editorial (2006-32)

Tied to the Mast

The introduction of a major retailer to Gay Street should catalyze downtown retail growth

R.I.P. Father Jones

Tied to the Mast

Roll the drums. Sound the horns. Break out the bunting. The first new major retail store in downtown Knoxville in decades is set to open next week on Gay Street.

Mast General Store, with two floors of goods of such variety and appeal it’s hard to describe in a few short paragraphs, opens its newest outlet at 402 S. Gay St., in the old White Stores building, Aug. 17.

John Cooper, who has owned the 123 year-old, Valle Crucis, N. C.-based business since 1980, says this sixth in his and his wife Faye’s “family” of stores has special meaning to them because Knoxville was a main source of wholesale supply to the original store in its 19th-century rural beginnings.

The positive implications of such a large investment by a retailer on Gay Street are hard to overestimate. If you’ve ever been to the Mast store in Asheville, N. C., or the one in Greenville, S.C., you’ll understand that, while they may not be the anchors of those cities’ reviving central business districts, they are very busy, very popular locations for shoppers.

“We love to see downtowns come back, and we’re excited to be a part of that,” says John Cooper, who revived the Mast business at its roots through something akin to force of will. Mast stores stock thousands of items, including hardware and soft goods, from clothing to fabrics to bedding. There are specialty foodstuffs and an incomparable array of candies, top outdoor lines of hiking and camping gear, and an assortment of products from oil lamps to lunchboxes and pet accessories. The stores are a gift-seekers dream, and the excellent restoration of the old store building that Mast has achieved here is its own drawing card. The detailing is spectacular, taking shoppers back a century to offer them the goods of today.

The opening of Mast General, along with the evident progress in construction of the new multi-screen cinema that Regal Theaters is building in the 500 block of Gay Street, breathe the kind of life into the downtown ambience that the Market Square revival and the refurbishment of the Tennessee and Bijou Theatres have lately enhanced. Together, the restorations and renewals and the new investments provide the kind of critical mass that is sure to attract more retailers, more restaurants and pubs, and more service establishments to the Central Business District’s streets until downtown Knoxville is recognized once more as the commercial, as well as the governmental, banking and office center of East Tennessee.

Along the way, such businesses as Mast will be collecting sales taxes that, under a special state-authorized formula, will be dedicated to retiring the city’s debt on the Knoxville Convention Center at the downtown’s western edge. In return, a vibrant downtown will provide an attractive incentive to future conventioneers to schedule their events here.

There is so much hand-in-glove symbiosis going on now, with the popularity of downtown loft living and condominium development, that a future that not long ago seemed bleak for the city’s center is now aglow, bathed in its own new light.

R.I.P. Father Jones

According to civil-rights demonstrator and historian Bob Booker, Jones was “one of the real backbones of the sit-in movement.” Jones suffered threats and did some jail time before the successful effort was over.

Jones would later be president of the local NAACP chapter, and in 1967 even ran a modest campaign for mayor. He also founded advocacy groups like the Knoxville Opportunities Industrialization Center and the Knoxville Progressive Economic Development Association. But his appearance in local histories is limited mainly to one striking photograph that appears in Booker’s photographic history, Two Hundred Years of Black Culture . In it, there’s a big photograph of Father Jones, circa 1960, looking cool but uncompromising in his black vestments and white collar, as he walks by a group of whites on a Clinch Avenue sidewalk. He’s carrying a sign that says, “We Are All Brothers In Christ.”

Much better known in the black community as a mentor to many of its leaders, than in the white community, Father Jones will be missed as the brother he was to us all.