We're out of eggs."
The news was dire. As the first element of the American food trilogy (eggs, milk, and bread), they are a kitchen staple. It's the sort of emergency that, some might expect, ought to cause me to clench my fists and curse my foolish choice to live downtown. Downtown needs a grocery store! It's conventional wisdom. What to do?
Desperate situations call for desperate measures. So without hesitation, I hopped on the bike and took off. Walking two blocks was out of the question. We needed eggs now. Five minutes later the void was filled, and the promise of breakfast renewed.
An egg crisis was averted thanks to J's Megamart. For those who haven't ventured into J's, it's like a regular mart, except more mega. Not only can I buy eggs there, but also milk, a toilet plunger, Jones soda, a violet wig, or any of the other things a proper household needs to function. Now granted, there's no fresh meat or fish, no vegetables to speak of. And the selection of toilet paper is limited to orphanage-grade. But J's has eggs—chicken eggs, I'm pretty sure.
The one thing Knoxvillians seem convinced of—almost as much as they are convinced downtown needs more parking—is that we need a grocery store. I hear it over and over. The nearest one is almost a mile away (oh my!), and it's nearly a mile-and-a-half to a real supermarket. Downtown residents are indeed isolated.
But I always wonder what people picture when they envision a downtown grocery. Would it offer a cornucopia of choices? How many varieties of eggs, milk, and bread would they expect to find? Would it have the cat food that Felix prefers? Or the brand of laundry detergent they've formed an allegiance to? More importantly, would I have my choice of Charmin or Cottonelle in double- and single-rolls? I have doubts.
Downtown is reclaiming its place as a regional center. But it's taking a different form now than when it was the seat of commerce. These days when people think of downtown, it's more likely to be for entertainment, dining, or cultural events than for school clothes, a garden hose, or eggs. Those things followed the people to the suburbs where merchants have taken consumerism to its zenith.
But downtown is re-establishing itself as a neighborhood with needs. We're poised to see a lot more personal egg shortages in the near future. So it's reasonable for urbanites to care about such things. Why anyone else is concerned is a little beyond me. I just can't imagine that people want to come downtown for groceries.
Since the failure of the market in the Old City, the proposals for a downtown grocery that I've seen were more consumer destinations than neighborhood amenities. Plans were for gourmet selections and in-store boutique cafes. They wouldn't offer the variety of goods we're accustomed to in supermarkets. But it seems these proposed business models don't get much further than "coming soon" signs that fade along with the financing.
With the return of the Market Square Farmers' Market, downtowners are, for the season, in store for some of the best meats, produce, and baked goods the area has to offer. Of course, like everything downtown, everyone's welcome. But it offers the neighborhood a chance, twice a week, to buy quality you can't find in most supermarkets, practically on our doorstep (including eggs, though it may require getting there early).
It's almost anti-supermarket, with everything locally produced and none of the commercial consumer products to which supermarkets dedicate so much space. And even with suburban abundance, it has become a destination for many.
Its popularity with non-downtowners has led me to the think that rather than a general grocery, the addition of options such as a year-round butcher shop, bakery, and produce market would deliver the destination shopping that people are looking for downtown while providing the neighborhood with some needed amenities. Then people might not worry so much that we don't have a grocery.
If suburbanites knew that I had access to fresh bagels, baguettes, bacon, and bok choy, they could rest easier, and I could too. And while a lot of neighborhoods have supermarkets and groceries, not so many have dedicated specialty food shops.
As the city contemplates its downtown retail development strategy, I hope it will bring more to the table (so to speak) than rent guarantees. Many of our retail spaces downtown are more suited to small shops than supermarkets. And if city leaders can solicit a cinema to open where no cinema company dared, then maybe they can foster a diverse market district for times when popcorn just won't do. It seems better than putting all of our eggs in one basket. m