The Way We Were: Gunnel Kopp Humphreys

The Way We Were: Gunnel Kopp Humphreys
Gunnel Humphreys holds a copy of the Designers Show House tour booklet she created in 1976.

Gunnel Humphreys of Riverside said she has watched her favorite movie, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” three times. And, if anyone knows bohemian, it’s Gunnel, owner of Edge City in historic 5 Points. 

            The Swedish-born artist, designer, entrepreneur and trendsetter has been part of the eclectic vibe of 5 Points since she and her life partner, Tom McCleery, bought the shop for $3,000 in 1976 on a tip from friend Wayne Wood.

Gunnel Humphreys and Tom McCleery at Edge City, circa 1970s
Gunnel Humphreys and Tom McCleery at Edge City, circa 1970s

            Edge City, which had opened in 1968, is a reference to the “Electric Kool Aid Acid Test,” the story of Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters. The name certainly suited the “head shop,” as stores of that ilk were called, which among other things sold paraphernalia, black light posters and incense. Edge City sprouted like a weed among the conservative shops of 5 Points, and although no longer selling paraphernalia, has flowered into a vital and trendsetting part of the area for the past 43 years.

            “I love to tell people about the name – it sounds sort of naughty,” remarked Humphreys with a smile, “but everything has come full circle – all that is legal now.”

            On a typical stroll through 5 Points in the 1970s one could stop at Abernathy-Shortridge Optometrists (where Hawker’s is presently) for an eye exam, go to Lovett’s Drugstore across the street, visit Goode’s Bakery, the 5 Points Men’s Shop or the Riverside Gown Shop. Mothers could complete shopping lists and entertain the children at Peterson’s 5 and Dime (where Hoptinger is currently located) while fathers got a haircut at the barbershop. Then maybe the family would mosey down to the Derby House for a bite to eat and take in a movie at the 5 Points Theatre, now the Sun-Ray Cinema, with an interesting history dating back to 1927. 

            The one constant over the past five decades is Edge City, a remarkable boutique with a friendly, homelike atmosphere. “I love what I do. I love to come to work, it feels like a warm living room. It may be old-fashioned, but I like it,” Humphreys said.

            And that’s a good thing, since she is there six days a week with her cheerful, friendly, gracious manner ready to accommodate everyone and anyone. “We meet so many kinds of people. I deal with each person. I look them in the eye. I have given dinners to homeless people. I don’t want to be a tightwad when I have so much,” said Humphreys. “Edge City and 5 Points are destination places, especially for people who have out of town guests. It’s so fun. So many tourists! I relate well to visitors – Norwegians, Swedes – people from all over. So many people wander in and out. It’s all about the people and the interactions.

            “We used to be the renegades,” she mused. “No one thought we would last. We were the cat’s meow. Yet, here we are 40-something years later.” And still the cat’s meow.

            Although she turned 75 in April, she quoted a friend who said, “It’s not how old you are, it’s how you are old.”

            Not that anyone could consider Gunnel old; her regimen would exhaust the average 25-year-old. “I do yoga, lift weights, cycle every day. I’ve already done so much before I get to the store. I’m a pescatarian – I eat fish. I eat nuts and berries and fruit all day and then have dinner. I am wild and crazy and unapologetically myself.” 

            The journey from Sweden to Jacksonville began for Gunnel Kopp after graduating the eighth grade. The youngster took a bus from her rural home to the closest city, Borås, Sweden, portfolio in hand, and pursued a job. At the age of 14 she was hired to do window displays then worked in the catalog section of an art department, all on-the-job training. She related that her boss, who was from Switzerland, was very influential in her life; she said he mentored her and taught her everything she knows, and that training paid off.

            After marriage in 1966 to “Mr. Humphreys,” as she quipped, a military man she met while working as a graphic artist in Germany where he was stationed, the couple moved to Augusta, Georgia so he could complete his military assignment, then moved to Jacksonville.

Gunnel Humphreys circa 1970s
Gunnel Humphreys circa 1970s

            “I got a job as a graphic artist at the Florida Times-Union, where I worked for eight years. It was wonderful. I loved the water, the openness, the beach, bridges. Everything. I met Tom in the early ‘70s. Some friends introduced us after my break-up with my former husband.   “We were just hippies. Tom worked for Bethlehem Steel. It was a big corporate job. One day he’d had enough of them and they’d had enough of him, so he just walked across the bridge, threw his tie in the river and didn’t shave for 10 years. We lived in The Napier on Riverside Avenue, which we totally renovated. We loved it. It’s a Klutho building and it was huge. Like living in Versailles.

            “We did not have a car for 17 years then bought a Kharman Ghia, which I sold after Tom got sick and he could no longer drive. I don’t drive here. I drive occasionally when I visit Sweden, but here I ride my bicycle or walk. Tom and I walked or rode our bikes everywhere. Vegetarians, no air conditioning, no children, no footprints. We were never very fiscally responsible. We just did what we wanted to do,” she said.

Tom McCleery and Gunnel Humphreys, late 1980s
Tom McCleery and Gunnel Humphreys, late 1980s

            The couple peddled happily through life together for 40 years. “We were such a great team. I miss the healthy Tom, but not the sick Tom.” Sadly, McCleery passed on in 2016 and was mourned by all who knew him as a man of elegance, gentleness, and charm who loved Riverside and worked on the merchant association to build community pride in the historic district.    

            Humphreys said she has remained in Jacksonville because of her many friends, as well as the investment of time and love which she put into building her iconic business. She visited Sweden often when her parents were alive and now Skypes every Sunday with her sister-in-law, her only remaining relative, and visits each summer.

