EU’s series on those who work to improve Jacksonville continues with two who are super-worthy of this recognition. Gunnel Humphreys and Tom McCleery are the intriguing faces behind the Jacksonville mainstay, Edge City. If you’re unfamiliar with these two, read on and you will quickly find yourself bee-lining it to 5 Points to see what they are all about!
Jacksonville became a better place in January 1976 when Tom McCleery got laid off from a job in the steel industry. That very same day, friend and founder of Riverside Avondale Preservation, Wayne Wood, came knocking on his door, encouraging him to buy a little shop in 5 Points, fully outfitted in grey shag carpet, called Edge City. Tom’s original plan was to use his severance to take three months off, but he and his partner, Gunnel Humphreys, took a leap of a faith and bought the then hippie-centric headshop and waterbed store the following day. From then on, the pair would forever change the face of Riverside with their progressive ideas, keen eye for fashion and passion to make this city better.
On a recent fall evening, I had the chance to spend some one-on-one time with Tom and Gunnel. Under a canopy of white lights there I sat, even after working down the street from them for five years, practically starstruck. They sipped their usual Sierra Nevada and red wine (respectively) and Tom and Gunnel began to open up about life, style and why they love living in Jacksonville. They are beginning and ending each other’s sentences, as they start simultaneously rattling off memories from eras past.
I wanted to get a feel for how 5 Points was when they first moved into the neighborhood. They talked about the now defunct businesses that surrounded them, including 5 Points Men’s Shop, Riverside Gown Shop, a drugstore and a soda fountain. They explained that the 70s were a real turning point for the neighborhood because of the new hippie era vs. old Riverside. Young entrepreneurs who did not fit the mold of the conservative families they were raised in, began flocking to Riverside to create a place for themselves. Edge City was a renegade and helped further that change. The dedication of Tom and Gunnel is apparent, as their store remains open after decades of others closing around them.
Life is an Art Experience
Fast forward to the late 80s and early 90s when the area started to see a huge influx of creatives settling in Riverside and making 5 Points home. Already well-respected, Tom and Gunnel served as go-betweens in the culture war between the new and the old 5 Points. They describe constant meetings with city officials, police and a local bank where people were screaming back and forth to fight and/or resist changes (depending on your take) happening within the community. All the while, avant garde artists were having openings like the “artshow of dead people”, where a storefront in 5 Points was transformed into a “morgue art exhibit by some no name artist,” as Humphrey’s explains.
Gunnel, herself, is an artist. Rustling in her purse to touch up her always-trendsetting lipstick, she goes on to tell me how, over the span of 10 or so years, she drew over 100 homes, many which are now demolished, for the RAP Home Tour. “People call them sketches. That’s fine, but everything was perfect. If a door had nine panes, so did the drawing.” Her most recent show, “5 Points Girls,” featured portraits of 13 women of the 5 Points community. Her unique style and use of color brought out the personalities of each females’ unique character.
In the words of fashion friend Steve Madden, “Progress not perfection.”
To keep their doors open, Tom and Gunnel knew that they had to evolve with the trends and times. “Vintage furniture, vintage clothing, plants, flowers, chocolates… there’s nothing we haven’t sold,” says Tom. “We had to pay rent, ya know?” They reminisce about inventory over the years. I learned that the shelves of Edge City have been stocked with everything from Guatemalan belts and drawstring pants (“Tom always wanted to be a hippie,” says Gunnel.) to giant Catholic crucifix necklaces a la Madonna era to the foreign legion French army underwear. “We sold 1000’s of pair for $9 each,” remembers Gunnel.
“We could go anywhere, but to us, Jacksonville is home. Home is where your friends are.”
It was Gunnel that pushed for a change in their store and they began selling fewer pipes and lots more sparkly jewelry and frilly dresses. They sold their car to go on their first buying trip. Over the years, traveling to New York, they proceeded to bring cutting edge clothing to a city that is often afraid to take style risks. Long before any St. Johns Town Center, they brought Betsey Johnson to Jacksonville “before she was Betsey.” She was guest designing under the brand Tric-Trac and that is where Tom and Gunnel developed a friendly relationship with the designer.
Although these two are quite modest about their impact on shopping in Jacksonville, they deserve credit for being the first to introduce residents to the Swarovski crystal adorned lucite of Tarina Tarintino, the brightly colored nail polish of Hard Candy, the mesh netted dresses of Vivienne Tam and the chunky soled shoes of Steve Madden. For generations, they have been bringing great style to the River City.
Don’t bad mouth Jacksonville. If you want it to change, change it.
As our supposed-to-be-short interview quickly turns into an hour and a half, I start to wrap up our time together. I wonder what the two see for Jacksonville in the next 10 years. Gunnel, an avid cyclist who bikes close to 15 miles a day, loves to see all the people walking and riding bikes everywhere and has high hopes for the bike movement that is going on right now. They would like to see more attention focused on urban areas and more people from other places moving into the area to bring fresh ideas.
Another wish of this dynamic duo is for Jacksonville to keep hold of its creative edge. Let the tattoo shops meet high-end and artistic meet conservative. It is a community spirit that is almost undefinable. It is with that “spirit of the ‘hood,” as Gunnel lovingly refers to it, that keeps this couple happy to be in Jacksonville. As we wind up our conversation I ask why they stayed in Jacksonville. Gunnel quickly responded, “We could go anywhere, but to us, Jacksonville is home. Home is where your friends are.”
This barely scratches the surface on this incredible and complex couple. They have graced Jacksonville with their presence for over 35 years and the passion and perseverance that they exude has helped mold 5 Points into a thriving commercial corridor and an amazing community. I urge you to go into Edge City, buy a gift or treat yourself, and make sure to thank Tom and Gunnel for their hard work and dedication. With just the right amounts of class, charisma and style, these two truly are the King and Queen of Riverside.