There's no easier place in this country to reach full bloom as a political malcontent than Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Granted, circumstances sometimes converge to spark a fire, and most anyplace can ignite. But on a quiet day, at the intersection of tempo, tolerance and intellectual rigor lies the sweet spot: 27514.
And smack in the nexus of that sweet spot stands, firmly rooted, a bookstore. Once upon a time, it was the Intimate, more recently, the Internationalist.
In her beautiful memoir of growing up in Carrboro-Chapel Hill, Daphne Athas quotes The News & Observer of May 11, 1940, on one Milton "Ab" Abernethy:
"Ask anyone on the campus where to find a Communist and you will be referred to Abernethy—Ab many call him. Abernethy seems to like it. He has a certain distinction in Chapel Hill Town which gives him unending pleasure. 'I don't know why they call me a Red,' he guffaws, 'the only politics I ever did was with the Young Democrats.'"
Abernethy founded and ran the Intimate Bookshop on the edge of the UNC campus. The shop was later bought by Wallace Kuralt, brother of Charles, remaining in operation until 1999.
In the 1930s and into the '40s, the Intimate was a beacon, a reading room, a lending library, a forum in which to discuss literature and ideals. And Abernethy, Athas wrote, "played the radical to the peanut galleries and gave off a whiff of danger."
Ah, danger. Danger on the Hill. Danger on the patina of gentility, right there in the sweet spot. As Athas saw him, Abernethy was a "father figure who puked on authority, mixing the intellectual with the disreputable." He was, she said, "the gatekeeper to imagination"—a dangerous role for sure.
Athas asks: "And what should a bookshop be but a place where ideas gasp with life at both ends? Noisily."
Bob Sheldon ran the Internationalist in much the same manner, particularly in the shop's first days, in the early '80s when it was upstairs on Henderson Street, as so many of us felt our way around Reaganism and groped for a redefined and relevant political identity.
Sheldon was known to many, largely affectionately, as Commie Bob, because he was. If Abernethy was coy about his communism, Sheldon was not, but neither was he strident, never presuming to deliver the final word. And, in fact, his politics did change with the times.
Athas calls Abernethy an enigma. He was buying up property around town, and would later become a Wall Street stockbroker. "Enigmatic" probably doesn't aptly apply to Sheldon, but he played many divergent roles: registered nurse, organizer, businessman, exuberant dancer, racquetball player (Bourgeois Bob?) who liked to win.
Sheldon nurtured that sweet spot and, with others, shaped its contours. A transplant, a Navy brat, he enjoyed life in heaven's Southern sector. But he certainly wasn't taking it at face value. Within heaven's borders? Forcibly annexed, no doubt.
So far as we know, no one alive, save one, knows who shot and killed Bob Sheldon on the night of Feb. 21, 1992, by the register of the Internationalist. It troubled us mightily that he died there alone. We'd inhaled, caught a whiff, grown mildly intoxicated. Had we failed him? It was a long, quiet day that followed.
Like Ab, Bob had a look, a glint that smiled ahead of him, gently conspiratorial. There was something dangerous therein that inspired. This is why we'd made our way to Chapel Hill in the first place—right?— imagining, vaguely, we'd belong.
A select few events in the history of Orange County activism
Regulator riot: In 1768, Regulators entered Hillsborough, site of the state's colonial court, protesting against corrupt government officials. They fired shots into the home of Col. Edmund Fanning, a government official, and forced Sheriff Hawkins to ride backward on a mule.
Confederacy resistance: In the 1860s, what has been described as "a lively interracial subculture" in Orange County joined, despite "societal taboos and economic barriers," in resisting the Confederacy by stealing goods and abetting deserters.
Civil rights sit-ins: A group of black students from Lincoln High School held Chapel Hill's first sit-in on Feb. 28, 1960, just four weeks after the Woolworth's sit-in in Greensboro.
The Speaker Ban: In response to the state General Assembly's ban on allowing communist sympathizers to speak on state-system campuses, the UNC chapter of the Students for a Democratic Society invited Frank Wilkinson and Herbert Aptheker to speak from the Franklin Street side of "Dan Moore's Wall." A lawsuit filed by students, led by Student Body President Paul Dickson, saw the ban overturned.
UNC food workers' strike: On Feb. 23, 1969, at UNC's Lenoir Hall cafeteria, food workers protested by leaving their posts and sitting at tables, triggering the university's first major labor strike.
Yates Motor Company occupation: On Nov. 13, 2011, a group of some 70 people, mostly attendees of the Carrboro Anarchist Bookfair and some claiming to be sympathizers with the Occupy Wall Street movement, occupied the former Yates Motor Co. building on West Franklin Street in Chapel Hill, leading to an encounter with police and seven arrests.
Taylor Sisk is a writer and editor based in Carrboro.