It was my first office, a narrow dormer room with barely enough space for a desk and a chair.
I didn’t spend much time there. During the summer, I avoided it because of the heat. By the following winter, I’d moved across the street.
Still, that small room was important to me. It gave legitimacy (in my mind, anyway) to my pennilessness and restlessness and to my quixotic dream of starting a magazine.
A bookstore occupied the first floor of the ramshackle, two-story house. If you lived in Chapel Hill twenty years ago, it might have occupied a place in your imagination, too.
People rarely went to the Community Bookstore merely to buy a book. They went there to run into friends, to check the bulletin board for a ride or a roommate, to sit on the front stoop and read.
The bookstore was tucked away in a shabby neighborhood where rents were low; they had to be for an alternative business to survive. Though progressive by Southern standards, Chapel Hill was still something of a cultural backwater in the seventies: ideas took root more slowly in the South; the transcendental promise of certain philosophies (and certain drugs) was whispered, not shouted.
Richard, the owner, didn’t keep regular hours. The door opened when he showed up. Sometimes I’d find him outside, his long blond hair pulled back as he trimmed the bushes or practiced juggling or chatted with regulars who had given up their day jobs to search full time for truth.
Inside, there were books everywhere: books stacked on chairs and books stacked on tables and tall stacks of books in the hall. The architecture of our thinking back then was no less imposing or precarious. As a generation, we were having a love affair with truth, a lover we’d betray again and again. The sixties were receding into myth. Books about starting a commune or surviving a bad acid trip were being marketed as hippie memorabilia. Hucksters already had a stranglehold on America’s spiritual renaissance: for every slender tract by someone yearning to see God face to face there would soon be a hundred fat paperbacks, each worse than the last.
But for those of us still struggling to redefine ourselves and the culture, the spirit of the sixties lived on; it was the spirit of change, after all. The bookstore was a place where we could share our discoveries and our naivete, read and talk and talk some more, like alchemists sifting huge amounts of material to come up with a few grains of pure substance. The back-to-the-land movement, antinuclear marches, civil-rights protests, psychedelics, Eastern mysticism, natural foods, feminism, environmentalism — we knew these were connected somehow, and not just by a Woodstock soundtrack. Something had changed; like blind people touching different parts of an elephant, we couldn’t agree what it was, only that it was big.
In addition to books, Richard carried some health foods and an odd assortment of products: hammocks, bowls and cleavers from China, cast-iron pots and pans, drawstring pants. Some items sat on the shelf for years, but Richard didn’t seem to mind. No ordinary businessman, he might ask a customer to wait so that he could finish preparing lunch for himself in his small kitchen. Then again, he might let his steaming bowl of rice and vegetables grow cold while he helped someone else. I never saw him rush.
Nor did Richard go out of his way to make the store inviting. The building was cold in the winter, hot in the summer. There were no chairs placed at strategic angles to encourage conversation. There was no cappuccino bar. Yet the store was part of the social glue of the community, a place where newcomers could meet those who had lived in town for years; where people who thought alike, or thought they thought alike, could fall in love with new ideas and, occasionally, with each other.
A glowing stick of incense perched near the cash register, the smell of fresh new books waiting to be shelved, the sour leftovers in Richard’s kitchen all gave the musty building its unique fragrance, just as the extravagant dreams of those who walked through the door, in their overalls and hand-me-downs, helped give the era its unique shape.
Before renting the dormer room, I’d gotten by without an office. I worked at my kitchen table or in my favorite booth at the coffee shop. Eventually, though, I wanted a place in town where I could meet with writers and store back issues. I rented the room for twenty-five dollars a month.
I was right about the back issues. Boxes of unsold magazines soon lined the wall. Visitors, however, were rare. Many small journals came and went in those days; writers were justifiably cautious about a magazine that might not last another month.
I’d sit alone in that small room, staring out the window, wondering if the world really needed another magazine. Before moving to Chapel Hill, I’d quit a well-paying job, vowing to starve rather than compromise my beliefs. It was a defining moment; I’ve never regretted it. But the problem with defining moments is that they don’t last. The lights fade, the curtain falls, and you walk out the stage door into the same narrow alley, past the same barking dog. Everything has changed and nothing has changed — a paradox you learn to savor, like a child rolling a sourball on his tongue. Back in your little apartment (still little), the dishes still need to be washed, the bills still need to be paid, and your wobbly beliefs need to be tested day after day — with no one but yourself to blame when you fail.
