Chris Young walks into the room, glances at the bar and the bartender, tosses three creased dollar bills onto the counter and lets out a sigh so heavy the whole crowd can hear it.
"Hey, Chris," Mike Benson exclaims, momentarily lifting his hands from the bar's smooth surface. Undeterred by Young's frown, Benson's face lights up beneath an olive green stocking cap. "What can I get you? Want a beer?"
Young declines. He's only come to The Tiger Room—the antique-laden coffee shop and lounge that Benson owns as part of his massive Carrboro food-music-and-booze operation, Southern Rail—to use the bathroom. He's just arrived from Asheville to participate in the open mic night next door in The Station, Southern Rail's small music venue. It's the club's final show and the last hurrah ever for the entire complex, which will serve its final beer after nine years with the night's last call.
Next door, an eager crowd congregates early around sign-up sheets, vying for a chance to play The Station one last time before, presumably, the real estate is sold to the highest bidder. One participant says he's visiting on a short tour from Philadelphia; everyone cheers, and he nabs the night's first slot.
"I hate to see this place go. I have a lot of mixed feelings that I don't know how to talk about, so I just threw a few dollars on the counter," Young tells Benson and his wife, Christy, next door. "I drove all the way here for this when I heard. It was like a family emergency. I owe a lot of stuff to this place."
Benson laughs, throws the money into a tip jar and slips from behind the bar. He puts his arms around Young and slaps his back three times. During the next hour, both Bensons do a lot of this—greeting old friends, offering hellos and hugs, saying "thanks for being here." As the room fills with Carrboro characters, bar and club owners and folks just looking for a beer, the night starts to feel like a wake for an old friend.
"This is bittersweet," admits Benson. "I feel like we accomplished something here, but I wish we were finishing it with money. That way, we could start on another project."
Late last year, Mike announced he was selling the entire enterprise for $650,000. But two possible buyers fell through just days before the deals were done. In recent months, a delinquent tax bill of more than $150,000 and a series of outstanding construction debts put the squeeze on the Bensons.
Rather than whittle the debts down, Mike—a former rock 'n' roll photographer and art gallery operator who now might be looking to return to those fields—decided to let the banks decide for him. Though the restaurant closed in December, the Bensons had hoped to keep the bars open until January. But the creditors came calling, and tonight is it.
"You have to make a strategic decision to either kick the can down the road or just say, 'OK, let me retire as gracefully as I can, and move onto the next phase of my life,'" says Christy, a business law professor at Elon University. "If the debts were the only issue, we would come up with a way to negotiate a settlement and keep operating. But making something creative like this actually work requires a lot of finesse and energy."
Both Christy and Mike grew up in Chapel Hill and attended Chapel Hill High School before shipping off to college, bouncing around the globe and running a series of successful spots in Washington, D.C. They returned to Orange County in 2006 after winning Southern Rail's landmark train cars at auction and immediately started construction.
For the last decade, Southern Rail, The Station and The Tiger Room—built in three phases in and around the set of abandoned train cars and the depot along Carrboro's Main Street—have served as a microcosm of Carrboro. The venue has been as devoted to hosting music as it has been to updating classic Southern cuisine and functioning as a neighborhood gathering place and watering hole. Filled with railroad and regional relics bought largely during scavenging trips with Mike's antique-dealing mom, Southern Rail also acted as a sort of casual living history museum for Carrboro and Chapel Hill. To wit, The Tiger Room gets its name from its bar, salvaged from the old gymnasium floor of Chapel Hill High School; in letters rescued from the court's baseline, it spells "T-I-G-E-R-S." It's one of a hundred different ways this space feels like an extension of the Bensons and builds on their ties to the town.
Southern Rail's demise stems from an admixture of vaulting ambition, tough timing and bad management, all factors to which Benson confesses with a sad smile. During initial construction of the restaurant, just before the recession brought prices back down, the Bensons accumulated high construction debts. They deemed each successive expansion necessary to help maintain growth and flesh out Mike's vision for the space and the community. They'd both seen bands play at The Station as teenagers, for instance, and long dreamed of its return to music club glory. As the focus stretched, the logistical and financial burdens mounted.
"It's almost as if you own three or four small businesses at once," says Christy. "It takes an unbelievable amount of energy and time and money and insurance and overhead to do all that. After a time, it's like being a musician, where the need to make a living takes the fun out of being creative, especially with the reality of juggling four businesses under one roof and you're not getting paid."
No one knows quite what will happen to the little empire the Bensons have built. In Carrboro, as in much of the Triangle, there is palpable tension between bright new developments—the nearby Hampton Inn, for instance, with its chain sports bar tucked beneath—and aged, quirky institutions like Southern Rail.
A day after the end, Mike sounds positively ebullient as he talks about his opportunity to enjoy the other side of the bar and how, all things considered, losing a business you ran for a decade isn't so bad. An optimist, he says he's confident that the property will stay in local hands and that another area restaurateur he cannot yet name will push ahead with a variation on his vision. But Christy isn't so sure. They can try to direct the bank's decision now, she says, but it's largely out of their hands.
Back at the bar, Mike greets a new customer. The music in The Tiger Room is about to start, so he leans in close to take the order. But the man sitting at the bar cares less about his drink choice than the direction of his town and the fate of this space.
"So what is this going to be now, Mike?" the customer asks. "A Houlihan's? An Applebee's? A steakhouse?"
Mike leans back and laughs, grinning widely as if he'd just heard a brilliant joke, not a grim prediction. He takes the man's cash, drops it in a bucket and reaches deep into a cooler of ice, fishing for a beer.
This article will appear in our December 30 print with the headline "Whistle-stop."