that had bought out a slew of failed auto garages. But a decade ago, Elvis Presley Enterprises
purchased the property, as part of its plans to convert the area into a Tourist Development Zone.
Even so, Rick and Renae Roberts had a solid lease that couldn't be terminated unless they violated its terms of agreement. They also already had shown willingness to fight
Graceland in court, most notably in a 2007 lawsuit — ultimately dismissed — that charged the Elvis Presley company with conspiring to drive local competitors out of business.
As should be apparent by now, running an Elvis souvenir shop has been "an adventure, with ups and downs," according to Rick Roberts, who makes the drive to the store from the
couple's Arlington home almost daily.
"It hasn't been nothing that makes you rich, no way, but it pays our bills," he said. "Pretty much, Elvis product sells itself."
Added Renae Roberts: "Elvis Week, this is like our Christmas. This is what holds us through the year."
And even those visitors who don't buy anything leave something behind, if only a vibe.
"People who come in here, they're happy," Renae Roberts said. "They're happy to be here. Very seldom does anyone come in with a frown."
|THE LAST OF THE ELVIS INDEPENDENCE
August 17, 2018 - John Beifuss Memphis Commercial Appeal / Elvis Express Radio