Upward Yearning

Bearden's Fresh Market offers aspirational shopping

It must take at least three geese to make up a gaggle, but what constitutes an embarrassment of riches? Everybody in America is created equal, but that still doesn't keep us from gushing over the lifestyles of the rich and famous. We're fascinated by the rich and fantasize about being one of them. No one seems too embarrassed about making big bucks or aspiring to do so.

Economic inequalities are serious business. Some people believe the pursuit of wealth is rigged against the people on the bottom, and it makes them angry. I feel that way myself at times, but more often I've got a more complicated reaction.

The Philadelphia Story, a Katherine Hepburn-Cary Grant comedy made in the middle of the Depression, is about the ambiguities of American class conflict. It contrasts the lifestyle of a super-rich family marrying off its elder daughter with the struggling, lower-middle-class style of a reporter—played by Jimmy Stewart—who is hired to cover the affair.

I think this movie gets closer to what economic inequality feels like because every time I go to the Fresh Market (4475 Kingston Pike, Bearden), I feel just like Jimmy Stewart. It's not anger at all, really, more a weird combination of dazzled fascination and reverse snobbery.

Take the music piped into the store. I doubt that Baroque quartets are the appropriate soundtrack for squeezing tomatoes, but that's the way things are at the Fresh Market. And while my sense of taste should have me gagging at the store's studiedly casual ostentation, I find it instead so inviting that I want to move in.

I probably couldn't afford it. Comparable staples totaling $45.81 at the Bearden Kroger across the street cost $53.72 at Fresh Market. But you don't come to Fresh Market for staples. Meat and potatoes they've got, but they've also got Organic Flax Plus Multigrain Cereal, prepared chicken cordon bleu at the butcher's counter, frozen Cuisine Solutions Braised Veal Osso Buco, and cans of Haddon House Hearts of Palms.

This is a specialty store. They have specialty beers, specialty salsas, specialty potato chips. There are whole aisles of bins of bulk nuts, mixed snacks, candies, and coffee beans, including flavors like molten chocolate and caramel macchiato. The store offers Christmastime abundance year-round. The store even smells like Christmas cookie dough.

The flowers at the front of the store are beautiful, and the potted plants near the produce section include bonsai trees and a full selection of potted herbs.

It pays, just for your own sense of personal integrity, to keep reminding yourself that this is a planned environment; that there are chain of 80 of these stores, centered mainly in the Southeast, from Florida to Wisconsin; that what you're experiencing is a well-executed formula. This is particularly important here at the Western Plaza store, where the old money ambience of Sequoyah Hills washes over the entire scene and makes subjective judgment nearly impossible.

Europe has art, architecture, and culture that have been around so long that the moss grows on them; in America, the main lasting heritage we've got is our money. Where other countries have prospered and faded, we have been rich for a long time.

Downtown Rome looks like it did in the Renaissance, in some parts like it did in the Empire. Downtown Knoxville has individual old buildings, but the overall look is knocked down and rebuilt continually.

An old residential area like Sequoyah Hills, though, offers continuity, substance, permanence, and its Fresh Market is part of that. (For the new money look, visit the Farragut Fresh Market; it's a Fresh Market, but much less seductive than the Western Plaza store.)

Maybe the best use for our money is to sustain identity; Fresh Market at Western Plaza is an artificial village market that's been around so long it's become a real one.