Several months ago, some good friends told me they were moving to Pittsboro. I don't think I was incredulous, really, but I was certainly confused. These friends had previously lived in Raleigh and Durham, and—by day and night—they were full-time Web designers, visual artists and musicians. Did they even have Internet in Pittsboro, at least outside of the massive Chatham County subdivisions sponsored by the incorrigible politicians I'd been reading about for several years?
Honestly, I'd only been to Pittsboro twice since I lived in the Triangle. Before that, I'd been there once, maybe when I was 8, on a field trip to a "gemstone mine" called, smartly, The Rocks. It seemed like a nice enough place then, I suppose, or at least a nice enough place to fill a metal grate with sand and rocks and let water run through it and call it mining. I mean, it wasn't Fuquay-Varina (my hometown), but, after all, what is?
So, Pittsboro? Sure, guys, go for it! Turns out, they were right, and I was more than just a little Capital City cloistered. These friends now live outside of Pittsboro and go into town a few times a week to find food, Internet and friends. There's plenty of all three, built by a vital, long-building artistic community of musicians and creative types who relish both Pittsboro's small-town feel and its homegrown essence, especially as gaggles of artificial communities have sprouted throughout surrounding Chatham County. Sure, Pittsboro is a small town, and it's not threatening to turn the Triangle into the Square. But from one end of the place to the other, it's graced by energy and vitality that I hadn't expected.
Three miles north of Pittsboro, heading south on U.S. 15-501 from Chapel Hill, there's a bridge over the Haw River, the torpid Cape Fear contributor that cuts into the lower stretches of Jordan Lake. Park your car and follow the trail to the river's edge, where an upstream dam slows the river about five miles before it hits the lake.
Downstream from the dam, you'll hear things get noisy. On a Wednesday afternoon, three fishermen have to shout to hear one another. "You got something?" one screams to his right, still barely audible over the collapsing columns of water just 10 feet away. Candy wrappers, beer cans and bait boxes litter the banks just below the dam.
Above the dam, though, things are placidly different. Two teenagers in swimsuits sit, wrapped in one another, on a rocky point, while another couple is returning, hand-in-hand, through an extensive series of foot-worn trails that lines the river. The banks here are remarkably clean. Surveying a mile of path just before sundown, there's one dirty sock and one crumpled Budweiser can. Through the combined efforts of the state and a nonprofit conservation group called the Haw River Assembly, the banks above the dam remain a haven for a warm, summer day. That's how Chatham County is: There are things here worth preserving and advocating, and there are enthusiastic, creative people with the willpower to do it.
That attitude is apparent down the highway, approaching the Old County Courthouse that's the center of this town of 2,850. "Chatham County 1770" read the letters that crest the county seat. And, at first glance, the strip looks lined with the antique shops you'd expect in any small, historic town in the South. There are nearly a dozen antique shops in the blocks that surround the town's central traffic circle. Upon closer inspection, though, they yield several unexpected treasures.
French Connections (178 Hillsboro St., 545-9296, french-nc.com), for instance, is a sprawling one-story house with a broad front porch and more than a half-dozen rooms stuffed with antique furniture and tapestries from France, plus instruments, paintings and art from Africa. Wendy and Jacques Dufour run French Connections, relying on their relationships around the world to import goods from their favorite two continents. Jacques is from France, and Wendy spent time both there and in Senegal. The store just received a crate of merchandise from Senegal, and today the place is overrun with goods from the West African country: several dozen bright reverse-glass paintings of fish by Djibril Fall Diene, drums in all sizes, a set of seven copper pots all arranged concentrically.
Sure, it's well past the Connections' 5 p.m. closing time, but Wendy doesn't seem to be in a hurry at all as she explains the origins of an enormous Norman dowry chest that sits in the house's main foyer, or the recent difficulties of obtaining instruments from Zimbabwe. At night, Wendy doesn't move everything off the porch because it's not a big worry. Indeed, like small towns should, Pittsboro has a vibe built on trust and comfort. When Tommy Edwards, who runs Edwards Antiques and Collectibles (89 Hillsboro St., 542-5649, www.pittsboroshops.com/eantiques.htm) just up the street, leaves his shop of valuables to walk a block to the Chatham Arts Council, he doesn't lock the door or turn the closed sign. He just walks out.
