citybeat (2007-42)

If You Build Itâ

City Beat

Will they come? The Old Cityâ’s newest entrepreneurs are staking their businesses on it

Walking into The Knoxville Pearl feels a bit like walking into a twentysomethingâ’s living room. Mismatched sofas and coffee tables cluster around a television set turned to cartoons, and patrons mill about lazily, clutching bowls of sugary, mother-forbidden cerealâ"Count Chocula, Trix, Fruity Pebblesâ"as though it were Saturday morning and theyâ’d just awoken. Suffice it to say, this isnâ’t your typical business.

Owners Joe and Jamie Johnson arenâ’t your typical business owners, either. They seem blissfully unaware of just how far out on the entrepreneurial limb they may have ventured, opening Knoxvilleâ’s first Boba tea shop/cereal bar three-and-a-half weeks ago. After all, their business concept is nothing that hasnâ’t been done before: Ashevilleâ’s cereal bar, Eaties, is thriving since opening in March of this year, and Boba tea, a sweet, milky concoction with gummy gobs of tapioca in the bottom, has a rabid following on the West Coast. (Joe and Jamie are from Los Angeles.) So why, here in Knoxville, are some regarding the shop as a curiosity?

Joe recalls, â“One guy was asking us how we thought we were going to keep this crazy, new business afloat when so many other businesses around here have gone under.â”

â“Did you slap him?â” Jamie asks, teasingly.

But considering the Old Cityâ’s roller-coaster history, itâ’s a valid question. The area seems to be on the upswing right now, enjoying a surge of revitalization after a block of years in the late â’90s when it closer resembled a ghost town, though it might be jumping the gun to say that itâ’s a totally â“newâ” Old City. Among the entertainment districtâ’s fresh batch of entrepreneurs, however, thereâ’s a revived sense of faith in the Old Cityâ’s futureâ"a feeling that, if business owners take a chance on out-of-the box ideas, the community will take a chance on them, too.

For the record, the Johnsons do have a plan for keeping the Pearlâ’s head above water. They plan to have movie nights, open mic nights, and bands on First Fridays, and the store should be plugged into the Wi-Fi network by next week. The owners envision it as a place where students can do their homework, club-goers can get a pick-me-up cup of coffee or midnight snack, and friends can hang out together, play board games and drink tea.

They tried to be open for breakfast when they first started, but they didnâ’t get enough business to justify the long hours. But if business continues to grow, they havenâ’t ruled out the possibility of giving it another go. Right now, the shopâ’s hours are 1:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. Monday through Thursday, 3 to 3 on Friday and Saturday, and 3 to midnight on Sunday.

â“We wish more kids would come down here,â” Joe says. â“The whole Old City is so close to popping. Gay Street, Market Square get all the attention, but thereâ’s so much cool stuff going on here.â”

The â“If you build it, they will comeâ” mentality seems to be catching on. Around the corner on Central Avenue, Club 106 has taken over the space previously occupied by Red Iguana, the nightclub that capsized earlier this year after several underage drinking violations and other assorted bad behavior. Building owner Leigh Burch, of Sterchi Lofts acclaim, and partner Rod Townsend have reinvented the nightspot as a Las Vegas-inspired sports bar. General Manager Manuel Hermosillo insists that the five week-old club is keeping its nose clean and is still reeling in clubgoers.

â“This is more of a mixture of the older, upscale, urban downtown living crowd, mixed with a little bit of a West Knoxville and college crowd,â” the charismatic, slickly dressed manager explains.

Hermosillo pauses halfway up the stairs leading to the second floor, looking out over the clubâ’s vast expanses: The owners have invested $350,000 in renovations to the place, and it shows. Thirty-two big-screen, high-definition televisions broadcast various sports from the walls, VIP booths take up the back half of the place, and everything looks sleek and a little glitzyâ"hence the Vegas theme.

â“Weâ’ve been rock â’nâ’ rolling,â” Hermosillo says. â“We stay busy, we have a good time, and there arenâ’t any problems. Itâ’s just a fun-filled atmosphere.â”

Hermosillo is headed now for his favorite part of the club, the balcony that extends from the upstairs bar/poolroom. â“Youâ’ve got this French Quarter feel,â” he says, overlooking the intersection of Jackson and Central from which the Old City extends. The sidewalks are busy tonight, occupied by nightlife seekers ranging from college girls in short skirts and kitten heels to punk kids with spiked hair and leather jackets.

These days, the Old City is a mixed bag of businesses, with more waiting in the wings: The space next to Lox hair salon, for instance, is slated to become a British Pub, and the Knoxville Cigar Co. is expanding its operation to include a scotch and spirits bar. Other businesses that have opened their doors in the relatively recent past seem to be doing just fine, thank you very much: Hair salon Lox is holding its own against its competition in Market Square; Sanctuary Vintage has fast proven itself the rebel prince of the cityâ’s recycled clothing scene; and a peek into Host Clothing reveals two artists working hard on a photography project for the storeâ’s upcoming Halloween festival on Oct. 27.

Across the street from Club 106, Meg Parrish is sitting behind the counter of Old City Java, the funky little coffeehouse she purchased in July with her husband, Shawn. The storeâ’s longtime owner, Renee Sanabria, moved to Hawaii to manage a coffeehouse there, and Meg, having been a Java employee of four years, was a natural fit to take over.

â“Iâ’ve always wanted to own a coffee shop,â” Meg explains. She intends to give the business a facelift: revamp the menu, get new furniture, andâ"this one was important to herâ"make the change from Styrofoam to paper to-go cups. â“Weâ’re just going to freshen things up.â”

Old City Java is just one of several businesses in this area that were affected by the statewide smoking ban passed last month. For the most part, it doesnâ’t seem to have changed much: A bartender at the now non-smoking Patrick Sullivanâ’s assures us that when people want to smoke, they just hit the back patio. The same seems to hold true at Barleyâ’s, where the outside seating area is standing-room only on this chilly October night.

â“If anything, it actually seems to have helped business,â” Meg says. â“I think itâ’s greatâ"I leave work and donâ’t feel like I have to go home and take a shower before I go out.â”

The Old City has weathered plenty of change over the years, and the smoking ban, it seems, is just another bend in the road. But the transition period itâ’s been trudging through of late doesnâ’t look to let up anytime soon. Even as new businesses are opening, old businesses are still struggling to accept the fact that the district is growing up without them. Above Jackson Galleries, the massive furniture store/warehouse, â“Going Out of Businessâ” is printed in red letters on a large banner.

Meg thinks that change is a good thing. â“In the mid-â’90s, this was the happening place to be,â” she says. â“Now downtownâ’s getting busier. The Old Cityâ’s getting busier. People are excited.â” â" Leslie Wylie


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