On this particular day at Edge City, 79-year-old Gunnel Humphreys’ hair, which is always an adventure, is a custom shade of blue, three different blues she mixed up herself.
It serves as a highlighted reminder that you’re dealing with someone a good bit different from the norm in a place — Edge City, a women’s boutique she’s operated for 47 years — that’s also been quite happy to be out of the mainstream all this time.
She and her late partner in life and business Thomas McCleery, a refugee from corporate life, were a bohemian couple who stood out in conservative Jacksonville running a shop that attracted a youthful energy to what was once a stodgy row of neighborhood businesses — and to a city that needed it.
She smiles at the memory of what someone asked her in the 1970s: “’They said, ‘At one point did you notice that you weren’t normal?’”
Since 1976, Humphreys has been a fixture in the Five Points’ 1920s-era shopping district in Riverside. She’s lost count of all the people who tell her she’s a Five Points institution.
To which she has a ready reply: “I tell people I should be put in one.”
After almost a half-century, her time at the store is coming near an end. New owners will take over in January and plan to keep it open as Edge City much like it is now. Humphreys is still remarkably physically fit: She bicycles 22 miles every morning. On Sundays, she takes longer rides with a few friends. They call it the “Tour de Gunnel.”
Still, she says that retiring before her 80th birthday comes along in April seems like a fine thing. But make no mistake, she’s been happy at the store. “This,” she says, standing at the counter of Edge City, “is my life.”
New York fashion in Jacksonville
Edge City was a head shop — selling psychedelic posters, rolling papers, underground comics — when Humphreys and McCleery bought the business in 1975 at the urging of Riverside preservationist/historian/optometrist Wayne Wood.
They were living in a Henry John Klutho apartment building on Riverside Avenue, and Humphreys was a graphic artist for The Florida Times-Union just down the street. McCleery worked as a salesman at a steel company downtown and had just been fired, Humphreys said, for smoking pot.
A story often told is that his co-workers watched from windows as he walked away across the bridge, wondering if he would jump into the river. Instead he ripped off his tie, threw it in the St. Johns and walked all the way home to Riverside.
A few days after that, Edge City, the head shop, became available. Wood told them, it would be perfect for you.
McCleery was at first reluctant. He was in his first few days of freedom from work, after all. But after some thinking, the couple took McCleery’s $3,000 severance package, borrowed another $2,000 from a friend, and three investors put in $1,000 each.
They opened for business at 1017 Park St. on Jan. 12, 1976.
They remodeled Edge City extensively and stocked it with women’s clothing you just couldn’t buy anywhere else in Jacksonville, cultivating relationships with designers during buying trips to New York.
They staked out their own territory, and style, getting in early on designers like Vivienne Tam, Steve Madden and Betsey Johnson and selling inexpensive items like tote bags and a wide variety of hair clips.
Good music played throughout the store, Humphreys dyed her hair in various bright colors and McCleery didn’t shave for some 10 years, growing a big dark beard.
“We were the renegades,” Humphreys says. “Nobody thought we were going to last. That’s what we heard.”
But they found a place in Jacksonville, and enough customers were hungry for what they alone offered. Four and a half years after opening, they paid off the last of their loans and were well on their way.
“Edge City was the edgiest spot,” Wood said. “Once it became established, Tom became the mayor of Five Points and the rest is history. And with Gunnel’s amazing fashion sense, it was a haven for artistic young people to come, not only to see the latest New York fashion but to have some of Gunnel’s artistic flair rub off on them. If they could have something from Edge City, it was bound to be the latest.”
New owners are Edge City fans
Humphreys plans to close the store after the holidays. The new owners, Cheryl Croft and her daughter Laura Croft, hope to reopen in mid-January.
Cheryl Croft said she, her daughter and her 16-year-old granddaughter are fans of the store. They have all been customers and want it to continue much as it has.
Humphreys will have a part in that. She’s already traveled to the Atlanta Apparel Market with them and also plans to accompany them on a New York buying trip in February. That way she can introduce them to designers and show them how them how she’s done it all these years.
“The world needs more Gunnels,” Croft said. “She’s just one of the loveliest people you could ever meet. She’s got lots of grace and style and class.”
Retail has changed, greatly. But Croft is sure there’s still a demand for a place like Edge City.
“It’s unique in that it’s very fashion-forward, but really marketed to the Jacksonville community in which it resides,” she said. “It’s so important for us to preserve shops like this in our community. Sometimes you don’t want to just buy online; you want to hold it and try it on. And you want something unique that not everybody has.”
Jacksonville’s Riverside neighborhood is home
Humphreys grew up in Sweden in a textile town. She moved from Europe to Jacksonville after marrying an American in Germany. They eventually divorced in the U.S. She plans to stay in Riverside in retirement. It long ago became what she considered home, and from its early days she was heavily involved in Riverside Avondale Preservation, which helped save the historic neighborhood from being torn down.
“I’m just like so part of the fabric of the whole neighborhood,” she said. “I mean, if people think I would go to Sweden and live? Not a chance.”
Although Humphreys and McCleery did have a red VW Karmann Ghia for a spell (they loved its sleek style), for most of their relationship they went carless: Everything they needed, they said, was close by.
She still doesn’t have a car. She gives a wry smile. “I’m not, um, part of that problem,” she said.
Humphreys and McCleery had other priorities, including amassing a big collection of local art in their Riverside apartment. “We clicked. We were just such a team,” she said. “He was a comfortable man, and that’s what I needed at the time.”
McCleery died in 2016, at 73, after a stroke.
Humpheys says she’s fine, now, on her own, and has plenty of friends who support her and each other. “We’ve gone through tragedies and everything together. Friends are why I’m here. Definitely. And I love Five Points. I love the craziness of Five Points. That guy preaching out there?”
As she’s speaking, a street corner’s amplified voice booms from a nearby corner. She smiles at that: She’s used to him.
And she smiles as she talks about the past, how McCleery once wore drawstring muslin pants and a handwoven Guatemalan belt on a trip to New York City, and somebody asked him what religion he was.
She recalls how they would ride bikes to go see the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra, causing a little stir as they locked up.
“I think I had net stockings on and shorts, and Tom had a bandana around his head. We just did not care at all. Why would we? We were all in charge of our own lives, completely,” she says. “That’s a freeing feeling.”