I have seen the future, and not only does it work, it's the past. Three Rivers Market has been around for 27 years, and the basic formula hasn't changed since I last visited the store around 1987. It's always been a food co-op, owned by a large base of shopper-members.
A sign outside identifies the ramshackle two-story house at 937 North Broadway as the store's "temporary home," but given that it's the same building they were in 20 years ago, I had my doubts on this visit if they were going anywhere soon.
Still, I liked the style of the place back then and like it even more now. In the old days, it was clear this was a buyers' club for people who could not find natural and organic products anywhere else in Knoxville. Selection was spotty, as I remember it, but the miracle at that time was that there were any natural foods in town at all.
I liked the old house and the informality of the old co-op, and today's Three Rivers Market has retained that atmosphere while adding a complete grocery store. The building has the same uneven wooden floors and pipes hanging from the ceiling, but now there are fully stocked, professionally displayed, and organized departments of practically everything offered in a standard store (the main product lacking is fresh meat, which in the heavily vegetarian atmosphere is not exactly missed).
You can get cleaning supplies (environmentally friendly); organic pet food; fresh produce (carefully labeled as "organic" and "locally grown," where applicable); fair-trade coffee and teas (including exotic accessories such as mate gourds and bombillas, should you prefer to sip like the gauchos); soft drinks; cookies; and—in an impressive array of bins—bulk herbs, spices, beans, and grains.
Like most health-food stores, this one talks to you. Signage is heavy, generally educational (brochures on the benefits of healthful eating, instructions on self-service packaging of bulk materials, careful labeling of the origins of different products), and sometimes legalistic (warnings that some people have allergic reactions even to products labeled hypoallergenic).
But Three Rivers Market reaches out to its customers in ways that go beyond the standard natural-foods section in a supermarket or even big natural-foods stores such as Earth Fare.
The food co-op doesn't just engage the community in lectures about how to watch out for your health (a tendency in the natural and organic industry that can make the management of these stores seem like committees of worried grannies). As a co-op, Three Rivers Market invites people to take charge of the store themselves as investing owners. If you feel this store is being managed by grannies, you can become a granny yourself.
Twenty-five dollars buys you a share of the store's ownership. Buy eight shares and you get a share of the profits when the store makes money. You must buy at least a share a year to vote on the co-op's business decisions and run for a seat on the board of directors.
Ownership is at an all-time high, with more than 1,300 current members in the co-op. Business is good, with a run of profitable years. The store was full of customers when I visited and could very well stand to move on to a larger building.
Personally, I would rather they didn't. I like shopping with a sense of community, in identifiable neighborhoods that people can get to on foot. I love the bulletin board at the co-op, with its ads for roommates and the farmer's market and Camp Reggae Memorial Day Weekend presented by the Natti Love Joys.
I like a store that offers a rack full of bus schedules rather than an enormous parking lot. I think that, of necessity, we're heading back to a time when shopping was on a comfortable and manageable human scale. Three Rivers Market is well on the way, marching back full speed ahead to the future.