How the Bass Pro Shops Pyramid Became a Memphis Icon
Johnny Morris started Bass Pro Shops in 1972, when he was in his mid-twenties, as an eight-square-foot counter of high-end fishing gear in the back of his father’s liquor store in Springfield, Mo. Within two years, Morris had launched a mail order catalog; before the end of the decade he was selling his own line of fishing boats.
By 1981 Morris had moved into his own store. It has grown over the years and in 1992 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch published a somewhat incredulous article noting that the Bass Pro Shops retail store, known as Outdoor World, was the busiest tourist attraction in the state. “If the guys here at Outdoor World are outdoor enthusiasts,” the writer wondered, “what are they doing inside watching the Incredible sports bloopers video on a beautiful day like today? »
In the late 1990s, as Morris began to grow, he found himself courted by politicians. The mayor of Oklahoma City – who authorized the construction of a $17 million building that would be leased to Morris’ company – compared the presence of a Bass Pro Shops in his city to a baseball game at home. every day of the year.
As for Memphis, the city is more associated with ducks than baseball. It’s home to the famous Duck Walk at the Peabody Hotel, in which five mallards who live on the roof take an elevator to the lobby floor, come out and waddle to a fountain, where they gossip and splash at 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. daily. Memphis sits in the middle of the Mississippi Flyway, and executives quickly saw Morris’ retail sanctuary for hunting and fishing as the perfect answer to their grand architectural albatross, the Pyramid.
Morris seemed ambivalent. The canonical story of the construction of the Memphis store—which I heard at least five times during my visit—involves a fishing trip on the Mississippi River. Morris was weighing whether to put a store in the pyramid, and to make the decision easier, he decided he would only do so if he caught a 30-pound fish. When you visit the store, a disembodied voice tells this story, saying dramatically, “Everything you see…would never have happened if it weren’t for a big old blue Mississippi cat.”
The city picked up the nearly $100 million tab for needed renovations; Bass Pro Shops, meanwhile, has rarely paid more than $1 million in rent a year. City officials say the arrangement has been a boon to their economy, attracting hordes of tourists and shoppers who come from have to see the place. The pyramid is so large that once its marshy ponds were dug out and filled with 600,000 gallons of water, the building developed its own microclimate. Rinehart, the assistant manager, showed me a photo of wispy fog gathering over 100-foot-tall false cypresses. A system had to be installed to maintain a more appropriate level of humidity.
Carmen Jones, the store’s Special Events Coordinator, was one of many material handlers who took Liz and me on a very comprehensive tour of the facility. Here was a cold water pond full of trout. There was a 100-pound catfish, which had been caught in the annual Mississippi River Monster Catfish Tournament and deemed so impressive that it was pardoned and brought inside as a live exhibit. Here are lake sturgeon, whose incredible size — the largest in the store is three decades old and weighs 150 pounds — took my breath away. (Not everyone was speechless: “They’re good to eat if you take the caviar!” I heard a young buyer exclaim to his dad.) There’s a 38,000 gallon aquarium where, twice a day, an employee in a wetsuit performs live feedings. The “aquarist” I interviewed – a self-proclaimed nerd for all things fishy – told me that his typical day starts at 6 a.m., when he prepares food, then wades through ponds to feed the beasts.
The pyramid is also home to a few young alligators and, the latest addition to the menagerie, an alligator snapping turtle, the only creature worthy of a name: Jenny Morris, a nod to the founder of Bass Pro Shops, awarded through an online vote. As befits Memphis, there are also four species of ducks. They cannot fly, as their wings have been clipped, but have free range to waddle. This explains another crucial morning task: cleaning up the poo.
As hotel guests, we had to skip a long line of people waiting to pay $8 to climb to the top of the pyramid inside the tallest free-standing elevator in the United States. stunning views of the Mississippi River anywhere along its southern stretch.
At one point I noticed the attention to detail, and Jones noted that this level of immersion extended to the quality of light inside: “People don’t get it. They say, ‘It’s so dark here.’ I’m like, ‘Well, have you ever been to the swamp? It’s supposed to have that feeling.
Jones said sometimes she arrives before sunrise and leaves after sunset; his are whole days in the swamp, without seasons, without time, just a perpetual twilight. Yet there is still plenty to see. “It’s a retail store,” Jones said. “It’s a restaurant. It’s a hotel. It’s a museum. It’s an aquarium. It’s… it’s like sensory overload.