A guitarist, Edwards has been performing in local mainstays The Bluegrass Experience for 36 years. His goods tend to be closer to home—antique Piedmont lumber bedframes, unopened bottles of Pepsi aged several decades, Frank Zappa's half-sister's wedding dress—but he's found his own niche and passion: antique guitars, and lots of them. There's a 1976 Martin D-28, with the beautiful sunburst design, standing on the end of a long table. It stands beside one of 28 1989 Martin D-18s in existence, both several feet away from a case holding one of Paul Harrell's hand-built Haw River Guitars (542-2743), made just a few miles away between here and Jordan Lake. Edwards explains them all with the combined zeal of a shopkeeper, enthusiast and musician. He loves these instruments, and—price tags sometimes above $2,000 aside—he adores getting people excited about them. He's got an old bass in his shop right now once played by a member of Roger McGuinn's band. It's an expensive instrument, but he lets longtime customer and musician Beth Turner take it home and run it through her own amplifier. When she returns, she's confident she wants it. He seems more excited for her bass rig than his own wallet.
"Well, I've got an idea about Chatham County. Shake a tree nearby, and either an artist or a musician falls out," Edwards says, laughing. And if anyone does, he knows all about the arts environments the small towns of Chatham County are trying to foster. He's had this shop open since 1981, but he's going to close it come July 1 to make way for his wife Cindy's new job as executive director of the Chatham Creative Arts Incubator (138 N. Chatham Ave., 663-1335) in nearby Siler City. The Arts Incubator is a coordinated studio space for artists from across the state. As of May, it provided space to 22 artists and is recruiting more. Edwards is a gigging musician, and he just doesn't have time to run a 3,000-square-foot business at the town's epicenter. He is only closing the furniture end of his business, though, and he plans to move the instruments to a new shop in the next few months.
Edwards seems excited about what's moving into his longtime space, though: He sold it (9,000 square feet over three levels) to Steve Carr three years ago, and Edwards says Carr hopes to put a pub on one side and lease the rest of the space to retail tenants. Edwards hopes that Pittsboro and the county around it continue to grow as a place for artists and musicians to live, work and display their wares. A new little pub on the main drag could go a long way.
Carr, after all, is a successful businessman. For two decades, he's been obsessed with making new tube amplifiers for guitars that combine and elaborate on his own favorite sounds of the past 70 years. Every week, he and his staff build 12 amplifiers that get shipped around the world from a former chicken house a few hundred yards from the county courthouse. Aerosmith's Joe Perry and Alex Kapranos of British rock band Franz Ferdinand both play Carr Amplifiers (433 Salisbury St., 545-0747, www.carramps.com), made by hand in Pittsboro and tested by Velvet guitarist Jay Manley.
Carr's new bar will be part of a Hillsboro Street surge committed to local culture and arts. The first Sunday of every month, the streets become a small fairground, and every business opens its doors to customers and artists and vendors. There's music and an occasional film. The Chatham County Arts Council (115 Hillsboro St., 542-0394, chathamarts.org) has been instrumental in that First Sunday series. In their Hillsboro Street gallery space, they sell work—pun-based birdhouses built by Mark Burhnham, metal sculptures from Forrest Greenslade—from 75 member artists. A block away, Fusions (53 Hillsboro St., 260-9725, www.pittsboroshops.com/fusions.htm) sells work only by North Carolina artists—flawless wooden cooking wear, paintings, glasswork, wood pens hand-cut by an artisan. Fusions is just two doors down from a small Latino grocery store, just one indication in Pittsboro of Chatham County's growing Latino population. Another, the salmon/cantaloupe-colored Plaza Mexico Lindo (122 Sanford St., 542-7460), has some of the best, cheapest horchata around the Triangle (not to mention one of the best murals ever; go see for yourself).
