Saturday, September 22, 2012


Mooney's Market & Emporium

For five years, I passed a dingy stucco building on the highway between Monteagle and Sewanee, Tennessee and remarked how forlorn the building looked. It appeared to have housed an enterprise of some kind or a small family. “I wish someone would buy that place and renovate or restore it,” I’d say when we passed, but, then, I dislike abandoned buildings of any kind – home, business, motel, schoolhouse – and I suspected that the little structure would be torn down in a few years.
This year, when I returned from Louisiana where we winter and neared Sewanee feeling my usual reluctance to change homes for the season, I smiled widely when I saw that the little stucco building had been restored and bore the name “Mooney’s Market and Emporium” on its freshly-painted exterior. Since that time I’ve frequented the place weekly and enjoy talking with Joan Thomas, the proprietor. Joan, a witty woman with long blonde hair, has the kind of hospitable manner that makes a specialty grocery successful, and she also has a background in bookkeeping that keeps the store operating in the black.
Mooney’s occupies a building that was once a grocery called “Sanders,” owned by a family named Sanders who sold groceries in the big front room on one side of the structure and used the rest of the house as living quarters for the family. The road in front of the grocery was called Dixie Highway and was a graded and graveled road until it became Hwy. 41A.
“My husband and I bought the property to save what we considered to be an authentic landmark,” Joan said. “It took us a year to get clear title, and by the time we did get it, we were a telephone call away from having it demolished – the roof leaked, and the building appeared to be on the point of collapsing. However, I became sick and spent four days in bed, and while abed I had an epiphany. The epiphany was that we should save the building. We looked at the property again, and all the while, people in the Sewanee area were saying that the building wasn’t so bad. Then, my husband looked at it again and said, ‘it’s not so bad.’ Paul Cahoon, a friend who thinks outside the box, looked at the place, and after examining the structure, he said, ‘it’s not so bad.’ So we began restoration on the strength of everyone thinking that the building wasn’t in such bad shape.”
“While I was in bed those four days, I envisioned what we would do with the building after it was restored. I asked myself, ‘What is the work you have always wanted to do?’ and the answer was to have a yarn shop as I’m a weaver. In my vision, I made the front room on one side a weaving place that would hold my loom because the light in that room was perfect for a loom. Then, since I had always been in charge of a food coop – even ran one at St. Andrews Episcopal School before it burned down – I felt the need to create something like a food coop. That’s how the grocery was born.”
Joan Thomas
Joan recently added to the three acres that Mooney’s occupies by purchasing 1/3 acre that is the old railroad bed for trains which crossed within a few feet of the front corner of the house. “The train stopped running in the 60’s,” Joan said, “and in the 80’s the tracks were removed. The old railroad bed will become part of a Tennessee nature trail called the Mountain Goat Trail.”
Mooney’s inventory includes 90% natural foods, “and some gourmet fluff,” Joan says. A vegan since she was 15, she says she really learned about the value of food when she quit eating meat. A garden in the rear of the grocery attests to her interest in vegetables. In the small space, she grows tomatoes, kale, okra, herbs, and other vegetables according to season, a bounty that she sells along with foods from the Sewanee area, including local cheeses.
The store also houses a weaving/spinning room where Joan weaves and Claire Cage spins. The back rooms contain antiques on consignment from Anne Sherrill, a dorm matron for dormitories on the campus of the University of the South, and assorted furniture and books from others.
When I interviewed Joan, we sat at an old ice cream parlor table on the back porch and chatted about her background, which is as interesting as Mooney’s. A native of Cleveland, Tennessee, Joan has lived mostly in Tennessee, with a hiatus in Seattle, Washington where she tried her wings as a bookkeeper for television and the theatre and did food styling for commercials. “I also did some cooking for a cooking show – you know, dump and pour,” she said, laughing.
Joan moved to Sewanee in 1985 to house sit “Brinkwood” on the Natural Bridge Road near Sewanee, a home that was in the family of the famed author Walker Percy and which she house sat for seven years. She married her first husband, and when Brinkwood was sold, she helped establish Link Farm on 1,200 acres in the Jump Off Community Land Trust near Sewanee. There, she and her husband initiated a gardeners’ market, a food coop, and began making a community like one that they envisioned a “community should be.” Joan related that for awhile, she lived in a teepee, then “built a home and divorced, in that order.” We agreed that couples who build a home together from foundation upward often divorce during the planning and building process.
When Joan moved to "The Farm" in Summertown, 120 miles west of Sewanee, she joined an intentional community that had formerly been a famous commune where each member of the community signed a vow of poverty and pooled whatever possessions he or she had. In this community Joan met her second husband, Michael Lee. The Farm is now privatized, but it remains an intentional, gated community.
Joan and her husband later established a contracting business in the area. “Then I broke my leg,” she said, “which must have been a way to get out of the business because I foolishly climbed up on a 20 ft. ladder and fell off.” Her contracting background proved valuable when she and her husband restored Mooney’s. They maintained the authenticity of the old structure, repairing rotten boards, reframing and refinishing floors in other rooms, reusing all the old materials to restore the home. Joan took on the job of painting, applying three or four coats to the exterior and interior of Mooney’s. However, she had learned her lesson regarding ladders and didn’t volunteer to paint the ceilings. The outcome of the appraisals “it’s not so bad” is a structure that would qualify for a National Historic property, a neat small-town marketplace boasting a colorful awning and sign with a smiling moon that attracts customers from mid-Tennessee and from throughout the U.S. and other countries.
Joan plans to expand Mooney’s to include a restaurant, a travel trailer in the side yard that will be used as a kitchen to prepare wraps and sandwiches for patrons who can pick up lunch from a window ledge on one side of the trailer. She employs one assistant, Rebecca Newton, who works part time at Mooney’s and never seems to be done with packing grains and loading shelves. Rebecca shares Joan’s love of the market/emporium but has a second job as an editor.
Inside Mooney's
“We’re constantly busy, and I don’t have time to spare,” Joan says. “The grocery takes up my whole life. I do meditate every day for thirty minutes, using my own mantra. My spiritual life can be summed up in one sentence: I believe that we are all One – everything that is, is God, and we are part of it.”

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