Requiem for J's Mega Mart

Now where will downtowners turn for eggs, wire cutters, and wigs?

Most people know what you mean when you say “convenience store.” People know you can probably pick up some milk, batteries, and gum at a convenience store. You wouldn’t necessarily expect to find watches or printer paper. A convenience store may sell cigarettes and lottery tickets. But you wouldn’t go there expecting to buy electrical wire, a hammer, or contact lenses. Any convenience store worth its salt is going to have aspirin, snacks, and soda. But just try to find chalk, a motherboard, and fishnet hose at your local convenience store. You want a wig? Forget about it. To find all of that and more, you need a Mega Mart.

When I first moved to downtown, those in the know turned me on to J’s Mega Mart. And they were right. It took me a while to warm up to it, but over time I covered every aisle behind the dingy white facade of the former Kress store on Gay Street. And more often than not, I found exactly what I needed, when I needed it, without getting in a car. And that includes things that had a certain urgency like red shoelaces and a toilet plunger (albeit at different times).

Although downtown’s retail offerings have multiplied in recent years, nothing has come close to competing with the practical, and impractical, offerings of J’s Mega Mart. It’s not exactly what you would have called a premier anchor retail destination attraction. But it filled any number of niches for household needs and impractical whims of everyday life in the neighborhood. If you needed it, there was a good chance that J’s had it.

If you travel to many cities, you’ve likely come across old Kress buildings that have been renovated. One of the legacies of S. H. Kress & Co. is the easily recognizable art deco storefronts it abandoned in the latter part of the 20th century when the chain went out of business. Dozens of those facades have been restored and now front everything from conference centers to night clubs around the country. When I’ve travelled, I’ve seen those gleaming white curves and thought of our own on Gay Street, imagining it brought back to its former glory. When the for-sale sign went up around this time two years ago, I wondered if the time had come. People who know a lot more about old buildings than I do told me that the asking price was too steep, but I still wondered. After all, prior to Mast General Store, J’s Mega Mart hosted more functioning retail space than anything open in downtown for over a decade. And report after report had put its location at roughly ground zero for retail development to revitalize Gay Street. But no one snapped up the building right away.

Then the Central Business Improvement District announced its record-setting half-million-plus grant to renovate the Arnstein Building for an Urban Outfitters location, and for some unexplainable reason, a Michigan company got the idea that there might be gold in these here hills. It forwarded a grant application of its own to the CBID with a plan to purchase and renovate J’s Mega Mart into an Aveda store/cosmetology school. Shortly after, Urban Outfitters bailed on its interest in the Arnstein. But in proffering that grant, the CBID had shown that it had serious bucks to pony up if it deemed a project worthy—far more than it had ever offered to anyone before. And sure enough, just last week, that company received approval for a $300,000 grant from the CBID. Cha-ching.

A few weeks back, I went to J’s to pick up something and it was closed. That was a little unusual, but I didn’t think too much of it when I returned the next day and found it open. I heard a few rumors of the building selling. But then, I hear a lot of rumors. Then it closed again, and this time it wasn’t open the next day. One evening I noticed J himself (aka, Jason Nguyen) clearing out some items from the front window and asked what was up. After a little chat he confessed that a sale was pending, but that he would remain skeptical until it was all said and done. Probably not a bad plan.

And then it hit me. What was I going to do without J’s Mega Mart? I mean, J told me when he put the building up for sale that he would like to open a convenience store somewhere nearby if it sold. But it really didn’t register with me that downtown might be bereft of a Mega Mart for the first time since I’d lived here. Granted, I can now get crepes, backpacking gear, lattes, gelato, and a hipster’s bike bag full of other “urban” goodies that I couldn’t buy on Gay Street when I first got here, including at J’s. But where am I going to walk to now to get eggs, wire cutters, and another wig?

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Comments » 3

KnoxvilleUrbanGuy writes:

J's is as interesting a retail store as I've ever walked into. I've only lived downtown a year and had never gone into it until a couple of months ago. We certainly won't be able to get some of those things for now, if they move out. A good hardware store would be a great addition that would cover some of the items but, of course, that will have to wait unit we get an adequate supply of beauty schools up and running. Still, J's did seem like a business that wasn't likely to stick around as downtown changes. I wonder just what the market for downtown wigs has been in recent years. I wrote a piece on it in my blog this summer and linked a YouTube video that shows the store (in a humorous light connected with the P-card scandal). You can read the piece at http://stuckinsideofknoxville.blogspo....

mjlarkin writes:

While the article is funny and points out the uniqueness that is J's, I feel that what Knoxville really needs downtown is a grocery store. Not a quickie mart (we have one already), but a real grocery store that sells real groceries.

And I don't mean one of those high end organic stores like Whole Foods or Earth Fare, I mean something that everyone can afford and would actually use on a regular basis.

After we moved from Boston, my wife and I used to live in the 411 Building. Used to city living, we were delighted to find that Knoxville had most everything we needed within reach: restaurants, movie theater, park, outdoor entertainment, etc...except we always had to get in our car and drive across town to Walmart or Food City or wherever to get groceries. We both work right downtown so it seemed pretty silly that the majority of the time we got in the car was to make a run to Food City or Walmart for groceries.

Sure, you could get milk and eggs at J's, but what about canned goods, produce, frozen meals, meats, etc? As KnoxvilleUrbanGuy said, the market for downtown wigs is likely not that high relative to the market for frozen pizzas, soda, and potato chips.

Living downtown is great, but given the space and existing layout of J's, a real grocery store seems a no-brainer. If the Central Business Improvement District seriously wants people to move downtown, this would be the final piece of the puzzle.

Also, for those green-minded folk, using a small handcart to grab your groceries and walking them back to your apartment / condo is a lot better than driving your car back and forth to the grocery store. The closet is the Food City on Western and that's a few miles away.

Just think about all the people in the Sterchi building, the folks over in the Phoenix, etc, hopping in their car every week or two for no other reason than to pick up food. Not to mention the increase in traffic in what is fast becoming a pretty thick area already.

So, if the sale isn't final, my vote would be to get a grocery store in there instead of a cosmetology school.

jsheehan1973 writes:

My friends and I created a Facebook page dedicated to the awesomeness of J's....Wigged Out for J's Mega Mart. I am very sad to see the store close and hope that J hangs his distinctive shingle elsewhere!

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