From Chicken Soup for the Entrepreneur's Soul

The Shackmeisters

Hello! My name is Tommy. And yes, I admit, I’m a “Shackmeister” at the Shack Up Inn, Mississippi’s oldest B&B (bed and beer), located at Hopson Plantation just outside Clarksdale, Mississippi. Clarksdale is a town internationally known as the birthplace of the Mississippi Delta Blues, the music that spawned rock ’n’ roll in everything you hear on the radio today.

I’ve been asked to share with you the incredible story of the Shack Up Inn’s ascent to the top of the cotton field hospitality industry; there is no doubt in my mind that the Hiltons and Hyatts of this world will read and reread this story to glean ideas to help the menter this almost-untapped market.

So as to not disappoint you all, I guess I better pony up some “corporate history” and introduce my fellow Shackmeisters, because Lord knows, I personally can’t take the credit for this entrepreneurial chaos and success!

It all started with James Butler, a.k.a. Jimmy D. As owner of Hopson Plantation, Jimmy D decorated his twelve-acre property, complete with the original commissary that over the decades he had filled with an unbelievable collection of artifacts found in the Mississippi Delta. It was here that the Hopson music scene first took root and still lives today. Coined “de master of multitasking,” Jimmy D also has a long history in local and worldwide politics, but just between us, this is actually a front for his position as a CIA (Clarksdale-Is-Awesome) operative.

Enter our next Shackmeister, Bill Talbot, whom we call “Mr. Bill.” Legend has it that Mr. Bill bought an old four-bay tractor shed from Jimmy D in 1996, then renovated it as his home, using all salvaged materials. Total renovation costs came to $38.62. (Note: This shed would later become the lobby of the Shack Up Inn.) Hailing from the fine isle city of faraway Dublin, Mr. Bill won a whooping total of $26 at the Isle of Capri slot machines and invested it all in offshore banking! Now wealthy and firmly entrenched in full-blown retirement, Mr. Bill is often seen mowing the grass at our fine establishment, in a Forrest Gump–like fashion, completely content with his successes and the turf he tends.

Then in 1997 here I come, Shackmeister #3 (a.k.a. Tommynation), a songwriter from Nashville with a recent hit and a few extra dollars. At the invitation of Jimmy D and Mr. Bill, I moved an old sharecropper’s shack to Hopson Plantation and renovated it into a songwriter’s retreat. I brought a sense of culture to our business team; as the winner of the No-Bell-Piece prize for my bestselling Success Is a Six Pack Away series, I’ve recently started negotiations with Bob Vila to do a weekly series called “This Old Shack,” which will air on CAS (Cadillacs, Airstreams and Shacks), the plantation’s own cable channel.

Right from the start it was obvious that a 300-square-foot shack was the perfect size for twenty or so party people, but not quite large enough for two songwriters of the same gender to share. So a second shack was moved in, and the name “Shack Up Inn” became formalized in our ingrained and Southern vernacular.

So there we were, just three guys hanging out and having fun in the old cotton field when tourists found their way out to Hopson and saw our “shackdom” in the making. Then wouldn’t you know it, these tourists offered us money—real money—to stay in our shack! Who’da thunk it!

Of course we were suddenly faced with the usual problems of starting a hospitality empire: Who’s going to clean the toilets and change the sheets during the lunch hour? Who’s going to wash the sheets for that matter? Who’s going to pick up the Moon Pies? (For you Yankees out there, a Moon Pie is a wonderfully sweet Southern delicacy.) Oh my goodness, the logistics were overwhelming—I’m sure the Hiltons and Hyatts faced similar dilemmas when starting out.

The three of us forged ahead the best we could, and then out of the blue, a third shack became available; all we had to do was move it to the property and fix it up. But we had a little problem; we had spent all of our capital on twelve-pack architecture and six-pack construction renovating the first two shacks! But we weren’t going to let a little thing like poverty stand in the way of our somewhat blurred vision of an international shackopoly.