I failed again and again, but I didn’t compromise and I didn’t starve. I outgrew my cramped office, but never my affection for that narrow dormer room, where my dream didn’t die.
It’s odd, even in a small town like Chapel Hill, that I never moved my office more than a block from the Community Bookstore — first, to a run-down building across the street; then, years later, to a more comfortable two-story house around the corner. From both locations, I was able to look out my window and pay homage to the past.
I’d visit the store regularly to browse or say hello. Oddly, for men who both loved words, Richard and I rarely had much to say to each other. It was as if we lived on separate peaks, unsure how to meet in the valley that stretched between us. But though we never became good friends, I enjoyed his company, and I admired his style. A lanky, athletic man who wore shorts practically year-round, he loved the outdoors. He tried to live lightly on the earth, as we put it back then (before we realized how easy it was to get weighed down, and not just by possessions). He didn’t believe in advertising. He didn’t promote bestsellers. He never managed to shelve all the books he’d ordered before the next shipment arrived, but to him books weren’t just commodities; between picking up a book and shelving it, he might stop to read a chapter or two.
If the way Richard ran his business didn’t always lend itself to logical explanation, maybe that’s because he’d discovered that making a living wasn’t the same as making a life. In the minds of some, I suppose, he carried his aversion to being a businessman too far: more than once he closed the store and took a vacation the week before Christmas.
Then there was the sign. “Community Bookstore,” it said, each letter carved by hand into a rough-hewn board. Suspended between two tall posts, the sign was big, confident, exuberant.
The wood had been salvaged from an old barn. That was part of the sign’s beauty. In its solid construction and rugged appearance, the sign looked like it would last forever.
But it was no match for the elements. Over the years, time carved its own message into the grain. The wood grew weathered and deeply furrowed. The artfully shaped letters became hard to read.
Richard didn’t seem to care. He never fixed or replaced the sign, even as whole pieces of it rotted and fell away. Maybe he never liked the sign; it had been put up by the store’s original owner, whose outgoing personality contrasted sharply with Richard’s. To me, the sign looked rustic and handsome; to Richard it might have looked like a billboard. Perhaps he had faith that new customers would find the store all on their own. Of course, with each passing year, fewer and fewer did.
Characteristically, when Richard was ready to move on, he didn’t announce a going-out-of-business sale. He just stopped showing up. The sloping lot became overgrown with weeds. Vines started climbing up the walls and in through the windows. Last year, I heard the building was going to be torn down; a nearby church wanted the land for a parking lot. The sign was pretty much gone by then; only the curved cedar posts remained.
Time, that joker: always the same punchline.
One day last summer, I walked past the deserted building. It didn’t look ready to die. Sure, the roof probably leaked, and a few windows were broken. But when boards are joined, they want to stay joined. How mysterious old buildings are, I thought, shaped by us and shaping us. Yet we tear them down as casually as we take out yesterday’s trash.
I wondered how I’d feel when the place was gone. It would stay alive in my memory, but I couldn’t take much comfort from that. Memories we’re sure are indelible — how long do they really last? I can remember the way a lover’s hair once smelled, but not the taste of her kisses; how long an argument lasted, but not what it was about. Even my own childhood can seem like a former lifetime, ghostly and indistinct.
I thought of my old office and my old friends, of our narcissism and our passion for change, of our willingness to take America more seriously, perhaps, than it took itself. How tempting it is today to mock the idealism of that era, or to sentimentalize it; to recall the clothes flapping on the clothesline — the patched jeans and tie-dyed shirts — but not the wind.
Those years were gone: thousands of days compressed into a handful of images, like a car in a junkyard crushed by a giant press. But all eras suffer the same fate. Half of all high-school graduates don’t know the difference between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War.
We’re already dismantling the New Deal, even though the richest 1 percent of Americans control more than 40 percent of the country’s wealth.
I glanced up at the dormer window streaked with dirt. Years ago, I could remember the names of everyone I’d published. Now there were too many names. At a moment of crisis, I used to spread all the issues I’d published around me in a circle, and stand at the center to ponder my next move: How would I meet my deadline? Pay the printer? Now there were too many issues.
When the bulldozers arrived on a crisp fall day, I walked over to watch. The sky was blue and beautiful with promise, but I knew better. They’re tearing down an era, I thought sadly, as the bulldozers lumbered toward the store. Then I realized I was being melodramatic. They’re tearing down a building, I reminded myself, not an era. The era was already gone.
The bulldozers clanged and groaned, kicking up clouds of dust. Like bullies without any imagination, they smashed the old house again and again.