            While in Sweden, the avid bicyclist – who rides an average of eight miles each morning and 22 miles on her day off all through Riverside, Avondale and Ortega – gathers her friends for the “Tour de Gunnel,” explaining, “I am the catalyst. When I visit Sweden, my friends and I also take train rides to have champagne and pick people up along the way.”

Gunnel Humphreys 1976
Gunnel Humphreys 1976

            Humphreys has numerous artistic accolades to her credit. Her stunning pen and ink illustrations were sprinkled throughout the 1976 Designer’s Show House catalog of. She recalls visiting a design house on the annual Riverside Avondale home tour years later and seeing one of her pen and ink drawings framed on the wall. The owners weren’t even aware that it was hers. “I was surprised to see it. It was a beautiful drawing. That was such a good time in my life. I felt so proud and accomplished.”

            She has also exhibited her drawings of Riverside Avondale homes at the Cummer Gallery of Art. But, although an accomplished artist and former art collector, a lack of time over the past few years has interfered with her creative process. She looks forward to her visits to Sweden where she draws and paints in acrylics; the flowers in her sister-in-law’s garden are favorite subjects.

            Humphreys has not exhibited since 2012, saying modestly, “I need to hone my skills.” Her creativity abounds in her decorating; her dining room was featured in a local magazine. “The interior of our house was like an art gallery. We sold it to buy our new condominium.”

            Her shop, her presentation – the edgy clothes, colorful hair – all are expressions of the creativity that is part of her eclectic, quirky, vibrant personality. For those new to Jacksonville, particularly Riverside, it’s difficult to understand the impact that Edge City and Tom and Gunnel had when they took over the store and turned it into THE cool, hip place to shop and be seen.

The mirror behind Tom McCleery and Gunnel Humphreys is still in the shop today.
The mirror behind Tom McCleery and Gunnel Humphreys is still in the shop today.

            The shop’s exotic atmosphere and the upbeat vibe of Tom and Gunnel, leaders in revitalizing the area, infused 5 Points with a new energy that has lasted and permeated the historic area with an urbane yet neighborhood milieu.

            “Tom and Gunnel encouraged and laid the foundation for the resurgence of 5 Points,” remarked Elaine Wheeler, a friend for 40-plus years. “Edge City started a domino effect of shops opening in the area. I never would have opened my Heartworks Gallery and Café without their encouragement and input. [Heartworks was located on Lomax and was famous for fun exhibits and the Carrot Dog]. Tom and I planted so many trees. I carried the plantings in a little wagon. The big ones on the corner by Lomax are part of the seedlings we planted. Gunnel’s enthusiasm and good-natured spirit were part of the process. She is so effervescent.”

            Although missing her cherished partner, Humphreys continues the push of Riverside ambassadors to keep the area clean, to add more beauty to the area, and she is still raising money for the Flowers for Tom project to brighten the area with huge metal flower sculptures by artist Jason Fort in remembrance of the man Wayne Wood dubbed “The Patron Saint of 5 Points.”          Besides bringing outdoor art into the area these sculptures would serve as bicycle racks. Wheeler remarked that she understood the sculptures are sitting in a warehouse waiting for the City to approve installation. She said, “Someone needs to push this more. Petition City Hall!”

            Humphreys shook her head in amusement as she discussed the many social changes over the years, including her numerous hairstyles – from long straight, hippie hair to her now short, sometimes spiky, purple or blue tresses. She recalled that Tom’s beard went through many different stages over the years as well, from bushy to closely trimmed to clean shaven. She commented in an amused manner, “Beards went out of fashion but now they are back in fashion again. It’s all full circle. I purchased beard ornaments to sell at Christmas. You have to have a sense of humor.”  

            Humphreys said she has a typically Scandinavian philosophy – one of common sense and pragmatism. She is not a religious person although she loves and respects religions and churches – especially the architecture. She related that believing in doing unto others as you would have them do to you is just “common sense.” 

            Her generosity abounds, too. She gives to charities, to Greenscape, JASMYN and others. She helps the homeless. She has a philosophy of forgiveness; for others and for herself. “You must be happy with your decisions. You just do the best you can and forgive yourself instantly if it’s not the best one. If you have a break-in or someone shoplifts – get over it instantly. The next person who comes in may be the sweetest person ever. I’ve even had people come back and pay for something they took because they felt guilty.”

            Humphreys has moved forward with the times by embracing technology. She now has a TV, but rarely watches. She uses a cell phone and air conditioning. “I like the fact that we are so global. The internet has changed communication so much,” she said, but she still has no car and related amusing incidences of when she and Tom rode their bicycles everywhere, including the symphony. “People would just smile as we rode up. It was unusual to see people ride bicycles to the symphony.

            Gunnel’s sense of humor infuses her conversation and spills over into her good-natured take on life. It blends perfectly with her Scandinavian common sense and tolerant, accepting attitude of life’s little foibles and the eccentricities of other people. After all, she is “unapologetically herself” which gives others the opportunity to be unapologetically themselves as well.

            There is no separating Gunnel and Edge City. Her pixie-like face on calendars, packaging and all things Edge City has become a model of store branding and made her name and image recognized throughout the historic districts and beyond. Her lipstick print, which adorned Edge City packages until recently, are as famous locally as Mick Jagger’s pouty lips are internationally. Look closely, the new lip logo includes the skyline of Jacksonville!

            Whether offering couture, promoting local artists and craftsmen, being an activist in the community or sharing a smile and friendly hello with everyone she meets, a visit with Gunnel Humphreys is a feel-good experience. Whether you’ve known her for 40 years or 40 minutes you get a cheerful greeting and leave with that friendly kiss; her logo embodies the warmth of her personality – even if it’s just an imprint on the shopping bag you are carrying.

By Peggy Harrell Jennings, Resident Community News

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