Part of a series: Scene & Heard: All Around Town
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—whether you personally know about them or not. In this first edition of an ongoing series, we're visiting different parts of Knoxville to simply record what we see, profiling the scenes and lives that help define our city. These may be familiar places we've all heard about, or curious things that may surprise even their neighbors—but they're all Knoxville, and they're all worth getting to know.
A heavyset, gray-haired older woman—clad on this sunny Saturday in a grandmothery gray sundress and impressively circumferenced summer hat—peruses through knickknacks in the outer lot of the sprawling Green Acres Flea Market in Louisville. She's here, it seems, just to browse, fussily picking up an item here or there, briefly inspecting it, then inevitably replacing it, a broad smile on her face the whole time.
After sifting through one vendor's table in this manner, she approaches a second. It's covered in pocket knives, and it's surrounded by a tent flying dozens of Confederate battle flags. The sweet old lady strikes up a conversation with the clerk, a guy who looks like the type of guy who'd be selling this type of stuff, the type of guy who gets chastised by sweet-looking old ladies.
"Yep, they'll take my gun out of my cold, dead fingers, you betcha!" says this sweet-looking old lady, still smiling brightly and drawing a nod and a huff of approval from the vendor.
This sort of thing isn't unique to Green Acres, nor even the South. You can be sure that on this very same Saturday, the very same exchange is happening at a very similar place somewhere in Vermont, Massachusetts, or any other deep-blue coastal state. Neo-Confederates, hardline libertarians, or other assorted right-wingers and their wares are as inevitable a part of the flea market as soiled, decade-old Bart Simpson dolls, hundreds of unread copies of Lee Iacocca's 1984 autobiography (Iacocca: An Autobiography, with William Novak), or, today, an actual mace. What makes it a bit more interesting at Green Acres is the history of the land here, one that would almost seem to call for a historic marker celebrating East Tennessee's pro-Union past. Instead, it's a place where the ratio of Confederate battle flags to American flags for sale looks to be about four to one.
On Nov. 15, 1863, 4,000 Confederate cavalrymen led by Gen. "Fightin'" Joe Wheeler—hot from a victory over the Union stronghold of Maryville the day before—advanced north into Knoxville, expecting to push some 1,500 Union cavalry troops over the Tennessee River and capture the southern hills overlooking the city. As it happened, though, the Federals were already in the midst of fortifying those hills, which would later be known as Forts Stanley and Dickerson, and by Nov. 16 Wheeler's troops were forced to retreat, joining Lt. Gen James Longstreet's troops in Blount County. Wheeler had come too late to help, though. Longstreet's troops, without that cavalry force, moved too slowly to stop Union reinforcements from reaching Knoxville, leading to a lopsided Union victory during the 18-day siege of the city. The Confederates fled back to Virginia, allowing for an equally decisive Union victory in Chattanooga, and leaving Tennessee open for Gen. William Sherman's March into Georgia. Today, almost exactly between the path of Wheeler's Nov. 14-15 advance and his Nov. 16 retreat sits Green Acres.
Like most flea markets, the occasionally uncomfortable, seemingly exclusionary politics are, at Green Acres, strangely part of a vibrant, multicultural landscape, one that is much more democratic and inclusive than any upscale downtown shopping district or bland, chain-store-filled mall. Around the corner from the Confederate-flag booth, deeper in toward the central building, is a delicious smelling shanty-town. This, to put it into retail-speak, is the culinary district. The central focal point here is Chepa's Kitchen, a large, pastel green shack on the outside, but a comfortably appointed dining room inside. Chepa's serves a wide array of Latin staples (tacos in every variety, tamales, sopa de mariscos). It's been family-owned and operated for the past eight years, says 19-year-old Antonio Severiano as he sits behind the cash register next to his mother, Josefina.
The restaurant is surrounded by several smaller shacks featuring a cornucopia of unprepared food, mostly concentrating on produce (tomatoes, every type of pepper imaginable, potatoes, cactus) but occasionally delving into unfamiliar miscellany, like the things known in the United States as "those orange, wheel-shaped, noodley things that you fry and they get all puffy" and are apparently called chicharrones de harina. The best part of these booths: The better-than-supermarket produce is marked at prices comparable to a supermarket, negotiable for large quantities, and in the case of my attempted purchase of a single plum, occasionally free.
Deeper in still, right up against the building itself and laid out on towels inside boxes, you can find retail items at bargain basement prices due to their off-brandedness, last-yearedness, or just some indefinably "off" quality. Take for example a collection of cartoon character socks. They appear to be genuine Disney and Nick Jr. products, but the characters they depict have a disturbing, almost sickly, pallor to them. Piglet's skin is gray. Dora the Explorer looks kind of greenish-black. Frolicking against their pink cotton backgrounds, these cheery little guys look like morbidly posed serial victims of a serial killer. It makes for a creepy foreshadowing of the market building itself, where the dim, high-placed fluorescent lights make everybody else's skin look like that.
Right inside, by the west entrance, is a very large collection of things that would very rarely hang out in the same neighborhood together, let alone the same corner of a building. Right below a mounted eight-point buck's head, marked "Killed Oct. 1, 1989 by Jim Harrington, Ulm, Wyo." is a box of yellowed economics texts: Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy; Price Theory; The Economics of Imperfect Competition. On another table are two six-packs of collectible Fonzie Nehi Orange Soda cans. The only common factor here is a familiar, slightly musty odor, underscored by the smell of boiling potatoes.
"I get everything from estate sales," says proprietor Matt Kirkland.
Kirkland is an 18-year-old baseball prodigy from South Doyle High and the son of Green Acres owner Mike Kirkland. He has committed to play at the University of Tennessee next year. Now, though, he's spending his time between his booth here and keeping an eye out in the newspaper and Craigslist for announcements of recent-death everything-must-go sales across the area.
"This stuff took me about a year to put together," he says, taking a short break from haggling with a customer over the price of one of his items. "I got way more stuff in the back." As much as I'd like to see it, though, I can no longer resist going to Chuck Corum's section.
Corum, a 24-year-veteran vendor at the flea market, is the unrivaled master of all things shamefully wonderful, or wonderfully shameful: action figures stacked halfway up the Mario-Sonic mural on his wall, a store's worth of comic books and graphic novels neatly arranged in shelves and cardboard boxes, video games from every obsolete system dating back to the mid-1980s, and, of course, all the apocryphal Star Wars novels you'd never want to read. He has some real treasures there: Buffy LEGO sets come to mind.
"Me and my dad opened this booth together when I was still in high school," Corum says. "At first, it was all junk, just stuff that my dad had. Over the years, as I took it over, it started to become more about pop-culture stuff."
In his weekday life, Corum is the manager of the Jessie Harris Laboratory Animal Facility at UT. His wife, Joy, who helps out at the booth (with considerably less enthusiasm and a sort of playful, loving condescension), is a teacher in Cosby.
"I actually make very little money here," he says. "This is just a hobby, but it's a hobby that takes up every weekend."
Here, Joy barely stifles a scoff.