by: Aaron Mandel
Nice Price Books is part of my Durham story. It has lasted through eras. I’m not sure I knew about it when I worked at Foster’s Market and took Anthropology at UNC-Chapel Hill. But I can date my memories and on-going conversation with the owner to shortly after.
This period at Carolina, although it had only been a year since I moved here, had great influence on my thinking. Dr. Jim Peacock1 and Dr. Carole Crumley2 were (and still are) important shapers of my philosophy. Professor Crumley recommended to her students, off-handedly during one class, that anyone who was a serious student of anthropology in America ought to pick up a quality history of America and read it front to back.
Acolyte that I was, I took this advice seriously. I wanted to be a first-order, first-rate thinker. I had to do my homework. I had my mother’s college history textbook, the brilliant Arthur S. Link’s American Epoch. It was fantastic. But my mother graduated college at the end of the sixties. Link’s history of America ended in the very early sixties.
And this is where Nice Price Books comes into play. I was relating this tale to the man whom I later came to learn was the owner, Barry. I told him about Professor Crumley, her injunction to read an American history, how I followed her instructions, but then the book I chose had dumped me off in about 1962 – what was I to do? How the F was I supposed to find a less than totally politically prejudicial history of our nation from there forward? (Partisan politics was rancid even then.)
Barry said, “Well, for a history of the Cold War, John le Carre is as good or better than any textbook.”
I had never encountered le Carre. Sure, I read Ludlum in high school, and Clive Cussler, too. But they were neophytes compared to le Carre. I probably read fifteen of his books in the following years. I got beyond the Cold War with The Little Drummer Girl and The Tailor of Panama. Le Carre was prep for Israel and the Panama Papers. His fictional grasp of geopolitics matched what I later came to know as political reality. Truth trumps fiction, so the realm of the fiction writer is utterly delimited. Barry couldn’t have been more right. le Carre, the former British spy, schooled me in the Cold War, immersing me in the atmosphere as well as the facts.
I kept coming back to Nice Price even after I drifted away from le Carre to further other missions. I picked up Mircea Eliade’s The Sacred and The Profane, as well as Susan Brind Morrow’s The Names of Things. Both magical books that have shaped my evolution as a writer and a person.
Much like how Durham has shaped my evolution as a writer and a person.
But Nice Price didn’t do so by standing static. And still.
When my roommate told me Nice Price Books was going away, he was despondent. Then, the day they sold their record collection, he was barely consolable. He bought the records off the wall displays they hadn’t sold. Nice Price was also the home of the legendary Craig Layabout, a keeper of the records who loved them as much as Barry. The two of them together resembled the legendary record store clerks of “High Fidelity.”
Nice Price Books has been (and for a little while, still is) a place where you could hold a conversation about a book or a record. On any given day.
Its disappearance fulfills the roommate’s prophesy that “Durham is doomed.”
But people have been saying to me for years now, “It is too late to save Durham from insert Villain HERE [the transplants, the hipsters, the developers, the money, the politicians, the chain restaurants, the corporate festivals).
But change is normal, and there was even an era when we were friends with people who worked at Barnes and Noble.3
Transplants have been coming for years.
I think of The Scrap Exchange as a bellwether. If Durham decided it was “over” every time The Scrap Exchange moved locations due to changing circumstances, we would have given up years ago. The Durham that had The Scrap Exchange in Northgate was different from this one…as was the Durham that had The Scrap Exchange where the Liberty Warehouse condos are rising. …as was the Durham that had The Scrap Exchange out by Goldenbelt…as is the Durham that has The Scrap Exchange in Lakewood.
Will they work it out to expand and purchase the strip mall that surrounds them?
If we want to retain a Durham that isn’t prostrate to the developers, the money, the politicians, the chain restaurants, the corporate festivals, and their ilk, we are going to have to be activists like never before.
Durham’s popularity is a blessing and a curse. The steep part of the curve for development, building, housing and rent prices may be yet to come.
Durham’s activists will have to be ever more active. The Planning Commission and the City Council, the Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Chamber of Commerce are besieged by outsiders who want to make change. Durhamites for Durham have to be just as active in these forums. Durhamites have to come with concrete proposals, policies, and plans – not just gripes.
The corporate money is coming with plans. The indie resistance4 must come armed with plans of its own.
Losing Nice Price Books for a Papa John’s Pizza (oh yeah, that’s happening) is not, by itself, a harbinger of doom. But in the broader context??
I will be looking at what happens to The Scrap Exchange for clues.
1 Peacock introduced me to the phrase, “A fact is a precept seen through a particular lens.” This hammered home the lenses of the dialectic that college debate had already honed.
2 Crumley introduced me to the word, heterarchy. Again, college debate had allowed me to explore as far afield as Lovelock’s Gaia and hegemony theories, but I hadn’t fused those understandings into the possibility of heterarchy until Chapel Hill.
3 That ended tragically in another reminder that reality exceeds fictional imagination in its horrors.
4 Non-violent resistance only is sanctioned. The first moment of violence despoils the movement.