Beale Street, Graceland, the Orpheum Theatre, Sun and Stax Studios—Memphis is a city of icons. For the past 11 years, one icon remained dark and abandoned. Until now.
Built in 1991 as a hat tip to the city’s Egyptian namesake, the Memphis Pyramid was opened as a basketball stadium and concert venue. The FedExForum, built in 2004, rendered the Pyramid obsolete. The strange monument shut its doors but remained a striking feature of the Memphis skyline: colossal, dark, and ominous.
As of April 29, after a decade of speculation and negotiation, the Memphis Pyramid’s doors are open, but the former stadium has transformed into a 535,000 square-foot Bass Pro Shop megastore.
After all, what else do you do when you have a spare pyramid lying around?
For years rumors abounded about what would be included in this new destination retail store—restaurants, shooting ranges, bowling alleys, a hotel—so last week I decided to go see for myself.
At 1 p.m. on a Thursday—theoretically a regular workday in Memphis—the parking lot is completely full. It takes me 15 minutes to find an empty spot. At 321 feet tall, the pyramid looms over me as I make my way through the log cabin-style front doors. I can’t help but wonder if the Great Pyramid of Giza’s front doors happen to resemble a log cabin as well, or if that’s a special touch unique to the South.
“Welcome to Bass Pro sir, I’m so glad you’re here today,” an elderly woman greets me.
In the lobby I see a door leading to Big Cypress Lodge, the rustic 105-room hotel that overlooks the retail floor. An official-looking man behind a large desk tells me a keycard’s required for lobby admittance. I say I’m visiting a friend, but he says rules are rules and turns me away. This will be a reoccurring theme throughout my visit.
I make my way through the lobby and into the heart of the store, trying to comprehend everything I see. It’s part zoo, part amusement park, and part celebration of all things outdoors. The main floor is a sprawling cypress swamp, and probably just about the only place in the world where you can sit on a pontoon boat, see live alligators, eat dinner, bowl 10 frames, and purchase an American flag shirt without having to walk more than 30 seconds. In other words, it’s a dream come true for the Southern outdoorsman.
The swamp covers most of the first floor, with footbridges spanning the gaps between dry land. Thousands of fish, ducks, and mounted animals make you feel like you’re miles away from civilization. Look closely, and you might spot a family of four eating fudge and sitting on one of the boats tied to the indoor dock, reminding you you’re actually in an absurdly large pyramid-turned-swamp-covered-retail-store.
In the center, glowing bright neon purple and green, the tallest free-standing elevator in the United States shoots to the Pyramid’s apex. For $10 I ride 28 stories up to The Lookout, a restaurant and bar with, yes, more fish tanks, but also a glass-floored observation deck with a 360-degree view of the Mississippi River, Mud Island, Arkansas, and the Memphis skyline. The bar is built around a circular 10,000-gallon fish tank, with metal sculptures of aquatic creatures suspended from the ceiling, creating an underwater atmosphere hundreds of feet in the air.
After a quick gin and tonic, I return to the main floor and stroll past the three-story waterfall, making my way up a curved set of stairs to the second floor. Rumor hints at an indoor archery range, and I don’t plan on leaving before testing my marksmanship.
In the bowhunting section, a mustachioed man tells me I need to have my own bow or be seriously interested in purchasing one on the spot in order to the use the range. Since neither of those things describe me, I tell him I’m writing about the store, and I’d love to have the full experience. He slowly shakes his head before walking through an employees-only door, presumably to use the archery range without me. Rules are rules.
In the firearms section there are enough guns to arm a moderate-sized militia. Plenty of ammo too. The Pyramid boasts a Beretta Gallery store, one of only five in the world, where you can purchase a hand-engraved rifle for $82,229.99.
Before heading back down to the main floor, I poke my head into the Ducks Unlimited Waterfowling Heritage Center, a 4,600 square foot museum focused on the history of waterfowl hunting and wetland conservation.
“Have you been here before?” I ask a man wearing a camouflage hat and who seems fascinated by the antique duck calls.
“Fourth time this week,” he replies.
With that, I wander back into the Memphis humidity, the Mississippi flowing steadily along to my right. After years of anticipation, I had survived my first visit to the Memphis Pyramid Bass Pro Shop.
For some, a trip to the Pyramid will be an afternoon well spent. For others it will be a religious experience, a pilgrimage to the mighty glass cathedral of all things outdoors.
I can’t wait to return.
Cort Gatliff is a writer from Memphis. Follow him on twitter @cortgatliff.