Andie Ray, 1967-2015

In The Scruffy Citizen by Jack Neelyleave a COMMENT

This darkest season is darker with an unimagined loss.

Twenty-odd years ago, Andie Ray was a familiar face at the checkout desk at Lawson McGhee Library. Even if you never saw her after that, you’d remember her. Her distinctive features might suggest an Edwardian artist’s fantasy of a sylph or a naiad, a face that might even inspire one to take up painting. In fact she was sometimes a model for artist Cynthia Markert. In her paintings on plywood of moody, elusive flappers, you can sometimes spot Andie Ray among them, knowing something you don’t, enjoying a joke she’s not going to tell right now.

She had grown up in Tallahassee, Fla. When her parents, Rich and Jane, former Knoxvillians, moved back home, Andie came along, and found a place for herself here. When she was in college, back in the ’80s, she found work as a page at the McClung Collection, and maintained a relationship with that research library for decades, on call as a freelance researcher. She was drawn to the past, to stories out of the ordinary, to the styles of former eras—art nouveau, art deco—and to the lore of the Lost Generation, of people who lived their own lives out of step with the world around them. She often recommended new books about bohemians, expatriates, free spirits.

Equally interested in local history, especially its exotic edges, Andie told me the story of the McGhee-Howard-Jones feud, which was something like the Hatfield-McCoy fracas reinterpreted by Alfred Hitchcock. In that long story, she was kin to the McGhees, and proud to say so.

Later, working for a time as a paralegal for a law firm, she might have seemed destined for a career in quiet research. It surprised her friends when her interest in fashion took her to take a job at one of the trendier women’s stores at the mall. As we soon learned, she was doing reconnaissance.

Around 1999, she took what seemed a dangerous leap.

She’d reached her early 30s, an age when many young adults consider buying a cute starter home in the suburbs, two bedrooms, two baths, carport. Andie Ray bought an old liquor store on Market Square.

The Square still wore the tattered remnants of failed renovations. Things never seemed to work out for the awkward old place. Market Square did a passable lunch business for commuters, but every afternoon it got quiet fast. Retail shunned it. Watson’s, the offbeat old department store, had just shut down, its management complaining of downtown’s decline.

But Andie Ray bought the old building at Number 27, painted the façade bright yellow, and created an extraordinary 2,000-square-foot living space upstairs, with antique furniture and French doors. From her window, she could watch Market Square undergoing enormous changes. In early 2004, she opened a dress shop she called Vagabondia.

The name was that of an obscure and early novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett. The story of a cheerful and creative but disorderly and frugal family is set in London but known to be based on the author’s home, family, and friends in Knoxville as she knew them as a bohemian adolescent, an aspiring writer and sometime piano teacher, around 1870. The Hodgson house here was called “Vagabondia Castle.” Its precise location is elusive. It was somewhere near Maplehurst.

Andie liked the resonance of all that. Somewhere she found an old worn copy of Vagabondia, the only one I’ve ever seen to this day, and placed the book on her counter as an homage.

She ran Vagabondia for several years. It drew customers of a certain persona, aimed more at an independence of spirit than a size or age group. She also stocked an interesting selection of curiosities, hats, gifts, jewelry, scarves, games. This time of year, Vagabondia was often packed.

She proved to be a serious-minded and successful businesswoman, unafraid of the gritty business of competition and confronting muddy-headed politicians. Andie Ray was one of maybe three new entrepreneurs who proved Market Square retail could work in a new century.

Market Square was often at the center of a furious multi-sided debate. Andie Ray was often at the center of the fray. Those who took her to be an abstract, wistful sort were startled by her knack for getting realistic quick. She took leadership roles in Knox Heritage, City People, the Market Square District Association. She was a longtime member of the Historic Zoning Commission, and sometimes the toughest commissioner to please.

She and I sometimes disagreed. She held her ground, with grace and dry wit.

Somewhere along there, she married Noel Hudson, a globetrotting consultant and author who shared her fascination with the styles of the early 20th century. They made a perfect pair, and enjoyed a shared life.

She was among the youngest of that first wave of entrepreneur-developers who reimagined Market Square. I always figured she’d be telling that unlikely story after nobody else was around to remember it.

As was the case with most of the first generation of downtown homesteaders, it was the uncertainty of what they were doing, the frisson of discovering a new way of life—the edge—that was a big part of the attraction. When downtown became successful, even mainstream, I’m afraid it lost some of its appeal to the first-wave pioneers, the dreamers, the risk-takers, the librarians-turned-fashion merchants.

Eventually she and Noel bought an empty lot in Old North. She wanted to do some gardening, she said. About four years ago, working with a local architect, they built what looked like a dream home, a model example of a new house in an old place.

In recent years Andie was more focused on her new neighborhood, recently serving as president of the Old North Knoxville neighborhood association. She completed training to go into the real-estate business. And thanks to her husband Noel’s work, she got to travel a great deal.

Several years ago, I had a dream in which I was racing Andie Ray, on foot, the length of Market Square, after it had been reborn as something new. I ran into her one night at the brewpub, and mentioned it. She was game. She had youth and relative sobriety on her side. I had slightly longer legs. It was a draw. It was a great deal of fun.

Sprint the length of Market Square sometime, late at night, with an interesting friend, and see if it’s not.

Andie Ray made this old place more interesting and worthwhile. Many lives deserve commemorating, but she left us wondering about the 30 or 40 years Knoxville missed. Her death, unanticipated by anybody a month ago, was apparently the result of a cancer she never knew she had. It’s a tragedy for her family and friends and a painful setback for the city she loved.

Jack Neely is the director of the Knoxville History Project, a nonprofit devoted to exploring, disseminating, and celebrating Knoxville's cultural heritage. He’s also one of the most popular and influential writers in the area, known for his books and columns. The Scruffy Citizen surveys the city of Knoxville's life and culture in the context of its history, with emphasis on what makes it unique and how its past continues to affect and inform its future.

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