Resonance, Part 2: Shorpy and Central Street Books

Another column about how the past seeps around the edges of the present, downtown

The national website known as Shorpy features eye-catching historical photographs, and Knoxville scenes have appeared on it more than once. Last week it highlighted a Knoxville scene they called "True Grit: 1906." It's a street scene of Wall Avenue as seen from Gay Street, during the Teddy Roosevelt administration. It is kind of gritty, at that. The photograph itself, made from a carelessly handled negative, shows enough fingerprints to secure a conviction. Still, it's a sharp picture that you can blow up and study closely. In the gutter of the brick-lined street is a lot of trash that looks like fruit rinds. But what you notice is the life.

In the scene are seven horse carriages and lots of people. They're all kinds of people, old folks, kids, blacks, whites, up and down the block, living their lives: working, walking, shopping, loitering. A young black woman sports a fancy hat. A white teenage boy carries a package and looks at a little dog. An old Victorian lady carries a handbag. A man boarding a wagon is captured mid-leap. Three black boys play around a telephone pole. Middle-aged white men wear half a dozen different kinds of hats, bowlers, boaters, one in a cowboy-style Stetson. One smokes a cigar. It looks like an afternoon of a warm day; several of the men are in shirtsleeves. Identifiable businesses include the Roy Scott Tobacco Co., George Bros. department store, on the left side, in buildings recognizable today. In the deep background you can make out the sign for Horne Wholesale Liquors; that building, the facade at least, is now home to Blue Coast Burrito.

On the right side of Wall is a taller, fancier, busier block: the turreted Stratford Hotel; the Great A&P Tea Co. advertising mainly "COFFEE"; Thomas Davis's Shoes announcing a Clean Sweep Sale; the walk-up Knoxville Business College; Adam Stecker's tailor shop; the six-story Van Deventer building in its summer togs, its striped awnings extended. It would later be known as the St. James Hotel.

None of the buildings on the right side are there today. They were torn down about 40 years ago for a big federal project. It's TVA's campus.

A little mercilessly, someone posted a Google Maps photograph of the same scene today, probably taken on a weekend. No horsecarts, no cigars, no hats, no cars, no people. You may see this many people in the same scene today, sometimes more, but mainly only during a festival or a concert. This 1906 photograph looks like an ordinary business day. It was likely to look busy all the time. City directories prove that in 1906, this short block between Gay Street and Market Square supported about 35 businesses.

Comparing the two images can give you the impression that maybe we're overproud of our reviving downtown. Despite booming Market Square, and the fact that a couple of the buildings in the photo are restored or being restored, the scene that was so lively in 1906 is now stark, bleak, blank. Cleaner, maybe, but not nearly as much fun.

Developer Ken Mills' ambitious work on the George building, also known as the Woods & Taylor building at 36 Market Square, will improve our version of this scene. But it'll never be quite this lively as long as TVA is there, keeping its banker's hours and its '70s suburban-style campus: big, mute concrete buildings accessed by the elevated plaza, and highway-style landscaping. Maybe it seemed pretty when it was designed, 40 years ago, to house three times as many employees as work there now. By then, I think, the city had given up on Wall Avenue ever being a lively spot.

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In noting the literary heritage of Union Avenue Books' new locale last week, I didn't mention a very different bookstore that's moved downtown—sort of—into a place with its own literary heritage. I'd argue that North Central, home of Central Street Books, is indeed part of downtown, as it used to be, a century ago. It makes a nice little walk from Gay Street, especially if you take my preferred route, via Old Gray Cemetery, which has its own literary heritage. Its trees are a relief on a blazing afternoon, and there's always something you've never noticed before.

Early in the year, the bookstore moved in next door to Magpies' wonderful bakery, into the old Corner Lounge space.

It's July now, and the shop looks like it's been there forever, a repository of quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore. If your kids complain that Knoxville's not nearly enough like Harry Potter's London, take them to Central Street Books. It's agreeably cluttered, and full of dark corners and mysterious oddities. It's a concentrated experience. I liked the old bar, grieved its closure, and wasn't sure I could ever accept it as anything else. But my first time there, I spent a quiet hour preoccupied with books, and it hardly occurred to me that it was the same space that used to draw me with cheap beer and noise.

It has a literary heritage. The last time I was ever in the Corner Lounge, not long before it closed, an impressive poetry reading was afoot, and that was literary enough. But the Corner Lounge, the beer joint previously known as the Corner Grill or just the Corner, is the setting for a brief scene in Cormac McCarthy's hometown novel, Suttree. After an involuntary hospital stay at St. Mary's, the title character finds a refuge at the Corner.

After a recent doctor's appointment at St. Mary's, I walked to the same Corner to look at books. It's a walk I recommend. Broadway and Central are both stimulating routes, if you're in the mood for grit, as I sometimes am. But there's hardly a more pleasant stroll in town than along the old sidewalks of Old North.

Anyway, like Suttree, I found what I needed. I picked up the perfect backyard summer read, Erle Stanley Gardner's 1943 classic, The Case of the Drowsy Mosquito.