And there's Unity Books & Stuff (80 Hillsboro St., 545-0619), which has been in town for only two weeks, opened by a two women newly arrived to Chatham County from California. It's a new-age lifestyle shop specializing in aromatherapy votives and body salt treatments. Barack Obama's autobiography sits in the window, and, in a rack of used books, a biography of Nehru sits beside a used volume of Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle and The Poe Reader. The store holds workshops and classes on psychics and healing several times a week. Glenn Kolleda, a Texas psychic who had a near-death experience in 1995 "that greatly expanded his working knowledge of metaphysics," will constitute their first special event this weekend. Second Bloom (68 Hillsboro St., 545-5565, www.fvrc.org/second_bloom.htm) is a little less edgy but every bit as important. It's a thrift store that channels all of its profits to the Family Violence and Rape Crisis Center of Chatham County.
Beggars and Choosers (38 Hillsboro St., 542-5884, www.pittsboroshops.com/bnc.htm), a well-loved thrift store, and the Pittsboro General Store Café (39 West St., 542-2432, www.thegeneralstorecafe.com) seem to be the historic roots of this progressive buzz. The café offers vegan dishes and Counter Culture coffee, and regularly hosts music and lends its walls as important points of sale and advertisement for local artists. The massive sun sculpture by Paperhand Puppet Intervention that graced the Independent's Indies Arts Awards cover last year overlooks the entire restaurant.
But the real sign of what Pittsboro is embodying right now is about a mile from the courthouse on a long, lonely road called Industrial Park Drive. When the road ends, it splits, one branch veering right to a farm pond and fields and the left leading to several steel-construction buildings remaining from the Cold War. This is Piedmont Biofuels (321-8260, biofuels.coop), a facility that takes soybean, chicken or vegetable oils and spins it through methanol to produce 4,000 gallons of biodiesel each day.
The facility has a strict no-commuters rule. You can't live in Durham and work here. A stack of bicycles overrunning a bike rack is the evidence. Piedmont Biofuels also runs Piedmont Biofarm, a sustainable agriculture enterprise that grows mid-winter carrots. They're digging a pond and setting up rainwater traps to run the farm and, in a greenhouse at the front of the property, a smiling man called Screech Owl grows hydroponic lettuce that he sells to another tenant, Eastern Carolina Organics (824-5238, www.easterncarolinaorganics.com), of this unorthodox industrial park. ECO, as they're called, sells organic produce to restaurants and markets across the Triangle, often brought by farmers on trucks running B100, or pure biodiesel.
"There's a connection between local food and local fuel," says Lyle Estill, Piedmont Biofuel's charismatic vice president of stuff. "And, as soon as you realize that, it's inescapable."
Three hours later, that philosophy tastes just fine inside Chatham Marketplace (480 Hillsboro St., 542-2643, www.chathammarketplace.coop), Pittsboro's small, mellow, not-crowded version of Carrboro's Weaver Street Market cooperative. Set in a former mill and accompanied by a handful of retail outlets, Chatham Marketplace is a new nexus for the sort of people making Pittsboro interesting in 2007. Wendy DuFour swears it's what's happening in town right now, and I see two of my favorite local bands inside the market, eating and using the Internet. There's certainly plenty to explore here: tofu in coconut milk, a surprisingly wide beer selection, enough sorts of soap to keep the small store smelling constantly fresh. And, just above a checkout lane, there's a chalkboard advertising the store's events for next Monday. Sure enough, Piedmont Biofuels is set to lead a demonstration in the parking lot. It all makes sense now.
On my way out of town, I find The Rocks, the place just off of U.S. 64 that I visited when I was maybe 8. It's closed tonight, but I probably wouldn't have stopped long, anyway. Back on U.S. 15-501, there are some riverbanks—well preserved and clean—that I really want to see again before I head home.