Enter Jim Field, a.k.a. Jeem Blue, a Colorado architect who believed in our sketchy and somewhat unfocused business plan to turn the shacks into a name as well known as the Ritz. Jeem, as you may well ascertain from his name alone, is descended from French nobility, yet his roots run deep in the Mississippi Delta soil. Our fourth Shackmeister, Jeem is, by necessity, a jet-setting, globetrotting adventurer but is most at home on the porches of the beloved shacks where he unwinds and lives the “good life,” much as Hugh Hefner does in Hollywood.

With the influx of Jeem’s additional funds, we had three shacks up and running and were going through Moon Pies like crazy! Then we were confronted with something that completely blindsided us; we were offered three additional shacks to add to our collection. Can you believe it? How were we going to pay for them? The banking community had yet to see how our unique mixture of shacks and flooded fields would be something people would pay money to see, let alone stay in overnight.

And this brings us to our last Shackmeister, Guy Malvezzi, a.k.a. AK47/Gyrator Man, the all-knowing head of a worldwide shoe conglomerate. Gyrator Man brought keen marketing skills to the shack table. With an ever-present finger on the pulse of the American and worldwide public, he is now brokering a deal that could lead to an upscale international hotel/restaurant chain to be called “McShack Up Inn.” With yet another infusion of mind-boggling dollars from our newest partner, we purchased and renovated the three shacks, bringing our total to a six-pack of shacks!

Truly entrepreneurs in spirit and vision, all five of us Shackmeisters have two things in common, the first being an overpowering affection and equally misinformed view of the hospitality industry, and second, possessing an overwhelming appreciation for the Delta Blues! The five of us, cypress prophets all, forged a common mission upon creating the Shack Up Inn to bring the blues home to the cradle and rock our guests in the process! We have six front porches tailor-made for playin’ the blues, and there’s a piano or guitar or both in every shack, with many of the instruments donated by our guests and left out for everyone to enjoy.

Thanks to a write-up by the Atlanta Journal Constitution, the international press soon caught wind of us and, yes sir, business was booming! And those local bankers who turned us down for a loan were now more than glad to help us; we bought the cotton gin on the property that belonged to Jimmy D and his family, but had long ago ceased as a gin. We added five rounded grain “bin rooms” (guest rooms) and created the “Cotton Gin Inn.” We’re adding five more “bins” to the gin and will soon start transforming the rest of the building into our lobby and gift shop.

It’s been a wild and wonderful ride. All this craziness started from the vantage point of fun and music, but took on a life of its own. Mind you, we had to evolve the business and grow with it, too. Along the way we’ve met some extremely interesting people from around the world, heard some great music and have made new and long-lasting friends.

Now when I go through the shacks and read the guest books, it amazes me that people have such profound experiences here, experiences that they have found no place else. We don’t offer hotel rooms where they lay their heads for one night and move on. At the Shack Up Inn, our guests stay in honest-to-God shacks, with an old Coke machine as a refrigerator, memorabilia from decades of Southern culture, orphaned furniture adopted from the side of the road and one of the largest collections of funeral fans in three counties! Guests create their own special memories and develop a keen understanding of the cultural heritage aspects of the Mississippi Delta and a completely unique form of Southern hospitality.

So when you think Sunset Strip or Madison Avenue, think Hilton or Hyatt. But when you think gravel roads, cotton fields and Moon Pies, think of the Shack Up Inn. We have no listed phone number and no signage, so if you want to find us, you’ve really got to want to find us. This was Gyrator Man’s marketing plan. So far it’s working.

We hope to see you soon. Your Moon Pie is waiting!

Tommy Polk

[EDITORS’ NOTE: The ultimate destination for blues and cultural lovers, the Shack Up Inn is definitely a one-of-a-kind tourist destination. To learn more, a trip to their Web site is not to be missed: Guaranteed you’ll be ready to pack your bags and head to Mississippi after your on-line visit!]

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