On any given day, the westernmost corner of the store is the most heavily trafficked portion of Colonial True Value Hardware in South Knoxville, though there's not a single item for sale there, nor even a cash register nor a checkout lane. Rather, that sector of Colonial is set about with a crude agglomeration of oddly mismatched furniture, including a barber's chair and an old stained oak bench seat that grows almost uncomfortably warm in the sun steaming through Colonial's front window, even on a frigid winter day.
"That's where the Education Committee sits," says new store owner Jeff Allen, referring to the regular informal gathering of mostly retired gentlemen that convenes at Colonial throughout the earlier half of most days. "When I took over the store, that was one of the first things people asked: Am I gonna leave this corner open? But if I took out this corner, the store would probably close. This little section is probably just as important as everything else in the store combined."
Allen purchased Colonial True Value Hardware, located on Chapman Highway next to the old landmark Kay's Ice Cream, on Dec. 15 from former owners Roy and Gerry Garnett, who had operated the local institution for nearly 30 years. When Allen, a South Knoxville-based long-haul trucker and a longtime Colonial customer himself, moved to take over the store from the retiring Garnetts, he determined to keep its mom-and-pop character and its status as a locus of community activity intact.
"It's nice to see, because the mom and pops are going away," says Tom Collins, milling around the front counter in a ball cap and a blue Colts pullover. Collins is something of a regular, too, having served as the seed rep to Colonial since the early years of the Garnetts' ownership.
"The big-box stores keep hammering at them," he continues, "so you don't see too many of them anymore."
Colonial opens its doors Monday through Saturday at 8 in the morning, and by 8:30 most days, the first of what will likely be several regular visitors has come in, poured coffee in a styrofoam cup from the old coffee machine in the back, and taken a seat in the Committee section.
"We come in to discuss world issues and to solve world problems," chuckles Jim Anderson, a retired railroad man and longtime South Knoxvillian who's just wandered in with a cup of coffee from the Burger King up Chapman Highway. "We wondered where we were going to meet after Roy and Gerry sold, but it turned out to be the very same place. I've always said, if you want to know what's going on in South Knoxville, come here."
On a busy day, the western corner is standing-room only, says Jason Allen, Jeff's grown son, taken over by a crew of fellows with names like Dan and Dex and Cranston and Crawfish. On an especially busy Friday around lunchtime, a couple of the regulars break out acoustic guitars, as they are sometimes wont to do, and a round of strumming and singing ensues that includes the likes of Ritchie Valens and Elvis Presley's "Don't Be Cruel."
"If we get real busy, sometimes the fellows back here will jump up and help customers," Jeff Allen says. "They'll wait on you, even ring you up."
"Well, everyone except Cranston," says Jason Allen. "He's scared of the cash register."
"We're keeping everything pretty much the same as it was," Jeff Allen says, noting the lone exception that he might "freshen up the inventory a little, make some things easier to find."
Just then, two more older gents stride urgently through the front door, both of them obviously familiar to Allen; the first man is evidently pastor at a local church.
"Need to use your bathroom," the preacher croaks, scarcely slowing down on his beeline for the facilities.
Allen laughs: "You never know what one of our customer's is gonna need."