There was a scare almost six years ago, and a couple of extended closings since, but this time it seems real: J’s Mega Mart is going out of business.
“Mega mart” may be the only term for that business at 417 South Gay. It’s like nothing else in town, somewhere between a corner bodega and a Walmart, a place where you could find some approximation of almost anything you really need, without spending much money. For most of the last 20 years it’s been downtown’s favorite general store. Their slogan, handwritten on a card in a display window, was “You Need It / We’ve Got It.”
They sell keychains, sardines, bandannas, jewelry, cigarettes, basic hardware, basic kitchenware, basic underwear, wigs for men and women, umbrellas, table statues, nail polish, electrical cords, Vienna sausages, hairpins, amazingly inexpensive off-brand medicines, stocking caps, neckties, wristwatches, shoelaces, flip flops, canned beans, padlocks, typing paper, wrapping paper, toilet paper, a big variety of cold nonalcoholic drinks. And “yo-yo holders.” There’s apparently a market.
For years, when I didn’t have time or money for a restaurant meal which, for a reporter, is often, I’d just pop by J’s and get some sardines or maybe Korean ramen noodles and some chips and a Coke for about $2.60.
We won’t have that anymore. It’s also unsettling to think we’ll have a downtown where you can’t buy a pair of pliers or a plain white T-shirt.
J is Jason Nguyen, a slender, graying fellow of 63. A tailor by trade, he left Saigon on a tugboat in 1975, and came to America as a refugee, first settling in Kansas City where he met his wife, Jennifer, a fellow fabric worker from South Korea. Through family connections, they arrived in Knoxville and bought the old Kress building on Gay Street. At the time, it was a run-down block mostly abandoned by the city. There was a Revco drugstore down the sidewalk, some other Korean merchants who offered clothing and martial-arts gear, and a lot of vacancies.
About 20 years ago, the Nguyens bought a wig store from a couple who were retiring and moving to Florida, but soon expanded to advertise “wigs, hairpieces, jewelry, and gifts.” But that wasn’t even half of it.
“We wanted to be a mom-and-pop store. What do you need? We will get it for you.” When Revco closed, J’s was up and running to borrow some of that clientele.
For almost all of Knoxville’s history, there was something like J’s downtown, a general store, an inexpensive place to get the basic needs of life. Even this space once served the purpose. The three-story building with white glazed terra-cotta work was built in 1925. You can still see the name KRESS high on the building, in elaborate lettering like something on an art-nouveau poster, from the Moulin Rouge era.
Kress once had another sign, just above the first floor. It said “S.H. KRESS CO. 5 10 25 CENT STORE.” The Pennsylvania-based chain always built stores much fancier than their prices. Kress stores were elaborately ornate even when the style was out of step with the times. Kress buildings are in downtowns all over America, and they’re often among the prettiest buildings. Knoxville’s Kress, built in the middle of a block, was never as grand as some, but its floral motif is still distinctive, and unlike any other buildings in town. A few months ago, I remarked that Knoxville hardly celebrated the dogwood until the 1920s, when dogwood blossoms started showing up in building facades. There are some in the facade of the Kress building.
Kress was, like J’s, an inexpensive place to buy a big variety of stuff. It lasted here at 417 Gay Street for decades.
I’m not sure casual pedestrians ever had a strong sense of what the Nguyens offered here. Because they had a lot of problems with break-ins, in their early days, and built an interior wall across the old show windows. “These people don’t want to work for what they want,” Nguyen says.
Downtown has changed in the 20 years that J’s Mega Mart has been in business, and many people would say it has changed for the better. Though Jason says they still get a good deal of trade from tourists, J’s has lost a lot of its old customer base. Rehabbing old buildings to the highest standards is expensive, and calls for upscale residences and upscale retail, especially retail that involves selling upscale food and upscale drink. Downtown people are fancier now.
Nguyen thinks the era of the mom-and-pop store, selling practical things for low prices, is over, downtown. “Property values are so high, renting is so high,” he says, and downtown has changed to emphasize entertainment. “Downtown, now, not many people need what we have anymore. People eat at a restaurant and go to a movie, and then go home.”
Downtown has become a more upscale thing, and a more narrowly defined thing, than it once was.
He’s looked into trying to rehab his own building, to join the party, but thinks fixing up this building would require millions. It includes two unused floors above his retail space. Nguyen says he has tried to work with the city, and with other successful developers, but nothing has worked out. So he’s just selling.
There seem to be buyers for their building. It’s valued at about six times the $220,000 they paid for it, a couple of decades ago. But he’ll keep working. “I’m still studying,” he laughs. He’s worried about America’s dependence on fossil fuels, and has become interested in solar power. He’s working on installing a solar system in his home. He’s good at mechanical work, good at electronic work. Maybe he’ll return to tailoring, alterations. “I will work until my last day of living.”
For now, he’s still working here, behind the front counter, and for the next month, a lot of what he’s selling is 50 percent off.