Over this hot summer, I noticed the UT bookstore, known perhaps more accurately as the VolShop, on Henley Street had closed. I was walking over from UT one searing day in July, and thought I’d pop in there for a Coke, but found it utterly evacuated. In fact, it closed over a year ago. The fact that I’m just now noticing it may have something to do with why it closed.
I’m not sure how many people knew it was there to begin with, but for 12 years it was a UT Press bookstore, a well-stocked snack shop, and practically the only office-supply place downtown. It seems pretty weird to me that downtown, which still supports several thousand office workers, doesn’t have a handy place to buy basic office supplies except those that are available through the convenience store on Gay Street. I’m told most businesses have some kind of service that takes care of that sort of thing. Mine doesn’t.
The bookstore was also the closest thing to a convenience store downtown west of Gay Street. They had good deals on snacks and drinks and Vols souvenirs. When they opened, its location right across the street from the then-new Knoxville Convention Center made it seem a sure-fire thing, a tourist draw. But convention-center conventions have not been as big or frequent as expected, back in 2002. And I’m not sure signage was ever such that conventioneers would have noticed there was a UT bookstore, or a downtown, over here, across Henley Street.
Anyway, the couple dozen times I found myself in there, I was often the only customer. When I bought something, the cashier often assumed I worked for UT. Over the years, it seemed to serve mainly UT employees who worked in the same building.
Outside, Henley Street’s still a noisy river of cars racing between the interstate and South Knoxville. Six years ago, I wrote a column called “Our Monster” about the Henley Street problem, noting that despite, or because of, all that daily traffic, Henley Street was showing a marked failure to thrive. As I noted, that UT bookstore was the only retail presence on the entire stretch of Henley Street, from the interstate to the river, more than half a mile. And it was once a street with a great deal of retail, even a major department store, and popular with pedestrians. But over the years, Henley Street has gotten too wide and too fast, and it’s too obvious people don’t like to be anywhere near it.
Online, I found an old announcement that the VolShop closed because it was “not an efficient use of valuable space.” For over 14 months since it closed, that same space has been dead empty. Emptiness is often inefficient, too.
When I wrote that article, and a citizen proposed a solution that would calm traffic and make Henley Street more of an easygoing boulevard, a pleasure to cross, a city councilman opposed even considering the prospect. He questioned our very premise. “Henley Street retail is doing just fine,” he declared, without citing useful examples. Now Henley Street retail doesn’t exist at all.
The good news is that our old argument that Henley Street is a problem is slightly more persuasive now.
I’ve written about Dixson’s Barbecue several times over the years. It was one of the relative few local barbecue joints that was genuinely distinctive. I’m not sure what it was, a combination of spicy and sweet with a whiff of something else—perhaps tropical?—but I could tell a Dixson’s rib from anyone else’s rib. And they were the definitive practitioners of the Pigburger. They didn’t invent the Pigburger—that honor, as far as historians have been able to discern, belongs to long-gone Mechanicsville institution Brother Jack’s. But Dixson’s made it their own.
It’s a picturesque spot off Magnolia Avenue over near Caswell Park. I first noticed Dixson’s on my way to a ball game there maybe 25 years ago. It looked like a barbecue joint is supposed to look: a little house on a rise, back from the road, with screened windows. They were just open Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, and did a high-volume business in fresh chicken and pork barbecue, mostly in takeout. Through the tribulation and ultimate departure of Knoxville’s last professional baseball teams, the Blue Jays, then the Smokies, then the demolition of Bill Meyer Stadium, Dixson’s abided.
I don’t think it was lack of business that led to its closing. Dixson’s was probably more nationally famous in recent years than ever before, touted on several connoisseurs’ websites, and even featured once on the Travel Channel, about five years ago. But its manager and namesake, William Dixson Jr., died last year as the result of a car wreck. He was the one who knew the secret recipes. Unlike most restaurants, barbecue joints are as mortal as their chefs.
I got a surprising note from a sometime reader in Florida. Albert Matheny is a University of Florida professor who grew up in Knoxville.
At an art gallery walk in Brevard, N.C., about 150 miles southeast of here, he looked in at a place called Underground Salvage Co., a place known for selling scavenged materials, perhaps like Knox Heritage’s Salvage Shop.
“Lo and behold, I spot sectioned up pieces of bowling alleys for sale ‘from the UT Student Union,’” Professor Matheny writes. He says they were chopped up in 4- to 6-foot lengths.
He adds, “They also had cafeteria trays with a checkerboard border and a Big Orange ‘T’ in the center for sale, ‘$5 each.’”
I’m not sure how that all got down there so fast. When he saw these items, the University Center wasn’t altogether torn down yet. I daresay Power-T trays would probably sell for more than $5 in Knoxville. And if I saw parts of that bowling alley, I might be tempted. That was the first bowling alley I ever saw. I think I was about 5.
But I’m not sure what the protocol is for selling parts of a beloved landmark at home. Maybe that would have seemed indecent.