For Dave Matthews, keeping his Poor Man’s Store running in ZIP code 38126 for 40-plus years largely has been about being there for young people. (Courtesy photo)

Defying the odds, Dave Matthews has operated his thriving business, Matthews Poor Man’s Store, in the heart of 38126 since 1978, serving as a beacon of light and achievement for the community’s impoverished children.

Earlier this month, longtime neighbors and friends joined the Matthews family in marking his 71st birthday with a luncheon at the historic Four Way Grill Restaurant. March 9 is a day Matthews will always remember as those closest to the businessman showered him with words of appreciation for making a difference in his community.

“It was great being around all my loved ones and many friends who helped me celebrate my birthday,” said Matthews. “It’s always good when others recognize you for the good you have tried to do.

“The Lord has blessed me, and my business is still open after 40 years. But what is more important than that, I have tried to invest in young people’s lives. That is what I am most proud of and will continue to do as long as God allows me.”

The secret to Matthews’ success is his willingness to evolve with the times. Matthews came to Memphis, like so many others, from Mississippi.

“Well, everybody knows that the capitol of Mississippi is Memphis and Chicago,” he said. “We left Mississippi in search of a better life, and I believed that God would give me greater opportunities to provide for my family. He did just that.”

Matthews came to live in the South Memphis community in 1966. In 1968, he bought a home less than a block from Ballistroni’s Poor Man’s Store, 428 South Orleans. Ten years after purchasing his home, Matthews bought the Poor Man’s Store.

“The Poor Man’s Store was built in 1947,” said Matthews. “I kept the original name of the store, and it became ‘Matthews Poor Man’s Store.’ I could have lived anywhere I wanted, but I chose to stay in this community. I felt it was God’s purpose for me to stay and do whatever I could to be a blessing to young people and their families.”

Matthews’ middle daughter, Debra Ann, watched her father take a stand in those early years to help children and teens of the Foote Homes community turn their lives around.

“He would hire young boys and girls to work in the store, giving them their first paid job. Many were as young as 12 years old. My father wanted them to feel the dignity and pride of doing an honest day’s work and getting paid for that work. So many were headed for a life of crime because there were so few good examples for them to follow. Dad wanted to change all that,” she said.

Although Matthews received no formal training in business administration, he learned some tried-and-true business principles that have kept the Poor Man’s Store a continuously profitable business.

“When I first took over the store, it was a full-fledged grocery store with a meat market and full deli bar,” he said. “But you have to offer what sells. So I closed the meat market years ago and started selling beepers, cell phones, computer repair services, installed and sold satellites, income tax services, and opened a barbershop. I had to change with the times. If you want to stay in business, you have to identify the needs and then address those needs.”

Matthews paid the tuition to barber school for many young boys and allowed them to work in the barbershop he built. He has also counseled young married couples and aspiring ministers of the gospel. As a community store, Matthews’ store has employed former prostitutes, taking them off the corner and giving them gainful employment, all as part of his ministry, he said.

He sings a little song for customers who visit the store:

“God woke me up this morning and started me on my way,

He’s been doing it for 71 years, and that’s all I got to say.”

“Mr. Dave,” as he is known to some, will even challenge visitors to a game of checkers. But be forewarned, he hardly loses a game.

“These young fellows come in, and they think they can beat me in a checkers game,” said Matthews. “I let them know they can’t beat me, and then I show them. But the game is just a way for me to talk with these young men and give them the guidance they need.”

Matthews and his wife, Shirley, have nine children and eight grandchildren.