I'm sad because my bar is closing down. It's not the place I drink—I'm talking about Nice Price Books in Durham, which just shuttered for good. I'm a regular there. I browse lightly, but mostly I talk with Barry Blanchette, who owns the store with Cindy Kamoroff. Our conversation ranges widely, from light rail to autograph hounds, and it's seldom about books. Every now and then, though, he proffers me one, just like a bartender, and says, "You'll like this book!" (And he charges me his ridiculously nice price.) He's always right. I like it.
There are many reasons to lament the end of Nice Price—good, cheap vinyl albums, for one—but for me the grief has personal history. Decades ago, I worked in the building at 811 Broad Street, when it was an ice cream shop called Rossini's. Scooping there was my first job. I made minimum wage: $3.35 an hour. I deposited some of my earnings and bounced my first checks at the CCB branch at Broad and Club, which is now a Studio One salon. The rest I spent at Revco, where Watts Grocery is now, first on candy and soda, then on my first packs of cigarettes and condoms (sorry, Mom).
In other words, I grew up on Broad Street and watched it change. Over time, what I call the Homeo Path was settled: acupuncture, massage, therapy, rolfing. Rossini's was sold and replaced by another sweets shop, this one with the comically awful name Chocolate Smiles. Then it was a New York-style deli, then a Greek restaurant, from whose owners Barry bought the building about fifteen years ago. They owed so much that their creditors took everything they could remove from the building, including the light fixtures.
Nice Price was one of the last old-school survivors on the Homeo Path, though Bull City Sound is still there, with Russ soldering away. The Green Room has crossed the street, but only to get to the other side. It thrives under Mike, always costumed in his long beard and winter hat, no matter the season.
Soon the building at 811 Broad will become a Papa John's, which is moving into bigger digs from its little hut at Main and Watts, across from the new Residence Inn where, for weeks after it opened, I jogged past Latino workers protesting unpaid wages. They soon disappeared, but they're not forgotten.
This all sucks, to be blunt: the Papa John's franchise expanding its bad politics (and pizza) and worse economics; the Marriott empire blighting the block by the King's Daughters Inn; Nice Price gone. That this chain-business takeover is concurrent with HB 2 seems related and ominous.
After all, HB 2 is corporate legislation. Its ultimate goals—which include, like Papa John's, suppressing the minimum wage—are to concentrate power in big business, homogenize daily life, and weaken individual freedoms: our political agency, our personal solvency, our spectrum of choices. All this, far more than the red-cape incitement of toilet policing, is why HB 2 is un-American.
Yet there is active local resistance to these forces—people taking stands and making choices. Although the original Nice Price, in Carrboro, closed in 2013, the Raleigh branch carries on under Barry's former employees, who bought it from him that same year. Nor was the Durham store strictly run out of business, despite Amazon's mega-corporate damage. Barry was ready to retire—aging parents, occupational fatigue—and he might have passed down the Durham location, too, but he couldn't find a buyer. Perhaps that's partly because the likeliest candidates have already set up their own shops. Independent record stores have popped up all over central Durham in recent years: "a whole bunch of people chasing the same small pile," as Barry said to the INDY in March. But this means there's healthy competition over that small pile, not just in the big-box chains.
When the closure of Nice Price was announced, the first stock to be scooped up was the vinyl and the classic literature—that and the old cool-dude neon sign, which Barry restored after rescuing it from Poindexter Records, the great, long-defunct shop on the Ninth Street of my youth. In Durham, the old stuff endures, recirculates.
Not my bar, though. I'll miss the haven of warm, easy neighborliness that chains, by nature, destroy. One day in late April, I dropped by Nice Price to commiserate with Barry as he was cleaning up. The remaining stock, including the shelves, was headed for the Scrap Exchange. He sold me a book, pressing it ardently into my hands ("You'll like this!"), and then he told me, mostly joking, that he was ready to put on his bow tie and join me behind another bar: the one where I work, selling actual drinks.
I said he should come in as a customer instead and I'd buy him one. I'll introduce him to my old boss from Rossini's, who's now a regular of mine. Then I want to talk with him about the future of Durham, starting with what we'd like to see reoccupy the old Papa John's hut on Main.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Priceless"