When I heard the Knoxville Pearl had closed, I contacted owner Jamie Johnson who agreed to tell her story. She described the moment as “bittersweet,” and as she spun her story covering cities all over the US, her feelings about Knoxville and what it took to keep a business she believed in going for eight years, all the shades of emotion became clear. There is a personal side to business, both on the part of an owner who cares about what she is doing and on the part of customers who come to feel more like family and have significant memories and markers of their own lives involved.
The stretch of buildings including the Knoxville Pearl were owned by Brad Johnson (no relation) who operates Willow Creek Antiques across the street and without whom the Knoxville Pearl, Jamie assures me, would not have been possible. Jamie’s husband Joe works for Brad, and Jamie and Joe lived above the Knoxville Pearl for over five years, raising their two children who came to see the business and the Old City as their own. In October 2014 Leigh Burch purchased the row of buildings and things generally throughout the Old City started to feel different.
An unexpected twist and an extremely circuitous route brought Jamie to Knoxville in the first place. Originally from just outside Chicago (the suburb with the highest gang murder rate, she told me), her father moved to Morristown when she was two. It was then that she first visited east Tennessee, moving back and forth between parents, though her father eventually moved to Franklin in central Tennessee.
After graduating from high school in Illinois, she moved to Franklin, then Cincinnati, and back to Illinois where she met and married Joe. The couple moved to L.A. for five years, which is where she fell in love with bubble tea after being introduced to it in San Francisco by a friend who owned a record shop in Haight Ashbury. It was found mostly in Chinatown in San Francisco and Koreatown in L.A.
After living in L.A., where they had moved for Joe to attend school to study music, they returned to Illinois. She’d worked for a mortgage company in L.A. and continued to work for them from Illinois via computer. Realizing they could live anywhere, she wanted to move to Tennessee to be near her father who was, by then, living in Nashville. He indicated he intended to move to east Tennessee in the near term and so, in 2006, she decided to move east and, particularly, to move to Knoxville because she had enjoyed living in cities, citing the mix of people from all types of backgrounds.
They fell in love with Knoxville and have set deep roots here. Their children ultimately grew up in the Old City and now Fourth and Gill. Their daughter is at Vine and their son attends Beaumont and they feel good about both. It was that new love for Knoxville that made the decision easy when the mortgage industry collapsed and the company she worked for offered to move her to Irving, Texas. She declined.
Without much idea of what to do next, she did the obvious thing: After making a new friend named Ashley, she joined the Hard Knox Rollergirls. Her only experience was going to the skating rink when she was young. She helped a friend open a coffee shop in Maryville. She participated in a fundraiser at Blue Cats and was introduced to the Old City. She’d been there once before, dropping her in-laws off at the Greyhound station, and the Old City reminded her of a side street in Chicago.
Wanting to start a business that included bubble tea, she knew it had to be anchored with something else. Most out west were sold in coffee shops, but on a visit to Asheville she happened into a cereal bar and knew she’d found her answer, particularly since, as a vegetarian, she didn’t want to sell meat. She sold her car, put that money with her severance pay and her tax return and opened the Knoxville Pearl on September 23, 2006 with a lot of help. Ashley and the Hard Knox Rollergirls pitched in and painted. Ashley’s husband re-finished the floor.
The new business was furnished with the vintage, re-cycled, thrift-store style to which Jamie leans and a single advertisement was placed in Metro Pulse. The place immediately found its customer base and that never really changed. They started out with an eclectic mix of music leaning heavily toward electronic, dabbled with live music, but generally found their groove in bubble tea, cereal, games and a kind of quirkiness that it all attracted.
Eventually the hours settled into 7:00 PM to Midnight through the week and 7:00 PM to 2:00 AM on weekends. Tough hours. And she had other full-time jobs most of the time. She got a lot of high school students, which she liked, and a lot of designated drivers. She remembered a coffee shop she’d gone as a teenager to hang-out and feel cool and liked that they felt the same way. Ironically, the former owner of that coffee shop walked into the Pearl one night when he was touring with his band and playing Pilot Light. Kind of a full-circle moment.
She loved watching people walk in for the first time and try to figure out what in the world had just happened – as if they had entered another dimension. Coloring books were a thing for a while – long before the current craze for adults. She made new friends, her sister-in-law met her future husband there, as did a several other couples she could name.
In the end, however, the single thing that a business has to do at some point – make a profit – never happened. Likely there were a combination of reasons. Jamie acknowledges she never had a real business plan. Prices set high enough to sustain the business may have proven difficult for some of the clientele. At a certain point, the lack of a profit, the overwhelming fatigue and the changing nature of the Old City combined to make continuation of the business simply hard to justify.
Her lease ran to next July, but she preferred not to wait, but rather to leave when she was ready, a time which has arrived. She feels the time has come for something new and she’s proud of keeping a business going for eight years, for the relationships it fostered and for the unique bubble tea she made.
For now she is hoping for some rest. She’s enjoying the quiet of the Fourth and Gill neighborhood, though she admitted her nine-year-old son misses the noise of his room above the Pilot Light. She loved having a garden this summer and recently enjoyed the last of her tomatoes. Their dog loves the yard. This month marks a year since their move and it has been a good thing for the family.
For now, she’s simply glad to move forward and hopes to take a low profile for a while. She’s mentally and physically exhausted and needs to rest. The word she used repeatedly about the closure is “bittersweet.” She’s relieved, yet sad. Proud of what she accomplished, yet still feels a sense of failure.
From the description of all the relationships enhanced, the people introduced to something new and a dream pursued, it would seem a lot was accomplished. Businesses are risky and don’t last forever. To have tried something so different and to have made it last for eight years is a very admirable feat.