North Knoxville's Star Sales a Wholesale Wonderland

Part of a Series: Scene & Heard: Holiday Edition '09

Slices of life from Knoxville's neighborhoods: North, South, East, and West

What makes Knoxville unique? We often point to the cultural and entertainment offerings downtown, but most residents identify Knoxville with their own neighborhoods outside of the center city. And while they may exist far apart, sometimes in very different circumstances, these places collectively make up the Knoxville experience. In this second edition of our ongoing series, we visit different parts of Knoxville to simply record what we see, profiling the scenes and lives that help define our city.

NORTH: Star Sales Company, Inc.

Star Sales is on North Central, about a holler and a half past Happy Holler. It's a plain cinder-block building beneath a big red star, which in this case suggests no influence of Communism. It's allegedly a wholesale place. Most retail sales these days happen in the evenings and on weekends, but Star Sales keeps old-fashioned bankers' hours—M-F, 8 to 4:30—as if they expect customers who are here mainly on business. Checking out the first time can be puzzling. A clerk has a look at what you want to buy, types something into a computer, then writes a multi-digit number in pencil on a piece of paper. You take that piece of paper to a teller behind a window in a large office room, and she gives you a proper letter-sized invoice, with a ship date, COD, and tells you what to pay.

Based on its operating particulars, you'd never suspect this is a place that's ever particularly merry, or that it sports whimsical artificial Christmas trees, including an over-the-goalposts Go-Vols tree to assuage a mediocre season, as well as an almost life-size statue of Santa himself—or that it may be the best one-stop shop for Christmas shopping on a budget in Knoxville.

Visit, and you can feel like a kid in the secret wholesale division of Santa's workshop. Newcomers, especially young hipsters, are thrilled with the place, seeing odd products they've never seen before, shrieking occasionally, Look at this! Regulars amble through the aisles with ordinary shopping carts, looking sensible and nonchalant, as if this place is completely normal.

In part, it could pass for the only general store in Antarctica. Though their food supply is limited unless you're a candivore, you could survive from what you could find here. It's a good thing the guys in Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalyptic scavenger novel, The Road, didn't find Star Sales; if they had, the story might have ended right there, and wouldn't have made much of a movie. They carry everything you need, cheap, and a lot of stuff you don't.

Star Sales began as a "wholesale novelties" place in the '30s, on Depot Street, downtown. It's been in this location on North Central since the early '60s. Framed portraits of some of the early Star entrepreneurs hang in a place of dignity.

Signage is minimal; it's an oasis of freedom from in-store advertising. Most departments aren't marked, but you can guess where the fishing-tackle department is by the blue marlin suspended over it.

An aisle—it looks almost like a whole department—is devoted to figurines depicting crafty deer getting the comeuppance on witless hunters, displayed on plush fabric, museum-style, anticipating the way you'll display them at home.

Pricing doesn't try to trick you with numerical suffixes, .95s and .99s—there are lots of $5.15s and $1.10s. They do tend to round to the nearest nickel, but a serviceable backgammon set is yours for 33 cents.

Star Sales keeps up with the times. Your trendy electronic store may not even carry High-Tech Birds, but you can find them at Star Sales for just $2. They've got little robot Hi-Tech Cats, too.

They've got computer games as low as $5.15 (the Pocket Arcade) and you may regret buying that Apple MacBook; Star Sales offers a Notebook Supercomputer for just $27.65.

They've got some standard name-brand stuff, too, all pretty cheap. (Chutes and Ladders, $8.60, the travel edition of Battleship, $5.15.) You may get the sneaky suspicion that Wal-Mart buys from Star Sales.

A stroll through can convince you you've been wasting your money for years.

They're obviously proudest of their knife collection. The pocketknives are laid out separately, like jewelry, in glass cases near the entrance. Star Sales has enough pocketknives to equip the Continental Army. Some are as cheap as $1.50, and they have convincing Swiss Army Knife knockoffs, but also the genuine item imported from Switzerland, plus Case knives, Smith and Wesson knives, some top of the line in the $80-90 range. Though knives take up a tiny percentage of the floor space—the place is as big as a Kroger—they have a place of honor, and you might get the impression that all of Star Sales' good deals serve mainly to introduce customers to their glittering array of pocketknives. Even if you have all the pocketknives you'll ever need, the hazard of leaving with another is great.

They've got great deals on hardware and kitchenware and office supplies and lots of home décor, but you suspect that where Star Sales is most appreciated this time of year is for the toys.

A plush dog pet is $11, more than most toys at Star Sales, but this lovably cuddly dog actually speaks. One of the things it says is, "Oh, no! That's not my smell, that's you!"

Many of these are imports, the sort of things the Chinese think English-speaking people would like, like the Naughty Animal Keychain, which features rubber toy pigs and elephants making appropriate squeals. A Funky Lady piggybank depicts a jolly woman with an enormously round torso. The Bendable Clowns look like cheap toys at first, and then you notice their faces and hands are porcelain. A Growing Dinosaur Egg, not guaranteed by the Chinese to be paleontologically accurate, goes for $1.10.

As of this week, Star Sales wasn't overdoing the Christmas cheer with seasonal music, but some days, especially on Saturday—Star Sales is open Saturdays only this time of year, but just until 2:30—the store takes on a fringe of Christmas cheer. If you have kids who aren't particular about name brands, you could stuff a stocking with genuinely surprising and fun things for less than you'd spend on lunch at Rankin's, down the street.