One of the things I’ve said about living downtown is that it’s nice to live in a place where, every day, things seem to get just a little bit better. Within a few blocks I now have a cinema, the Bijou and Tennessee theaters, and a burgeoning number of eateries. The area that once served as the center of commerce for the city has reemerged as something of a place most Knoxvillians associate more with leisure than with business. Yet for those of us who make it home, it’s the utilitarian additions that contribute most to our quality of life. And this past year, that sector has been a dynamic one.
A year ago, tragedy struck when J’s Mega Mart, downtown’s most practical and impractical retail institution, suddenly shut its doors. No longer could I pick up some printer paper, a watch, a lottery ticket and a wig under one roof within walking distance of home. If I needed a toilet plunger, some thread, and a pair of shoelaces, it meant getting in a car and driving to some big-box store to find the variety of items that had once been only a couple of blocks away. On the bright side, Aisle Nine had just opened its doors in the Old City.
I always used to think it odd when I’d hear people say that “what downtown needs is a grocery store.” I think most of us who lived here would have agreed in general. But it just never seemed like too big of a deal to me. Within a mile and a half, we’ve had two major supermarket chains and a whole foods/organic grocery for years. I’m not sure how many suburbanites have that same convenience. Yet when Aisle Nine opened, it was nice to know that if I had forgotten something while on my weekly grocery run, I wasn’t going to have to backtrack to get it. It’s hard to put a value on being able to buy an onion or a stick of butter a block away from your kitchen. In June of last year, WATE.com’s website ran the headline “Downtown Finally Has A Grocery Store” and that concern was put briefly to rest. This May, the same site reported that “Downtown Knoxville finally has something people have been asking for, for years. A grocery store called Just Ripe has opened on Union Avenue in the Daylight Building.” And once again, downtown “finally” had its grocery store. Just Ripe brought even more to the table, so to speak. With its larger assortment of produce and variety of fresh organic and whole foods, grocery shopping got even more convenient.
Then a few weeks back, The Market opened at Gay Street and Union Avenue. While both Aisle Nine and Just Ripe have been welcome additions, one look inside The Market is all it took for many of us to notice that downtown had, again, finally gotten a grocery store. Maybe it’s the gleaming butcher shop in the back with its wide selection of meats and seafood, or maybe it’s that cat litter isn’t priced like a precious metal. But nearly every one of my neighbors is pretty jazzed about The Market. If a recent Saturday is any indication, it may even prove to be a “destination” grocery for downtown visitors. I’m guessing most of the patrons I saw there that day don’t live downtown. But it’s not like you can find prime grade local beef everywhere.
The good news for downtowners this week is that J’s Mega Mart, after a year-long battle with codes enforcement, has reopened in the old Kress building. Man does not live by groceries alone. And none of the aforementioned new stores carry brass giraffes, holiday wrapping paper, Halloween makeup, or fishnet stockings (over 13 styles and colors!). Not a one of them sells even a single style of wig or the appropriate hat to accompany it. You can’t fake the funky that is J’s Mega Mart. It’s mega funky.
I hope the auspicious reopening of J’s won’t deter entrepreneurs or deflate any pending plans of developing more retail establishments for me to spend my money on something other than food and entertainment. Downtown’s seen some restaurant turbulence. And if you were thinking of helping us finally get a grocery, you’re too late again. But J’s Mega Mart is, in some sense, exactly what downtown needs more of. There simply isn’t enough retail. I hope the new meme for downtown is something like “what downtown needs is a drug store” or “what downtown needs is a men’s clothing store” or some such other thing I need. Tipping our balance too much toward being an entertainment district is risky business. Mostly, I hope that downtown continues to be a place to live where, every day, things seem to get just a little bit better. m