The small shop on Broad has a global presence and conscience
by Richard J. Alley
In the Binghampton neighborhood, there is a water tower. Painted in vibrant colors, it stands as a monument both to the blue-collar warehouses, loading docks, and saloons that used to dot the area, as well as the change that has come to the revived arts district. Across Broad Avenue from that tower is a plain, brick building — the one-time home of a United States Post Office. To walk into that building today is to feel transported to an artistic Eden, a space more in line with what Broad is today. This is the home of West Memorials, owned by Paul and Missy West, who moved to the street before the arts took over, but after most of the blue collars had left. It was a time of transition for everyone.
Paul got his start in the mid-1990s when conglomerates began gobbling up funeral homes, cemeteries, and monument companies nationwide. He was hired to handle acquisitions. “In order to do that, I had to learn everything,” he says. “I trained with these great monument folks around the country so I would know what I was doing — making them, selling them, distribution.”
During his whirlwind training, Paul fell in love with design. He knew deep down that if you design something that is unique and different, clients like it better. Making a monument back then that was anything but rectangular with a name and date on it was a big deal — there wasn’t much being done with sculptural work at the time. “It was a challenge to design because there wasn’t a lot available to us,” he says.
In 2001, he got the chance to put his design skills and passion to the test. “I decided to walk,” he says, reiterating an anecdote that can be found on his company’s website: “After being in the monument industry for eight years, I designed a beautiful cemetery monument for a little boy. My boss told me I had to quit wasting so much time with families and get my volume up. I knew I was done with conglomerate corporations and West Stone Works Company, Inc. was born.”
In the beginning, he worked from his garage, then an office in East Memphis. Designs were faxed to the client, approved, and then sent to Georgia to be completed. Paul would simply sell it and set it.
At the time, Missy was selling items on eBay separately from the memorial business. She figured out how people were buying online, thinking, “If I can sell couch slip covers, I can sell bronze markers.” She put up a website and sold one or two a week, which became three or four, and the next thing they knew those bronze markers were being sold all over the place. “She said, ‘Well you’re a hotshot monument designer, let’s put monuments on there,’” Paul says. He didn’t think anyone would buy a monument online, but says, “Within months we’d sold a $40,000 monument in this little town in Texas.”
Their hand-carved monuments came from Germany, but then they found out that Germany was buying from importers in China who shopped work around to the lowest bidder. Quality was inconsistent. Photos of the works-in-progress would be sent to the Wests and Missy noticed that pictures of the best carvings all had the same windows in the background, so she began searching Chinese websites until she found those windows and went straight to that sculptor.
“At the time he didn’t have any U.S. clients,” Paul says. “If you’re a Chinese company, you do 90 percent of the work yourself, but if it had to be good, you go to this guy and he would make it and sell it to the importers. So we just went to that guy and asked if we could buy directly from him. We built up enough orders, I wired over money, and said, ‘This is either the dumbest or smartest thing we’ve ever done.’ A month later a container showed up and everything was there.”
They needed a stand-alone office and workshop for delivery of shipping containers that arrive in California, travel by train across the country, and clear customs in Little Rock. Each holds 40,000 pounds of monuments
The workshop behind the gallery-like interior of the offices holds stones that began their journey in places like Germany and India before being carved in China. The work is then finished on Broad with a laser engraver and sandblast machines doing the work that hammer and chisel used to do. Pieces have been sold in every state of the country and to clients overseas.
Though the work is physical, harkening back to those blue-collar days of Broad, the business for the Wests is about relationships and getting to know the people purchasing the monuments and, more importantly, those that they’re for. The monument, Paul insists, isn’t about memorializing a death, but a life. He went out on his own when the bottom line began to overshadow the conscience, and he’s never looked back.
For more information, visit westmemorials.com.
The latest articles from the print version of Inside Memphis Business — plus excerpts from our weeklyTip Sheet.
Uploaded here so you can read and share great new content from IMB.