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Blue lights out

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Like the life forms that weathered the harsh climes of the Ice Age, the Boy family has mastered the art of adaptation to changing times. For more than 50 years, the Boys have managed a business on an irregular patch of turf near Ninth Street in Durham, known for the majority of its life as Sam's Quik Shop. Tucked in a corner where the Durham Freeway overarches the railroad tracks, Sam's has survived even as so many community institutions have fallen victim to evolving tastes and shifting loyalties. Its clientele, a diverse mix of students, professionals, blue-collar workers, cops, artists, politicians and vagabonds, collectively spell Durham as well as any single group in town.

But nothing lasts forever, and Sam's is no exception. The Triangle Transit Authority needs the property for the Ninth Street regional rail station and has begun condemnation proceedings. Appraisers walked the property in March, and current proprietor John Boy is waiting for an initial offer. When an agreement is reached, Sam's will be facing the end of the line. Boy has no idea what he'll do once the store is gone. "It's the only thing I've ever done," he says. "It's the only thing my parents ever did."

In his Pabst Blue Ribbon T-shirt and Georgia Tech baseball cap, Boy looks more like one of his keg-buying customers than the owner of a venerable business. In his cramped closet of an office in the back of the store, he reflects on half a century of highs and lows that together have made an indelible imprint on the community.

Ever observant of cultural and commercial trends, the Boy family opened a drive-in restaurant in 1949, the Blue Light, complete with curb hops and an inside dining room. Successful from the outset, the restaurant expanded in the 1950s, adding a second dining room and a bar (the Ratskellar) in the basement.

"Of course, times changed," John Boy says with the certainty of experience. His father, Sam, bought out his other relatives when they moved to Florida. When hops went out of fashion, Sam converted half the shop into a convenience store, eventually closing the restaurant altogether (though he saved the neon Blue Light sign, which still sits in the front window). "We sold everything under the sun," John recalls. "We sold cookware. We sold underwear. My mother and dad weren't afraid to try anything."

With no food stores in the immediate vicinity, Sam's stocked groceries to serve the Duke population and the local neighborhoods. When videos hit the market in the 1980s, Sam's added a movie section that quickly grew to more than 5,000 titles. Newspapers from around the country and overseas jostled for space with biker mags and other, less erudite publications. Invariably, others entered the marketplace for specific items--Blockbuster, for example, killed Sam's video biz. But that only inspired the Boys to experiment with something new.

His mother had the vision to try beer and wine in the 1970s, and Sam's soon had the most diverse stock in the Triangle, offering an eclectic array of imported and microbrewed beers and vintage wines alongside the cheap stuff. Several generations of Duke students and local revelers have enjoyed beer from kegs supplied by Sam's. Beer and wine have kept the store afloat the past decade.

For years, Sam's enjoyed the good fortune of being located at the terminus of the Durham Freeway where it spilled onto Erwin Road. When the state finally commenced extending the freeway, construction turned the store into an island accessible only by a dirt lane. "We were closed off from the world for two years," Boy recalls. "We had loyal customers who were willing to go out of their way to come here. That's the only thing that kept us going."

Those customers are now reacting to Sam's impending demise with the angst attending the loss of any irreplaceable community asset. Some have offered to help. "I had a lady who said she'd get her friends to chain themselves to trees," Boy says. "I told her I didn't think that would be a very good idea."

John Boy seems resigned to his fate, and the property should fetch a pretty penny, which will give him some time to figure out what to do with his life. He supports the regional rail plan, though he says the TTA hasn't been as forthcoming about its plans as he would have liked. When TTA officials initially contacted him several years ago, they told him they could meet the requirements of the station and still preserve his entire business, which includes a car wash and gas pumps. Boy's lawyer, George Autrey, says he only found out that the entire property would be condemned after he made a call last year to get a status update. Never has the TTA sat down with them to explore options other than closing, says Boy. "We've had very, very, very little contact with the TTA," he says.

TTA attorney Wib Gulley disputes that contention, claiming that officials met with Boy and his lawyer in March 2003 to inform them that the demands of the railroad and the state Department of Transportation coupled with design requirements meant that the station would consume all of Sam's property. Since then, Gulley says, the lines of communication have been open. "We believe that we have regularly and continuously met with them and kept them posted on a prompt basis," he says.

Whether the TTA could have done a better job on the public relations front is ultimately beside the point. Considering the magnitude of the rail project, a relatively few homes and businesses will be displaced--only about 100, according to Gulley, compared to the 2,500 that were wiped out for a comparable segment of Atlanta's light rail system. And given the station's design obligations, there seems to be no possibility that Sam's can be salvaged. Having reinvented itself numerous times to keep pace with progress, Sam's now finds itself standing squarely before modernity's unforgiving bulldozers.

It may seem silly and hyper-nostalgic to lament the passing of a convenience store. But Sam's is one of those rare establishments that help distinguish cities and towns from one another in an era of increased homogenization, especially in the commercial sector. As with Public Hardware in Durham, Schoolkids Records in Chapel Hill or the Mecca in Raleigh, the goods sold at Sam's can be found elsewhere, and often at a lower price. But the essential character that constitutes the souls of those establishments cannot be duplicated. And it's such character that truly defines a community, a sense of uniqueness that is becoming increasingly hard to find, displaced by the same sterile floor plans and cloned signage that can be found here, or in Omaha, or Abilene, or Sacramento, or anywhere. The American enthusiasm for uniformity is an odd phenomenon, especially in a nation whose citizens pride themselves on their spirit of rugged individualism.

The regional rail plan does provide opportunities to create a new urban paradigm that will eventually distinguish the Triangle from the rest of the pack. Partly to appease conservative naysayers and partly because it's true, the TTA touts economic development as one of the prime ancillary benefits of the rail system. "Each station location was carefully selected with the goal of finding places that provide access to major destinations and also allow for additional development around the station," reads a typical passage on the TTA Website. Indeed, an upscale apartment complex is scheduled to open nearby in June, and plans for additional retail space on Ninth Street are nearing the construction phase.

A Ninth Street business owner recently observed that after the rail station is completed and trains are shuttling to RTP, Ninth Street will reap the benefits in the form of increased business that could elevate its profile to that of Chapel Hill's main drag, Franklin Street. That might mean more independently owned shops and restaurants that would enhance Ninth Street's bohemian image. Or it might mean vacant storefronts owned by rent-gouging landlords who prefer Starbucks and Walgreen's to Cup-A-Joe and McDonald's Drug.

Ironically, the one type of business sure to thrive next to a train station, a convenience store-newsstand with a demonstrated ability to service a cross-section of the community, is the one that's being forced to close. Whatever steel and Formica facsimile appears in its stead will never escape the shadow of the Blue Light.

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